2017 Chevy Bolt EV: Here’s What Can Go Wrong for Electric-Car Pioneer

2017 Chevrolet Bolt

2017 Chevrolet Bolt | Chevrolet

The 2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV will be on dealership floors within several weeks, cementing its position as the first affordable 200-mile electric car.

It will beat planned 200-mile electric cars from BMW, Nissan, Tesla, Volkswagen, and other makers, and that’s all to the good for plug-in car advocates.

But the Bolt faces numerous hurdles to success, and it’s important for fans and buyers to acknowledge them.

Let’s not break out the rose petals, rainbows, and unicorns just yet. First, Chevy has to contend with four challenges.

1. Dealerships

Shipment of Chevy trucks to dealers

Shipment of Chevy trucks to dealers | Chevrolet

No matter how many times GM executives present their franchised dealers as a strategic asset in deploying electric cars, too many buyers loathe the process of buying a car at a dealership.

They don’t like haggling for a car and then doing two to three hours of paperwork while fending off add-on options they don’t need (which offer substantial markups to dealers).

And close to six years after the first Volt went on sale, far too many Chevy dealers still steer buyers away from electric cars and toward whatever gasoline model is “a really great deal” that day.

Chevy executives have said the tone about the Bolt EV is different, and that dealers are genuinely excited about its prospects.

Electric-car advocates can only hope that’s true.

But given continuing and substantial anecdotal evidence of dealership abuses at large, outright misinformation about electric cars, and continuing efforts to dissuade buyers from plug-in cars, the evidence is not encouraging.

Chevy’s dealers are a major hurdle to its goals of selling electric cars. And given laws GM has advocated for in the past, there’s not a damn thing the company can do about it.

2. DC fast charging … or the lack of it

2017 Chevrolet Bolt

2017 Chevrolet Bolt | Chevrolet

There’s much discussion of GM’s statement that it won’t put a dime into DC fast-charging infrastructure, and its continuing statements that the Bolt EV is a car for “urban” customers.

Clearly it will play a major role in ride-sharing and self-driving initiatives in the years to come. And it’s probably an excellent vehicle for Lyft drivers.

Still, the car will get buzz from eager early adopters and electric-car advocates, and many of those folks are skeptical at best about Chevy’s lukewarm attitude toward DC fast charging.

The latest piece of evidence is that even the 2017 Bolt EV Premium, the top trim level, will require an additional $750 to get the car fitted with the CCS fast-charging port.

We think any Bolt EV buyer who doesn’t tick the box for fast charging is hurting its long-term resale value, but Chevy clearly differs.

Perhaps the company has focused too much on its Volt user data, or thinks that anyone who wants to travel long distances in an electric car should use the Volt’s range-extending gasoline engine.

But as more than 100,000 Tesla buyers have demonstrated, a long-range electric car plus a nationwide network of fast-charging stations means an electric car can do road trips with little compromise.

3. Marketing

2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV

2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV | Chevrolet

Granted, Chevy’s only experience to date with marketing electric cars has been the Volt, which was not only star-crossed at birth but also happens to be a plug-in hybrid.

And those are incredibly hard to market: drivers “get” electric cars (they have a battery and you plug them in) and hybrids (they use gasoline, they have better fuel economy).

The intersection of the two? Forget it.

So whether Chevy can market the Bolt EV in a way that breaks it out of the electric-car-geek ghetto remains very much an open question.

Statements earlier this year that it plans to market both the Bolt EV and the new Volt to essentially the same people who’ve already bought them are not necessarily cause for optimism.

4. Production capacity … and allocation

2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV, Township, Mich.

2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV, Township, Mich. | Chevrolet

Despite supplier statements last year that Chevy was targeting 30,000 as the production volume for the first year of the Bolt EV, the company has never officially issued volume projections for its 200-mile electric car.

It did, however, say that it can produce as many Bolts as the market demands—presumably based on confidence that LG Chem, its lithium-ion cell supplier, has production capacity in reserve to meet battery demand.

But if demand is strong, and GM allocates a large part of its early Bolt EV production not to retail buyers in leading markets like California but to fleet uses like Lyft and Maven, then momentum could be lost and growth stunted.

The challenges of demand, volume, and allocation among retail and fleet buyers is the murkiest of them all. Only time will show market demand and real volume.

Still, the fact that Chevy has no mechanism for taking deposits centrally to understand demand is undoubtedly just another benefit of the franchised dealer system it’s locked into.

Right?

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