GM’s Environmental About-Face – Political Expedience or Real Leadership?

December 3, 2020
Thomas Hawk/Flickr
Dave Cooke
Senior Vehicles Analyst

Last week, General Motors announced it’s ending its part in the lawsuit supporting the Trump administration’s illegal elimination of California’s ability to set global warming emissions standards for passenger cars and trucks. While the news is a welcome action and something UCS and others have been pressuring GM to do, done in the wake of the election of a new president, it screams of political expediency, not environmental leadership.

GM was front and center begging for a rollback

Over the past four years, General Motors has consistently positioned itself at the head of the table in begging the Trump administration to undermine environmental protections—it’s pushed for lower fines for falling short of fuel economy standards, proposed emissions standards just as weak as the Trump administration’s, and attacked California’s authority to protect the state’s residents from automotive pollution.

Conventional gasoline vehicles have continued to improve in fuel efficiency over the past five years by deploying a number of off-the-shelf technologies, but the fleet is nowhere close to exhausting this potential. Furthermore, manufacturers have continued to develop these and other technologies in the lab, furthering the opportunity for the efficiency gains GM has claimed are “infeasible.” (Figure 4.25, EPA Trends)

Throughout this fight, they’ve relied upon some egregious misinformation, supporting attacks on climate science via their trade association and flat-out lying about the improvements possible for conventional vehicles. To whit, GM claims “nearly all major fuel-saving technologies that had been contemplated have been implemented by manufacturers, or will be implemented within the rulemaking timeframe,” when only direct injection has been implemented in more than half the fleet, and most available technologies to improve the efficiency of conventional vehicles are deployed in a a rather small percentage of new vehicles (see figure). Additionally, analysis the company’s trade group paid for itself shows the ability for conventional vehicles to meet the standards GM claims “are not technologically feasible.” Even lightweight materials design, which GM has specifically touted it is deploying, is nowhere near the technical limits of the technology. As I noted previously GM has plenty of capability for improvement, even by just deploying the technologies already in its wheelhouse.

GM’s EV façade and emphasis on gas guzzlers

At every opportunity, GM has stated a mantra about its future: “zero crashes, zero emissions, and zero congestion.” However, that future has been extremely slow to develop. For decades, GM has used disinformation to thwart progress, and that conservative approach extends to its business writ large.

Twenty years ago, GM infamously killed its first production electric car, the EV1. As lithium-ion technology progressed, it then turned its eyes to the plug-in hybrid Volt, aiming for a (mostly) electric future, only to scrap that vehicle after its second generation. That same sad fate may befall GM’s first long-range electric vehicle, the Chevy Bolt due to a lack of commitment: even as GM makes splashy announcements about its new battery technology for upscale halo vehicles, new generations of the more affordable Bolt and its crossover twin (Bolt EUV) are being left behind on an inferior and outdated EV platform. Over the course of the past decade, GM has also launched and killed a carsharing service (Maven), overpromised on its autonomous Cruise fleet, and resurrected its gas-guzzling Hummer brand as an off-road electric toy for rich people, promising that a relatively small number of them will be available for purchase in a year even though they haven’t yet built a fully-functioning prototype.

Engineers can do amazing things, and some of those failures and delays are part of the long, slow learning process of technology married to vehicle development. But it is also in this light which one must take GM’s heralded announcement of pulling forward its electric vehicle investments, which coincided with a meeting with President-elect Biden and GM CEO Mary Barra (among others). After all, we’ve seen how paltry its commitment to electrification has been in the past, and its self-laudatory proposed “National ZEV Mandate” pushed for less than an anemic 10 percent in electric vehicle sales in 2030.

Mary Barra at GM’s “EV Day” touted the automaker’s electric future. But with so many past promises gone by the wayside and continued massive investments in gas guzzling SUVs and pick-ups, it’s hard to take such pronouncements at face value. (GM)

It’s also worth noting the additional context of its EV investments. Over the past decade, GM has announced over $32 billion in investments in North American facilities, the vast majority of which has gone to retooling or expansion of existing facilities manufacturing conventional gasoline-powered vehicles. It has committed to $4.5 billion in EV manufacturing investments since March 2019, but at the same time it touted a $4.2 billion investment in its gas-guzzling fleet of pick-ups and SUVs (not to mention the additional $150 million in conventional vehicle investments hidden within in its big EV announcement!). Even with its high-profile $2 billion investment in Spring Hill, Tennessee, it will continue to crank out more gasoline vehicles than EVs at that facility.

GM appears to be tapping the Tesla model of electrification (focus on selling high-end vehicles first), but it’s starting out a decade later. This is sadly consistent with actual product plans, which show that even by 2026, the company is targeting EV production levels well short of what Tesla is doing today.

With GM at ease letting the first mass market 200+ mile-range EV atrophy and making their biggest vehicles bigger without even bothering to improve efficiency, it’s hard to take claims of their purported environmental about-face as anything more than self-serving political expedience.

No kudos for political expediency

General Motors is absolutely making the right call here by pulling itself out of litigation against California over the state’s ability to set more stringent emissions standards—but it is a transparently cynical move, for which it deserves tepid praise. And at least as of right now, GM is still supporting the Trump administration’s weaker standards, making its environmental bona fides suspect at best.

The company has had numerous opportunities to step up, most notably as California bent over backwards to craft certainty for an industry that created its own mess of illegal and unjustifiable deregulation, and yet at every turn GM has eschewed the leadership role. This recent change of heart is not enough to warrant a seat at the table for such Johnny-come-latelies.

If the Biden administration wants to listen to industry voices as it looks to undo the mess the current administration has left, it should instead talk to the five manufacturers who stood up for California’s critical role in pushing the industry forward, as well as manufacturers like Tesla who pushed for even stronger federal standards—these automakers make up over 40 percent of U.S.-manufactured passenger cars, more than General Motors, Fiat-Chrysler, and Toyota combined (all of whom sided with the Trump administration against environmentally and technologically sound regulations).

It’s great that General Motors has finally done one of the right things it could have done years ago, even if it was the obvious political call, and hopefully Toyota will soon follow suit (which GM could help along by echoing Ford’s calls for support for enacting stronger standards). But if they’re looking for kudos, there’s a lot more that needs to be done to prove this U-turn is real, including immediately dropping their support of the Trump-era standards now in litigation and supporting strong standards in the future.

Actions are a whole lot more important than promises when it comes to environmental leadership, so let’s see what future actions GM takes to prove they are leaders before crowning them as such.