Steven Cherry There’s a Silicon Valley VC who might have been the first to call cars, “mobile phones with wheels,” at least, I heard him say that back in 2015. That’s only somewhat true for today’s cars—no phone has a multi-speed transmission or a timing belt, no phone needs oil changes and new spark plugs. You know what else doesn’t need any of those things? Electric cars.
If any cars are mobile phones with wheels, it’s electric cars. And just as the switch from landline phones to mobile phones was quick, and from computers to smartphones was maybe even quicker, the shift from engines to motors, from internal combustion cars to electric cars, is starting to gain momentum and when it starts to have at scale, it will happen quickly.
How quickly? Pandemic aside, Tesla would be on track to sell half a million cars in 2020, all of them electric. By contrast, GM sold almost 3 million cars last year, almost none of them electric. But by 2025 or so, GM plans to sell a million electric cars, a year that the company think might be a tipping point toward electrics. Why? To quote one executive, the better driving and owning experience. “When you get used to charging your vehicle like a phone at night, when you charge it, and you don’t worry about it, you never have to stop at a gas station. There’s a lot to be said for that kind of lifestyle.”
Of course, to do that, you need amazing batteries, and an amazing capacity to produce batteries—both of which are at the heart of the company’s plans. So much so that an upcoming article in IEEE Spectrum focuses on a new GM battery factory, in partnership with LG Chem, that will dwarf Tesla’s Gigafactory and power, pun intended, its drive, pun again intended, to that 2025 goal of a million electric cars.
The author of that article is Lawrence Ulrich, a longtime contributing editor at Spectrum and a noted auto maven. He also writes about cars for the New York Times, Car and Driver, and elsewhere, and has test-driven more cars than can be found on the Hertz lot at a mid-sized airport, or so it seems.
Lawrence, welcome to the podcast.
Lawrence Ulrich Hello, Steven.
Steven Cherry Let’s start with the batteries themselves. They’re very different from Tesla’s.
Lawrence Ulrich They are. They’re called Ultium batteries. And where Tesla started off with the small almost AAA cells that you would find in a typical laptop and put thousands of them together for their original Tesla Roadster. And they’re still using that approach, today.
General Motors and some other legacy automakers are going to so-called large format cells or prismatic cells. And they’re packaged up for General Motors in these big pouches. They’re called a pouch format. The upshot is efficiency ... Ideally that you’re going to be able to pack more energy into a smaller space. And that’s what General Motors is up to. And if all goes well, they’ll be producing 250 million of these power cells a year from a plant in Lordstown, Ohio.
And Lordstown has its own significance. This is the site of a somewhat notorious General Motors plant from the ’70s that became kind of a poster child for labor strife in America. And this plant in Lordstown produced some basically crappy small cars with names like Vega and Cavalier before it turned into a much more model plant in the late ‘90s. The plant was shut down and the area ever since has been starving for jobs.
President Trump got involved and the whole place became a kind of political football. But this plant is one of those heartwarming stories, potentially, bringing jobs back to a struggling area in Ohio that could really use them.
Steven Cherry So the batteries themselves they differ from Tesla’s in size and shape. You mentioned that chemistry is different as well. Apparently, that these will use a lot less cobalt. Why is that important?
Lawrence Ulrich Yeah, well, the big drive, of course, around the world is to eliminate the precious metals in batteries. Cobalt is mined under very inhuman conditions in many places around the world. We managed to spend several decades not worrying about the effect on the planet of breaking oil out of everywhere, the attendant pollution. Now, that’s an issue.
Steven Cherry So how do the two battery systems compare in price overall?
Lawrence Ulrich When it comes to pricing, in some ways we don’t really know. Companies keep that information really close to vest. But what we do know is that battery prices around the world are falling dramatically. They’re essentially a commodity. You know a mistake people make in this—and I can fall prey to it, too—is considering this solely as some kind of horse race, as if a Tesla or another company is going to have some battery breakthrough that no one—or a chemistry that no one—else has seen and that no one else will have access to.
In the history of automobiles. That’s never, ever been the case. If one company has something, another company can either imitate it, license it, get it their own way, in very, very short order. In fact, most of the big technologies in the world now come from global suppliers and not from the auto companies themselves. And they might have brief licensing agreements to work with a single company, but they never last. So it’s better to look at it as, it’s a worldwide drive to reduce the price of these batteries.
Any advantage in batteries, I’ve come to believe, for one company or another is going to be a very, very short-lived advantage. Just in the same way as any innovation in safety, from anti-lock brakes to adaptive cruise control, rapidly sweeps through the industry. But that’s a good thing. This is technology. This needs to be more than about technology and one-hundred-thousand-dollar Teslas and a half-million-dollar electric supercars. It needs to be a technology that’s in the bread-and-butter family cars that we all can afford. So pricing a battery that was just exorbitant a decade ago is just falling and falling and falling. And the Holy Grail is the $100/kWh level. And it’s looking like the entire industry is just beginning to push the price below that.
Steven Cherry One technology advantage that GM might have for, as you say, at least in the short term, is a unique monitoring system within the battery.
Lawrence Ulrich General Motors has what’s called a wireless battery management system, and it is absolutely a world’s first. Most of your battery packs if you look, they have this tangle of wiring that monitors the state of charge in individual cells. GM has found a pretty elegant solution for its new pack to make that an entirely wireless system. So instead of this wiring linking your battery modules, you’re going to have integrated RF antennas on circuit boards and they run just a wireless communications protocol. It’s a lot like Bluetooth but runs with lower power.
The upshot is that you’ve got cradle to grave monitoring of the battery health, and that means picture a warehouse filled with cells on the factory floor where they’re being installed in cars and then on to when these batteries are being used in cars. The company is going to be able to collect data on charges from that inventory to the cars and hopefully they’ll be able to use that data to improve the durability of their batteries.
Steven Cherry We make fun of the cliché that data is the new oil, but it really can be important, especially in the automotive context, right? When it comes to developing self-driving cars, we look at how many millions of miles each company has achieved, and the same thing could happen here. GM’s scale would allow it to leap ahead in data even once other manufacturers adopt similar systems.
That’s definitely what they’re hoping. And if they do have one advantage in this, it is their scale. It’s their manufacturing know-how. We’ve seen that as Tesla’s weak link; reliability is absolutely bottom of the barrel. Their cars are the least reliable cars of pretty much any manufacturer. And they don’t like that to be discussed a lot, but it’s true. And they’re improving. But for all their strength that’s their weak link—the manufacturing scale and the quality control. Where you look at for the peak, a Toyota, you know, the Toyota production system that really swept every area of manufacturing in the world. And it is based somewhat on scale. And as you said, data is king and Tesla is—when you mentioned self-driving cars, Tesla has the most cars with the most active driver assistance systems on them. I won’t call them self-driving because that oversells the technology they really have. But what’s brilliant about Tesla is they’ve got this army of guinea pigs basically out there and they’re constantly pulling data from these cars and using it to develop the next generation of their self-driving technology. So that, right, that onboard data of cars is just critical to the development—and the speedy development—of all these technologies.
Steven Cherry So weirdly, at least when it comes to batteries in the battle between geriatric GM and the teenager Tesla, it’s Tesla that’s trapped by its battery legacy. And GM has some kind of second mover advantage here.
Lawrence Ulrich Potentially, and we don’t know what Tesla is working on. They had a much-ballyhooed battery day a few months ago that was one of their biggest fizzle ever. And usually we expect one of Elon Musk’s grand pronouncements to really bump their stock price. And for one of the first time, investors around the world were unimpressed because lo and behold, they didn’t have any real battery breakthroughs to announce.
And I think it illustrates just what a tough nut this is to crack. The idea—and maybe it was unrealistic to expect that Tesla was going to have some miracle batteries that could do what other batteries in the world cannot. And we’ve got to remember, very smart scientists and engineers all around the world are working on this problem. So this eureka Thomas Edison thing is probably not going to be the way it goes. It’s going to be slow and steady. And again, potentially the advantage of a GM is to operate at scale. And Tesla did it themselves. They wanted to have their own battery plants rather than just buying cells from LG Chem or Panasonic. General Motors is in a way mimicking their formula—they’re building this giant gigafactory in Ohio with 50 percent more battery capacity than Tesla’s in Nevada.
Steven Cherry This new battery factory in Lordstown, Ohio, is quite an undertaking. It’s going to cost $2.3 billion. It’s about 30 football fields in size. That’s still smaller than the [Tesla] Gigafactory, about 1.4 million square feet to almost 2 million. But the battery production is expected to be greater than Tesla’s when measured in gigawatt hours.
Lawrence Ulrich That’s exactly right, Steve. The plant itself is looking at an ultimate capacity of 30 gWh of batteries each year—250 million cells. And now, of course, they just need cars to put them in. And that’s an open question with GM. It’s always been the level of sincerity and the level of commitment in the company.
Every legacy automaker is facing this catch-22 right now. They know they need to start transferring their production into electric cars. But yet more than 98 percent of all the cars purchased in the world today still have some form of fossil fuel combustion aboard. So they’ve got to continue to satisfy that market or they’re cutting their own throat. But yet developing this new market. And in a way, it’s easier to be Tesla. They’re all-electric all the time, where, in a way, these companies are developing the technology that’s going to put their old business out of business. It’s gotta be a really tricky proposition, and it’s pretty obvious why companies would be reluctant then to get into that business. It’s almost like they need to spin themselves off and have their own electric divisions.
Steven Cherry Yeah, the first step is the batteries in that factory. But the second step for GM is to revamp assembly-line plants for which they’re spending $2.2 billion in Detroit alone.
Lawrence Ulrich Absolutely. And more hiring going on. And the idea ultimately is a $20 billion investment over the next five years. And those one million cars, we should note, are ... those are cars including China, which is currently by far the biggest electric car market on the planet today.
So, yeah, these companies are just engaged in this huge drive to seed the market and frankly, to find customers beyond Tesla. For all the good feelings and the good vibes about electric, no one has managed to really, in my mind, sell a hit EV in America. other than Tesla models. We’ve had some decent first attempts.
You go all the way back to GM’s ill-fated EV1 and see that they were in a way, a first-mover in electric way back when. It never took, and then the Chevy Volt was a pretty well-engineered car, but it didn’t catch on. And I think one of the lessons that people took was, at least for now, what people don’t want in electric cars is just an electric version of a frumpy, low budget economy car. And it seems originally, that was our idea of what electric cars were going to be. They were going to be these kind of eat-your-peas cars, just strictly utilitarian passenger pods, not a lot of personality with very little excitement. Tesla, of course, change that idea. And said, “Aha! it turns out people still want style and performance and luxury.”
And they don’t want to give any, like laptop buyers. They want more and they want it to cost the same or less. So that’s the big push for now. We see in all the General Motors cars coming out. There’s not a frumpy econo box in the bunch.
And in fact, they’re leading with a reborn Hummer EV. Ten years ago, you’d’ve been laughing—that’s going to be your your initial mover in this space? A Hummer? But America wants EVs and they want trucks. So they figured, hey, we might as well try to sell these in the most popular segments where the masses are buying and traditional cars are totally out in America. The SUV and trucks share now is pushing 75 percent. Three of every four cars sold in America are not cars at all. They are a pickup truck or an SUV.
Steven Cherry Was the idea that the Hummer was a symbol of everything wrong about car-making from a sustainability and climate point of view? And now it’s going to symbolize GM’s woke status?
Lawrence Ulrich I think that somewhere in there, that’s got to be what they believe. But I think it all traces back to the success that Tesla has had with their cars. And the idea that GM like Nissan with their Leaf, the first bid to attract people were going to be these affordable economy-type cars. The idea that electricity being about efficiency and that was going to be their prime selling point, save the planet, save money, be efficient, save energy.
And it turns out that that sales pitch doesn’t work on very many. They still want their luxury car, their high-design car, or shall we say in America, they want their luxury truck or their luxury SUV. If it runs on electricity and makes their life more convenient and saves them money and saves the planet, great. But that’s not the prime buying motivation, saving money and saving fuel, especially with gasoline being dirt cheap, which is, of course, a whole other question. But in the way that Tesla showed that, at least for now, people—they want all the attributes they always had in a car. They want design; they want a car that’s going to impress their neighbors. They want a car that’s fun and has good power and not a boring, frumpy little shoebox.
And so for General Motors, which is hugely enmeshed in selling trucks and SUVs, like pretty much any automaker in America now, they know which side their bread is buttered on. They have a lot more chance selling an exciting product. And the Hummer, for better or worse, has a look and has a following. And it dovetails nicely with what people are wanting in vehicles right now. That’s any SUV that has an adventure-y, outdoor, four-wheeling vibe to it is just selling like gangbusters right now.
It’s counterintuitive, of course, but it’s where we are in a country where more than 75 percent of the sales are SUVs and pickups. And let’s underline that’s not just the old bad Detroit, that’s Mercedes, that’s BMW, that’s Porsche. In any case, any company that has an SUV, their SUVs are outselling their car models exponentially, whether that’s a German company or a Japanese company, whatever. Strangely enough, that’s starting to sweep the world as well. SUV sales are booming in Europe. They’re booming in Asia. They’re booming around the world.
Steven Cherry There’s a price-point issue here as well. In the long run, electric cars will be cheaper. They have fewer moving parts, maintenance is much lower, and so forth. But for the moment, electric cars are more expensive. And if you add $15 000 to a low-end car, you’ve jumped the price 50 percent or more. If you add $15 000 to a $60 000 car, you’re in a range where the buyer is a lot less price-sensitive.
Lawrence Ulrich That’s exactly it as well. And that’s why we’re seeing a Hummer priced at over $100 000 out of the gate; it’s why we’re seeing luxury SUVs from Mercedes, BMW, Porsche—all across the board. The mythical $35 000 Tesla Model 3 never really arrived. They discourage people from ordering it. And now they’ve pulled it off the order books entirely. And the cheapest Tesla Model 3 is now $39 000.
And you’re exactly right. There is a lot less price sensitivity in the luxury reaches of the market to tack on another $10, $15 000 in battery costs. And that also has spelled failure for EVs that the lower reaches of the market. And of course, that’s going to be the acid test. We hear so much about this vaunted price parity between EVs and fossil-fuel vehicles. And frankly, I think analysts have way jumped the gun. We keep hearing the price parity is two and three years away. Well, it’s not. And anyone who tells you that I believe is lying. Sure. Maybe price parity in an $80 000 luxury car. But when someone can sell you a $25 000 Honda Civic that also is stuffed full of batteries—it’s several years away. And that brings us back to the huge drive to reduce battery costs in that GMC Hummer.
The top version of it is going to have a 200 kWh battery pack—that’s twice the size of the largest pack in a Tesla vehicle. And that’s partly key to making a truck that big have decent range. We’re looking at 350-mile driving range, but a 200 kWh battery pack—do some back of the envelope math at even $100/kWh—that’s a $20 000 battery pack. Right. That so that might work in a $100 000 vehicle. It’s not going to fly in an affordable work truck, or an affordable SUV. So there’s still this huge, huge need to cut the price of batteries in half yet again from where they are today. And then we really, maybe, we will see $20 and $25 000 EVs. The day is absolutely coming, but patience is still required.
Steven Cherry GM is planning all electric Cadillacs, but also all electric Chevrolets. And what do you think the prices will be like? And how will these compare in terms of driving range, which is still a pretty big issue for most buyers?
Lawrence Ulrich Right. Let’s take the Chevy Bolt as an example. It’s about a $37 000 car and take off the $7500 tax credit and it becomes $30 000, a lot more palatable at that rate.
But again, without government backing, without government incentives, you can see what happens. The buyer of a Nissan Leaf or a Chevy Bolt, comes to the showroom, sees a $37 000 car that in form and function and features is really no different from the conventional car that sells for $20 or $22 000. Which one is that person going to buy unless there are real true believer in electricity? And that’s the contradiction that we’re facing right now. Somehow, some way the industry is going to have to give people the cars in the range that they want without a giant increase in price. Because Americans are greedy—of course! We want it all and telling someone they need to spend $10 000 more because it’s going to vaguely help the environment. That’s just going to be a nonstarter with a lot of people.
Steven Cherry And I think I’m a typical buyer. I drive a Subaru and looking at the new Subarus, I could buy a really nice car that I’d be happy to drive for $28 000 or I can buy the new plug-in hybrid for $40 000, That seems like a big jump to me.
Lawrence Ulrich Rght. And especially if you’re not really seeing a return. And the elephant in the room is the price of gasoline in America especially. I hate to be cynical about it, but my hunch is as long as gasoline is below $3 a gallon, there’s just not a giant incentive for people to make such a big lifestyle switch. And we still lack the charging infrastructure.
Lawrence Ulrich Just a few hours ago, I was driving Volvo’s new Polestar 2—and for people who aren’t familiar with Polestar, it’s Volvo’s new electric car division. Terrific car, a Tesla Model 3 competitor, great performance, really awesome interior with this new Android-based operating system and really, really slick, very Tesla-like and good performance. But the thing was still a $60 000 car for basically a compact crossover.
The audience for a vehicle like that at that price is just limited, especially then we’ve got the issue of people who don’t have the ability to charge at home. There’s still a lot of apartment and condo dwellers in America. And the question of where you’re supposed to charge—Tesla has done a brilliant job of addressing that on the road with its supercharger network. But a long way to go in that regard. And my argument is always on both: The price of fuel is the number one thing we could do to promote EV adoption in America is a gasoline tax—a little bit of the stick part of the carrot and stick approach. But that is just a political nonstarter.
But like you said, when when the person has the Subaru, the Honda, the Chevy, the Ford, that they’re perfectly content with ... Asking them to inconvenience themselves in any way and to spend more money on top of it to get less range—it’s a tough nut to crack, even when you tell them all the advantages of electricity as potentially lower maintenance, not having to go to a gas station, being able to just charge overnight at home.
But on the subject of range, it looks like they’re going to be strongly competitive. GM’s battery leaders and EV leaders are saying that they believe 300 miles is the minimum to make for a viable EV. And that sounds about right. You want to get yourself near the range that a tank of gasoline would take you ... Two hundred miles is just not enough, except there’s one exception. And we do have tons of multicar households in America. And in fact, once you get out of the cities, of course, it’s the norm for families to have two and three cars. One of the great hopes is people might have that EV as their commuter car, as their urban errand car, as they’re around town car.
A really good one that’s out right now is the Mini Cooper SE. It’s just about the most affordable EV sold in America. It starts right around $30 000; you take the $7500 tax credit, you take some local and state credits—in places like California ... There’s places you’re going to be able to get into this Mini for like $20 000. And it’s like, wow, now you’re talking. And it’s got barely got maybe an effective range of about one hundred and thirty miles. And it doesn’t sound like very much at all. But you do know, when you’re living in a city and you’re just driving around town and drive around the suburbs, it’s amazing how far one hundred and thirty miles actually is. That might be a week of driving for just little daily take the kids to school, go to work and back and again, and you’re pumping it back full as soon as you get back home anyway. So you’ve always got this car there that’s got at least some useful range in it. So there’s been a little eureka moment out there of people thinking maybe there is room in there for ultra-portable EVs that can carry smaller battery packs and have shorter ranges but then still meet those very specific needs.
But beyond that, absolutely, the drive for battery efficiency is huge and Tesla is absolutely the leader there. It’s really as much or more their electric motor efficiency than it is the amount of energy that they’re carrying aboard. And we’re seeing that—this Volvo is a good example. It has a 75 kWh battery pack, pretty much identical to the size of the pack in a model three. Yet this Volvo can be the official range is two hundred and thirty miles. Real world, let’s call it 200 to 210. Tesla has nearly the same size battery pack and they’re squeezing 350 miles out of the pack. Again, that’s a hugely fudged figure—Tesla gets a huge break from the EPA in their testing ... 350 miles in real world driving, let’s call it 260, 270. Nothing like 350, but definitely more than what other people are squeezing out of the same of batteries, whether that’s Volvo, Audi, Porsche, whoever. So that gets down to their software, to their prime-mover advantages. Their huge and in-depth knowledge of their own batteries, their software, their electric motors, their entire package is more efficient than the packages of other vehicles.
Steven Cherry How will these new GM cars compare with Tesla’s in terms of range?
Lawrence Ulrich General Motors is on that same drive, packing a large battery packs, but also trying to boost their efficiency. So pretty much anything we’re going to see out of General Motors is going to be in the 300- to 400-mile range, basically.
Steven Cherry Driving is for some of us, a burden. For others of us, it’s still a pleasure. You drive more cars in a year than I have in my lifetime. What’s been your favorite EV to date?
Lawrence Ulrich My favorite EV has got to be the Porsche Taycan at the moment. It’s a little unfair—it’s also one of the most expensive EVs. When it came out and the critical consensus was how much better it was than a Tesla Model S and I concurred with that, but also said, well, the thing loaded up to the gills is also $180 000; it damn well better be better than a Model S! It’s a five year newer design. It’s the leading edge design and it’s very, very expensive. There’s a more affordable version that will start maybe just under $100 000.
But man, the thing is, is something else, right, it’s one of those vehicles ... You want to put somebody in it who’s never been in an electric car before because it just blows their minds. And we tested it in Germany from the Autobahn to Denmark. And that the thing is calibrates from 0 to 60 in 2.3 seconds, which is even just a touch quicker than the fastest Porsche sports cars in their lineup.
There, the Porsche advantage over the Tesla is, it’s a Porsche. Their advantages? Their entire history is about building race, winning, and great driving, high performance cars. That’s their bread and butter. And so it’s a real Porsche. It feels like a Porsche drive, like a Porsche, and it just happens to be electric. And so you get ... It’s the best of both worlds and it’s a really tremendous car.
I still drive a stick. Becau—.
Lawrence Ulrich Well, good for you. Good for you! Keep the faith!
Steven Cherry —Because I love being in just the right gear to power through a curve on a two-lane road of the Hudson Valley. Leaving Porsches aside if you could compare comparable cars, a good stick car versus an electric, does the electric hold up in terms of the experience?
It surely does. You know, performance people ... The old line with people with gasoline in their veins were always skeptical of electric cars and probably because of that image that these weren’t going to be fun. They were going to be hairshirts, you know, and with all the joy of driving taken away ... Turns out it’s potentially the opposite. The instant torque of an electric car is really something to behold when you experience it. It doesn’t have to be a car that can go 180 mph and be like a supercar. It can be the family truckster and they can still have this terrific acceleration and dead quiet.
For some people, the sound of that engine is a dear loss ... I’m among them. I love hearing a really good motor rev really high. And you learn to live with that, especially if it feels pretty selfish to say that I’m so wedded to the sound of this V-8 that I’m willing to keep doing pollution out of tailpipe.
And electric cars also handle well. They’re cheating a little bit. They’ve got all their weight back really low in the floor and it creates a low center of gravity and it does help the car slingshot through turns. And to people who haven’t experienced really high-end gasoline performance cars, it feels pretty remarkable at first. And they think that means that the car is faster in all conditions than, say, a sports car. But the negative is, it’s still saddled with a lot of extra weight and all things being equal, a 5000-pound car is not going to handle as well as the 3500-pound car. So that’s another performance thing that electrics are going to have to deal with is, trying to pare down all that excess weight. Weight is the enemy. One of the weird things about electric cars is once the battery runs low on power, you’re still carrying the same weight around. Whether the battery is full of juice or dead empty, you’ve got 1000 pounds or even 2000 pounds of battery aboard. So you’re really lugging this boat anchor around all the time. So making batteries lighter is is going to be a big part of this as well.
Steven Cherry One of the most interesting things about the future that we’re hurtling ourselves into is the way in which companies have expanded into platforms, and it can be an insidious intrusion ... You’re an Amazon Prime customer, and so you look around for ... You end up with an Alexa; now you’re looking for a thermostat and you end up with an Alexa-compatible thermostat and you’re looking for a door lock and a secure system and you end up with Amazon’s.
We’re seeing this with the Google platform. We’re seeing this with the Apple platform, as well as the Amazon platform. The Volvo has the Android built into it. And it seems to me that this platform question is even entering into the car world. And I know for a fact people who have just bought a second Prius, for example, because they’re so used to the Prius interface and the big screen in the middle and the way the seat fits, and ... Are we getting locked into platforms even in the car world?
Lawrence Ulrich Well, absolutely. It’s part of their drive for efficiency that we see even just the basic building blocks of cars. General Motors is one. If you took all their combinations of transmissions and fossil fuel engines and the chasses that are for cars, they had five hundred and fifty combinations around the world. Their new building block, they’re what they call their BEV2 platform, their battery electric vehicle platform, and all their Ultium batteries ... They can build anything from the tiniest little performance coupe to the massive Hummer pickup with a combination of nineteen jigsaw pieces.
What’s that going to do for your manufacturing costs? It’s going to greatly—and your complexity—it’s going to greatly reduce it. So even before electrics started getting some traction, cars were going to that modular construction to save costs. And it’s brilliant in a way. And the fear is that it’s going to take the individuality out of automobiles and we see it in ridesharing as well ... As they start expanding into rideshare ... Where our cars—to some people cars are just a point A to B transportation. They don’t think about what they’re sitting in, who built it, what powertrain ... They just want to get somewhere. And to them, it doesn’t matter what it looks like, who put it together, who owns the components, who owns the platform.
So that consolidation is absolutely a trend in automobiles. Quite likely we’re going to see one or more legacy automakers continue to merge. Others fail, especially faced with these challenges of the electric revolution.
Yes, we’re going to see more of this and not less. And as you said, that gets right down to the infotainment systems in cars. One of the huge challenges they face is the car has to last for 10 or 20 years. Well, digital technology is moving so much more quickly than a car can evolve. Car companies spent years trying to keep Apple and Google out of their cars for very good reason. They saw them as taking over this potentially very valuable space and a profit center for them as well. They would want to sell you their own navigation system, their own very much marked-up audio system, and a $2000 navigation system that only cost them $200. That’s where the profit is in cars, not the car itself. It’s all the frou-frou. So allowing Apple and Google to take that over, you can see what it is, almost an existential threat. But because smartphones have become ubiquitous, the gig is up, the game is over and they know it. So they’ve had to make peace with it.
And this new Android automotive system is an entirely Google-based embedded infotainment system that doesn’t even run off your phone. It can eliminate your phone in the car. You can still hook it up if you want. But basically everything from Google Maps to Google Voice and Google Playstore is just embedded in the car. I have to add, it works great. I’ve never been in a car with more consistent and better voice commands. Ask for an artist for a song, and it’s searching everything from onboard Spotify to the onboard music library. Boom! Two seconds later, a whole list of songs is cued up. So the idea of having a cloud-based system just in your car, it’s the way to go and when it needs to be updated that takes a minute over the air and I can have the newest stuff in my car without having to run out and buy a new car every five years.
Steven Cherry I’d be remiss, Lawrence, if I didn’t take this opportunity to ask you your thoughts about autonomous vehicles.
Lawrence Ulrich I hesitate to even put a timeline out because it all depends on what you mean by self-driving. And here’s where Tesla has some blame on it, pushing the idea of the very poorly named “Autopilot,” which was really nothing more than an adaptive cruise control system with some extra functionality, collision avoidance—you’re about to run into another car ahead of you or a pedestrian, yes the car would stop itself. It’ll pace other cars in traffic, all those things. But the idea that that car was ready—or that any car was ready—to let you sit back, take a nap, read a book that is such a huge, huge, huge technical problem.
People don’t realize it’s way more difficult than autopilot in the air. A plane can kind of cruise in these basically empty skies for hours upon hours and really not encounter a single thing in its path. The road is just this living organism of variables and pedestrians and people. And just making a car be able to respond to any and all eventualities is very difficult. So with that preamble, it can be done. It’s a huge engineering challenge. And one of the greatest experts of this is Gill Pratt, the guy who ran the Defense Agency research into autonomous vehicles. Now he’s Toyota’s self-driving guru and he calls where we’re now at the trough of disillusionment.
We were all promised these self-driving cars and now we’re seeing that we’re a long way away. We’ll see them first in very tightly controlled geofenced situations, airport shuttles ... Things where a vehicle has to just repeat the same repeatable route at low speed. Corporate campuses, universities, airports, places like that, where cars can ferry people over short distances. We’re very, very much on the verge of having vehicles that could handle that limited functionality today. That could be done by driving through Times Square at rush hour in an autonomous vehicle? A decade or more away, for sure.
Steven Cherry Well, this has been mainly very good news, Lawrence, especially hearing that I can save the planet without losing all the fun of driving. That’s reassuring. It’s a great story. It’s a great ride, as we say, in the storytelling business. Thanks for telling it in the pages of the magazine. And thanks for joining us today.
Lawrence Ulrich Thanks for having me, Steven.
Steven Cherry We’ve been speaking with IEEE Spectrum contributing editor Lawrence Ulrich, about his upcoming article, “GM Bets Big on Batteries” in the December issue.
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This interview was recorded November 17, 2020. Our theme music is by Chad Crouch.
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