By Robert Channick
The auto industry is betting hundreds of billions of dollars that this is the decade you’re going to buy an electric vehicle.
From a sporty Ford Mustang crossover to the rebirth of a brawny GMC Hummer truck, legacy and startup automakers alike have hundreds of electric vehicles in the development pipeline, with industry projections that EV sales will surpass traditional internal combustion engines by 2030.
But at the Chicago Auto Show, which runs through Feb. 17 at McCormick Place, full battery-powered EVs are as few and far between as they are on America’s roadways, with only a handful of models on display that you can buy and drive. Based on EV product launches scheduled for 2020 alone, that should change dramatically by next year’s show.
“We feel there’s going to be a lot of growth,” said Ted Cannis, global head of electrification for Ford, which is featuring the Mustang Mach-E at the show. “Once you get that critical mass moving — and it’s going to start moving because of us and others in the industry — you’ll have a whole pipeline of activity then.”
Little more than a science experiment at the turn of the century, mass produced EVs began hitting the market around 2010 with early entries such as the Nissan Leaf. But limited range, expensive batteries and the lack of an out-of-home charging infrastructure made them a fringe offering.
In 2012, California-based Tesla disrupted the automotive world when it began delivery of its sleek but pricey Model S, which brought blazing speed, 300-mile range and a new vision of electrification to the industry. Tesla delivered 367,500 electric vehicles last year and although it has yet to turn an annual profit, it surpassed $100 billion in valuation — more than GM and Ford combined.
While EVs accounted for less than 2% of all auto sales in 2019, automakers are all in for 2020, from Detroit’s Big Three to startup electric truck manufacturer Rivian, which is set to begin production later this year in Normal.
Tesla and Rivian were no-shows at this year’s auto show, but roughly 10 EV models are on display. Here are some highlights:
Ford Mustang Mach-E
Announced in November, the all-electric 2021 Mustang Mach-E crossover is expected to roll out later this year, with an inaugural production run of about 50,000 vehicles. Built in Mexico, the Mach-E comes in rear-wheel and all-wheel drive and starts at about $44,000, with a high-performance GT version priced at about $60,000. Both qualify for a full $7,500 federal tax credit.
The models offer a target range of 250 to 300 miles, with the GT version doing 0 to 60 mph in just over 3 seconds. Branding it a Mustang was a “pretty bold statement around electrification” plans for Ford, said Dave Pericak, director of icons for the automaker.
“We didn’t take the decision to make it a Mustang lightly,” said Pericak, who previously served as Mustang’s chief engineer. “It will have all the performance, but it will have a soul. It’s just a ton of fun.”
The spartan interior includes a 15-inch display screen that will use machine learning to anticipate your habits, such as asking if you want to phone home on your return commute after work. It also has low-tech features such as a cup holder.
Ford has an all-electric F-150 truck in the developmental pipeline, but hasn’t disclosed many of its electrification plans. Pericak said launching with two iconic nameplates shows that Ford is “leaning in,” despite the dearth of electric vehicles at the 2020 show.
“Electrification is a big part of our plan and where we’re headed,” Pericak said.
Audi, which is owned by German automaker Volkswagen, rolled out its first EV offering last year, the e-tron. By 2025, it expects a third of its U.S. product line to be electric, according to Cody Thacker, head of electrification for Audi of America.
The featured speaker at an auto show luncheon Thursday hosted by the Economic Club of Chicago, Thacker said the auto industry is investing $300 billion into electrification, and that consumer adoption will become widespread.
Thacker said the biggest barrier to adoption is “range anxiety,” the fear of running out of juice before finding a plug to recharge your vehicle. While most daily commutes are less than 30 miles, Thacker said getting to “the family reunion in Ohio” remains a concern for EV owners.
“That is real, that’s something we have to think about,” Thacker said at the luncheon. “This is where the public charging infrastructure needs to get deployed.”
Audi has a white e-tron SUV on display at the show. The all-wheel drive vehicle, which sells for about $75,000, has a range of 204 miles and does 0 to 60 mph in 5.5 seconds. It is parked, fittingly, next to an Electrify America charging station.
Electrify America, also owned by Volkswagen, is investing $2 billion in a nationwide charging network as part of the automaker’s massive 2016 settlement with federal and state regulators over its diesel emissions testing scandal. The company expects to have 800 charging stations with about 3,500 chargers in 45 states by the end of next year.
Thacker said even though automakers are gearing up, the consumer side of the equation is “not quite ready to go yet.” EV prices will need to come down and the infrastructure needs to be developed for widespread adoption to become a reality.
“People are worried: If I have my family in the car and it’s the middle of the night and I have 5 miles left, I want to know that I can pull off the highway and charge my vehicle,” he said.
Launched in 2017, Chevrolet’s all-electric subcompact crossed the 200,000 sales mark last year, which triggers a one-year phaseout of the $7,500 federal tax incentive. Buyers can still get a $1,875 credit through March 31.
The 2020 Bolt, which sells for about $37,000 — before the tax credit — has boosted its range by 10% this year to 259 miles on a full charge, making it a more attractive, if utilitarian, EV offering than some of its flashier rivals.
In January, there were 3,000 Bolts sold — its best sales month ever, according to Chevrolet spokesman Steve Majoros.
“The reality is, Bolt EV was the first to crack the code on range and cost, and continues to do that,” Marjoros said. “Other entries have come into the marketplace, but the Bolt EV still has the most range — with the exception of a high-performance Tesla Model 3.”
Majoros said the resurgent success of the Bolt is “just a precursor” to new EVs in the pipeline from Chevrolet and GM, including the rebirth of the Hummer nameplate — once the embodiment of a gas-guzzling behemoth — as GMC’s first all-electric truck. The Hummer, which will be built at the Detroit-Hamtramck plant, was teased in a Super Bowl spot, with plans to reveal the vehicle in May.
“There’s going to be a lot of news from Chevrolet and GM,” Majoros said. “We know where the market is going.”
Despite the growing buzz over EVs, old-school muscle cars are still stealing the show. Visitors at the Thursday preview mostly bypassed a pair of Chevy Bolt EVs for a 490-horsepower Corvette Stingray, while a 660-horsepower GT Liquid Carbon supercar is Ford’s most prominent display.
Pericak didn’t bother to offer mileage estimates for GT Liquid Carbon, which sells for $750,000.
“We don’t worry about that in a car like this,” Pericak said.