By BILL VLASIC and NEAL E. BOUDETTE
OCT. 2, 2017
DETROIT — China has said it will eventually ban gasoline-powered cars. California may be moving in the same direction. That pressure has set off a scramble by the world’s car companies to embrace electric vehicles.
On Monday, General Motors, America’s largest automaker, staked its claim to leadership. Outlining a fundamental shift in its vision of the industry, it announced plans for 20 new all-electric models by 2023, including two within the next 18 months.
G.M.’s announcement came a day before a long-scheduled investor presentation by Ford Motor that was also expected to emphasize electric models. After the G.M. news emerged, Ford let loose with its own announcement, saying it would add 13 electrified models over the next several years, with a five-year investment of $4.5 billion.
“General Motors believes in an all-electric future,” said Mark L. Reuss, G.M.’s global product chief. “Although that future won’t happen overnight, G.M. is committed to driving increased usage and acceptance of electric vehicles.”
In the first eight months of 2017, even with federal tax incentives, Americans purchased only about 60,000 battery-powered electric vehicles, and about the same number of plug-in hybrid models, according to Hybridcars.com. That amounts to 1 percent of the market.
But the upstart automaker Tesla has proved the potential of electric vehicles to generate excitement, with its first mass-market offering, the Model 3 sedan, attracting $1,000 deposits from hundreds of thousands of potential buyers. (It is also showing the challenges of getting the technology to scale, announcing on Monday that it produced only 260 Model 3s in the third quarter, “less than anticipated due to production bottlenecks.”)
More than consumer demand, however, it is regulatory pressure that is revving up the electric push, with officials in China, Europe and the United States ratcheting up emissions standards and setting or discussing deadlines that could eliminate gasoline-powered cars within a generation.
The announcements by G.M. and Ford follow pledges by the German automakers Volkswagen and Daimler to build hundreds of thousands of electric vehicles in the coming years, and the decision by Volvo, the Chinese-owned Swedish luxury brand, to convert its entire lineup to either electric cars or hybrid vehicles that are powered by both batteries and gas.
The accelerated pace of development also reflects the symbiotic relationship between battery-powered cars and another technological frontier; auto companies are tying their electric-car plans to lofty goals of building fleets of autonomous vehicles for ride-hailing services.
The automakers believe they can solve the problem of achieving — as G.M.’s chief executive, Mary T. Barra, has begun stressing — a world with “zero crashes, zero emissions, and zero congestion.”
It is a stunning statement from a company that, together with Ford, sells more large pickup trucks and full-size sport utility vehicles than the rest of the global industry combined — and from an industry that grudgingly got into building electric vehicles in the face of stricter fuel emissions standards.
Just last month, during a visit to China, Ms. Barra cautioned against mandates in which the transition to electric vehicles outpaces consumer demand. “I think it works best when, instead of mandating, customers are choosing the technology that meets their needs,” she said.
On Monday, Mr. Reuss framed the company’s strategy as a natural outgrowth of what it had learned from its existing entry in the all-electric arena, the Chevrolet Bolt, even though it has achieved only negligible sales so far.
“There is a transition going on,” said Mr. Reuss, adding that G.M. has no timetable to eliminate gasoline engines from its vehicles. He said that by the 2023 target date for the new electric models, G.M. will still be building cars, trucks and sport-utility vehicles with internal combustion engines.
“They wisely gave no time frame because, frankly, no one knows how the future will evolve,” said Michelle Krebs, an analyst with the research firm Autotrader.
For its part, Ford said it intended to accelerate its development of electric cars as part of a broader business strategy that will be laid out for Wall Street on Tuesday by its new chief executive, Jim Hackett. Mr. Hackett was installed in May after his predecessor, Mark Fields, failed to persuade investors and his board that the company was moving fast enough to develop the vehicles of the future, like battery-powered and self-driving cars.
Ford already fields several slow-selling hybrid, battery-powered and plug-in models, and has said it also plans to add hybrid versions of its big sports-utility vehicles, like the Ford Explorer, as it expands its electric offerings.
The company has formed a group it calls Team Edison to focus on pure battery-electric cars, said Sherif Marakby, Ford’s vice president for autonomous vehicles and electrification.
By 2020, Ford plans to produce an electric car that can go 300 miles before needing to recharge, Mr. Marakby said. “That’s a big change,” he said, compared with the early electric models that could go fewer than 100 miles, a limitation that made them impractical for many consumers.
However the tastes and demand for electric vehicles evolve domestically, China may have the biggest influence in shaping the marketplace. Sales of electric vehicles, or E.V.s, are already in the hundreds of thousands there and could exceed 400,000 by 2019, representing two-fifths of the world market, according to LMC Automotive, a global consulting company.
“China is a huge part of the story in E.V.s, and it is a big factor in the decision making of the automakers,” said Mike Ramsey, an analyst at Gartner who tracks auto-industry technology. “China’s move toward higher emissions standards and the E.V. mandates gives the big global automakers certainty that they are going to have a significant market for these cars and they can know these investments will be worth it.”
Reflecting the importance of the Chinese market, Ms. Barra, the G.M. chief, visited Shanghai last month as the company announced that it would roll out at least 10 all-electric or hybrid models in China between 2016 and 2020, including those already in the market.
Just a few days earlier, China had joined other countries, including Britain and France, in announcing plans for an eventual ban on sales of gasoline- and diesel-powered cars. But unlike those countries, which said that they hope to halt sales in 2040, China set no date.
The chief auto-emissions regulator in California — whose agency largely sets the standards to which automakers design their American fleets — said last week that Gov. Jerry Brown was asking why his state shouldn’t follow suit.
“I’ve gotten messages from the governor asking, ‘Why haven’t we done something already?’” the regulator, Mary D. Nichols, chairwoman of the California Air Resources Board, told Bloomberg News. “The governor has certainly indicated an interest in why China can do this and not California.”
At the same time, however, the Trump administration is pushing in the opposite direction, conducting a review of tight fuel-emissions standards for 2025 set by the Obama administration; it is widely expected to scale them back.
Investors reacted positively to G.M.’s announcement, with its shares tacking on more than 4 percent in Monday’s trading. And Mr. Reuss said G.M. did not expect to be hurt financially by a shift toward electric models, which at least for now can cost more to produce than comparably sized gasoline-powered vehicles.
“The future will be profitable,” he said.
Correction: October 2, 2017
Because of an editing error, an earlier version of a picture caption referred incorrectly to when Mary Barra, the chief executive of G.M., was discussing features of the Chevrolet Bolt. It was January 2016, not January 2017.