Jim Motavalli on the EV Revolution


According to the International Energy Agency, over 14 million electric vehicles, or EVs, are expected to be sold globally in 2023. If this is accurate, EVs would account for about 18 percent of total car sales for the year, a 35 percent increase over 2022. The EV revolution is upon us, and here to help Sea Change Radio listeners decide where to plug-in is automotive journalist, Jim Motavalli. We discuss the puzzling decision by General Motors to shelve the Chevy Bolt, get some recommendations on new EV automakers and models, and examine America’s ongoing fascination with big old gas-guzzling trucks and SUVs.

00:02 Narrator – This is Sea Change Radio, covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.

00:17 Jim Motavalli (JM) – You take a company like, I don’t know, Bentley or Lamborghini or one of those. When they come out with an SUV, no matter how crazy it is for their brand concept, it invariably becomes their best-selling vehicle and automakers recognize that.

00:36 Narrator – According to the International Energy Agency, over 14 million electric vehicles, or EVs, are expected to be sold globally in 2023. If this is accurate, EVs would account for about 18 percent of total car sales for the year, a 35 percent increase over 2022. The EV revolution is upon us, and here to help Sea Change Radio listeners decide where to plug-in is automotive journalist, Jim Motavalli. We discuss the puzzling decision by General Motors to shelve the Chevy Bolt, get some recommendations on new EV automakers and models, and examine America’s ongoing fascination with big old gas-guzzling trucks and SUVs.

01:43 Alex Wise (AW) – I’m joined now on Sea Change Radio by Jim Motavalli. He is a freelance automotive journalist. He contributes to publications such as the New York Times, Barron’s, Auto Week, TechCrunch. Jim, welcome back to Sea Change Radio.

01:58 Jim Motavalli (JM) – Great to be on Sea Change Radio.

02:01 Alex Wise (AW) – So we haven’t had you on for a couple of years, but I wanted to dive into some of the evolution of the electric vehicle, the EV space, with you last time we talked, Tesla was riding high. It was by far and away the biggest player in in the space, but you were talking about some of these newer names like Rivian coming around to compete with the Teslas. Why don’t you first give us a progress report on some of these non-Tesla brands and how they stack up to the Teslas of the world?

02:43 Jim Motavalli (JM) – Well, there’s two things happening. One is all the mainstream automakers are introducing EV’s, and those are hitting the market. And they’re also the startups, and those include Rivian and Lucid have gotten cars on the road, and they’re starting to show up in dealerships and compete with test. But none of them have vehicles in sufficient quantities yet to challenge Tesla in the marketplace. I mean, Tesla is still by far the largest seller in the EV market, but I think in terms of quality and appeal, I think we’re now seeing vehicles arrival, Tesla. So their absolute and total dominance is kind of threatened by all these startups. There are companies like Bollinger that have launched and gotten out of the market, so no motors was another one, and there’s several EV companies that have not made it, but I think at this point we can say that Rivian and Lucid, they’re probably going to go the distance and have very credible vehicles and I was just on a week long ride to drive event with Lucid and their cars are very, very impressive. But you know, they’re a startup, so sort of have the teething problems of the startup. They still haven’t gotten their production in line with what they want it to be.

04:09 AW – How are numbers stacking up overall in terms of what experts were predicting five years ago in terms of the EV market share versus what it is today? When we’re talking about production numbers, we’re still far away from making that complete transition to an electric fleet, that’s for sure. But why don’t you give us an idea of kind of the dent that they’ve made?

04:33 JM – EV’s are something like 7% of the US auto market right now. It’s probably double that in California, which is the largest US EV market and I was just down in Florida. I couldn’t believe how many EVs are on the road there. You wouldn’t expect it. And I was in the Miami area and there are so many Teslas on the road there and I saw EV’s of every stripe, even some that are fairly rare, like the Mercedes EQS and I even saw Bollinger on the road down there and I did find a fairly good availability of EV charging, we went to a National Park and you could charge your EV there. There are pockets of strong EV sales in the country – the northeast, the West, Florida and Texas are all very good EV markets, but like I said, it’s still less than 10% of sales. However, just about every automaker is going to stop making internal combustion vehicles by 2035 at the latest. So then it’s not a question of what should I buy, an internal combustion car or an EV? There won’t be any. There won’t be any gas cars or diesel cars on the road.

05:56 AW – Well, they’ll be on the road, but they won’t be getting sold

05:59 JM – Yeah, well, they won’t be available to buy, except there’s used cars and you know there won’t be any new internal combustion engines and a number of states as well as Europe as the whole European Union have said no electric or no gas car sales after 2035. California then join that and New York and a number of other states are now on board with that, so you would not be able to buy gas cars. New gas cars in a number of states by 2035 or all of Europe, or, you know, significant parts of the other rest of the world. I think probably China is not going to be selling gas cars either.

06:40 AW – So what’s driving this transformation? Is it policy? Is it the market?

06:44 JM – I think it’s the market in the sense that the vehicles are going to be better than the gas cars, the electric vehicles have many advantages, including in terms of what, say, car and driver and Motor Trend and road and track care about which is performance. It’s the electric cars that can go zero to 60 in 1.9 seconds. It’s that your Tesla Model S Plaid edition. It’s the Lucid Air Sapphire edition. There’s at least a couple other ones. The electric motor has 100% torque at 0 RPM, so it just takes off from a standing start. It’s incredibly fast that way. And I think when the Tesla Model S came out suddenly, it became an independent object of desire. People said I want one of those. They weren’t thinking “ohh, I gotta be green.” I gotta eat the spinach or what? They said this is actually cool. This is something I want. That had to happen before. I think EV’s could take off, but now, to me, the Super car is dead in internal combustion form. There’s no reason to buy a V12 supercar when an electric one can outperform it and operate incredibly cheap.

08:05 AW – So Jim, the Chevy Volt is General Motors, best-selling electric vehicle. They delivered 20,000 EV’s in the US in the last quarter. And it’s had some problems along the way, some bumps and some very expensive recalls, but they just announced that they’re shutting down the brand. What should people who are following the EV space make of this?

08:34 JM – Well, General Motors may be killing the bolt, but they’re doubling down on EV’s. See the reality of the market is that 80% of the market wants to buy SUV’s. So pretty much all the vehicles that are on the drawing board, you, you you take a company like, I don’t know Bentley or Lamborghini or one of those when they come out with an SUV, no matter how crazy it is for their brand concept. Except it invariably becomes their best-selling vehicle, and automakers recognize that you know the popularity of small hatchbacks has been waning for a long time. It’s like 5% of the market or something. So the Bolt is a small car and I think that’s pretty much why they killed it, but they’re not giving up on EV, just cause they’re getting rid of that they killed the vault. So they’re plug-in hybrid, which was also very pioneering. But you know, I think some of the things that GM has done, some of the vehicles, I just don’t understand like the the Hummer EV the then the pickup and SUV versions of those, how big a battery you have to put in those things and how heavy the vehicles get the Hummer EV weighs 9600 pounds and yeah, it’s really fast and I’m sure it can go off road and all that, but it’s just I think that’s the wrong way to go. We should make EV’s as light as possible, so they need the few fewest amount of battery.

10:03 AW – Yes, I heard a stat that said that one Rivian uses as much batteries as 4500 E-bikes. So that’s like 4500 people that could get around the city very easily on their E-bike, but somebody has to have one truck that goes super fast.

10:20 JM – I mean, I like everything I’ve seen of Rivian. I like what the company does. It’s just their vehicles are not in my demographic. I don’t really want to own a big heavy pickup truck or off roading SUV. It’s just not I don’t care about that. Please tell me what.

10:38 (Music Break)

11:17 AW – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio and I’m speaking to automobile expert Jim Motavalli. So Jim, let’s dive into what’s behind this fascination that American drivers have with large cars. It’s not a global fascination, is it? This is uniquely American – wanting to have these big SUVs, I know that there are bigger cars elsewhere, but there’s no other country that has this percentage of its fleet being large scale trucks and SUVs is there as another country like this.

11:52 JM – I would say not, but you know fuel in the US is cheaper than it is just about anywhere else in the world, except maybe in Saudi Arabia. It’s pretty cheap there.

12:04 AW – But it’s more than that. It was like, what, 30 years of marketing, right? This Chevy – “like a rock,” and Ford F150s – tough, and all these marketing things that just have been battering us for decades and it’s effective.

12:17 JM – Well, let me make a point here, Alex. Maybe it’s contrary to the, you know, the trend you’re talking about. If you go back to the start of the SUV craze, it was when Jeep started selling a lot of Cherokees and Wranglers and stuff, and the Jeep brand at that point was at a fairly low end. And at one point it was owned by Renault, the French company, and they sold it to Chrysler that well, it was part of AMC also and the Renault sold AMC, including, you know, American Motors and Jeep to Chrysler. And it wasn’t even that expensive. And the main thing Chrysler wanted was this plant in Canada that was state-of-the-art came with the deal. They didn’t regard the Jeep brand as any sort of great prize. It wasn’t selling that much.

13:13 AW – They wanted the AMC Pacer, huh?

13:17 JM – (laughs) Not sure they wanted the Pacer either, but anyway, they didn’t pay that much for it, so they ended up with it. And then they noticed that people were starting to buy 4-wheel drive vehicles. The companies started to notice that and they started to encourage it. But I’m saying the trend to buying these off road vehicles and sort of as an image thing, I think it was actually initiated by consumers rather than by a marketing push, though it was immediately capitalized on and expanded by the marketing people and it feeds into some sort of desire on the part of Americans. To feel like they’re adventurous, they’re different. And you know, they can go off road. It’s nonsense. It’s only like 10% of SUVs ever leave the road anyway. But it’s the potential. It’s the idea.

14:11 AW – So getting back to the Chevy Bolt and its demise, let’s focus on the manufacturing side of things and getting away from the marketing angle. I heard that there’s economies of scale to be gained by switching over to this new type of production facility that will allow them to crank out lots of SUVs and trucks. But if GM was having trouble with the bolt in terms of some recalls that they had had that’s a light car. One would think that that’s an easier car to build. More precisely, why then take this leap into much heavier, more difficult to maintain and to build vehicles? Besides the fact that they’re very inefficient and not as good for the environment. Yes, they’re not using gas, but they’re using a ton of lithium ion batteries.

15:05 JM – GM has made some moves that I don’t understand at all. If you take let’s let’s go back to the launch of the Prius, the Toyota Prius that was launched in Japan in 1996 in the US in 2000, and the American companies had just taken part in this thing called partnership for a new generation of vehicles. For PNG V and that program, which is a federal program, encourage them to develop high hybrid cars that would get, I think it was 60 miles per gallon, was the target and all three of the automakers developed 60 mile per gallon hybrid cars and probably around 1998 I think it. Was they weren’t obligated to market them and none of them did. But they did develop them. So meanwhile, the Prius shows up in the US in 2000. It’s an immediate hit, and no American automaker comes up with any kind of alternative to it until 2004, when Ford introduced the Escape Hybrid and GM in its wisdom decides that, well, you know, our Silverado pickup is really popular. Why don’t we make a hybrid version of that? So they come out with this hybrid Silverado that gets 19 miles per gallon compared to 17 for the regular one. Where was the incentive to buy that thing? And this is when the I don’t remember what the Prius’s fuel economy was at the beginning, but it was probably about 40-45 miles per gallon. And it was also a lot cheaper than that Silverado. So when they come out with electric versions of the Hummer or hybrid versions of the Silverado, I don’t know.

16:52 AW – And there’s new management in place at some of these big automakers and their missteps over the last few decades are well chronicled, and it’s one of the reasons why Tesla’s market cap is bigger than the big three US automakers combined. They missed a huge opportunity, but it looks like they’re doubling down in some ways. They’re just like, well, this is what we know. We know SUV’s and trucks, and that’s what we’re going to and so what we’re not going to refine this small Bolt, which I and I know I keep going back to it, but it was the most cost effective to have electric vehicle on the market and it was an important niche that GM had started carving out and to abandon it, I think it’s a big misstep by General Motors and they’ll look back on it with regret.

17:40 JM – Well, you may recall that Elon Musk said he sent a I think his goal was for the Model 3 was like $35,000 and I think the Bolt got to market before he did at a very good price point. So it was a big goal of Tesla to keep the price down on the Model 3, and I don’t think you could really buy one for $35,000, but it is the cheapest Tesla. And yes, you’re right, the bolt was a revelation when it came out cause it had really decent range and it was reasonably priced. And I think that was an important milestone, so I applaud the Bolt, it was really fun to drive.

18:27 AW – My sister-in-law has one and I’ve driven in it and it’s a terrific car. I mean, the range that she had on hers, I think, was the first iteration, it was like 180 miles, but that’s expanded and a lot of these cars are starting to regularly exceed 300 miles in range, right?

18:46 JM – Yeah. Well, as a matter of fact, I mentioned that Lucid trip. I was just on and they have a model called the Grand Touring version of the air that has 516 miles of range certified by the EPA. That is a lot of range. So you know there’s so many great EV’s. If I was buying an EV now, I might look at the latest models from Hyundai or Kia, cause I think those offer the most bang for the buck. I think they’re got really good range. The prices are very reasonable. They’re really nicely styled, they have crisp beautiful and interiors. I think that’s probably where I would buy a car. Now if I was buying an EV, I just think the Koreans are doing terrific stuff with EVs right now.

19:51 (Music Break)

20:40 AW – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio and I’m speaking to automobile expert Jim Motavalli. So Jim, we were just talking about the increased range in electric vehicles. Can you give us an update on where things stand in the charging department? How is our network going to alleviate what’s known as range anxiety?

21:01 JM – Well, there’s a few things happening there. People still do have range anxiety. I think there’s like 9500 EV charging stations and the station has numerous charging points. So there’s two ways of looking at it. The last I looked at was around 9500. However, the Tesla Supercharger network and one of the big selling points of Tesla has been that they have their own network. And it’s really very robust and across the whole country and it doesn’t go down a whole lot, it’s very robust. They have just opened that to non-Teslas which I think is very important to do. A problem has been that aside from Tesla, the other companies operating charging stations have not been best at keeping them operational so people will turn up at EV charging stations and find them out of order. And that’s very discouraging. It could be quite alarming if you’re running out of charge. And part of the Biden mandate in the Inflation Reduction Act in terms of assistance to charging stations is that they operate that they’re operating 96% of the time. I think that’s a very important rule to have out there. It’s a big incentive. To do maintenance and make sure that your EV stations are operating and that’s been a problem.

22:43 AW – And Tesla has these supercharging stations. Why don’t you give us an overview of how the time to charge has transformed over the last few years?

22:53 JM – Well, these are 480 Volt charging stations and depending on how your car is set up and the you know the rating of the station, you’re probably able to go from a 20 to 80% state of charge in about 20 minutes.

23:10 AW – How does that differ from five years ago, let’s say?

23:14 JM – Well, five years ago we probably would not have even had a 480 Volt charging network, so the initial EV stations were 240 Volt. What’s they call level two and like if you were to take some of these big batteries and something like the Lucid Air or the Hummer EV, we’re talking, you know, maybe 15 hours to charge on Level 2 station. So it’s very important we get to 480 volts and fast charging. This is direct current or DC fast charging that is not something you’re going to have in your home. If you have a charger at home, it’s going to be a level 2240 Volt charging cause you you can only get 240 volts in your house. You can’t get 480 so the fast charging is external to where you live. But for most people, you know, you bring the car home at, say, 6:00 o’clock you plug it in, it’s definitely gonna be ready to go by the time you leave in the morning. So that hasn’t been a problem. You could also set the car so that it charges only when the rates go down. If you have a utility that has that kind of structure.

24:28 AW – And which is the bigger variability in terms of charging, is it the car itself or the charging station?

24:34 JM – I would say it’s both combined and some of the New EVs are capable of charging at a very, very fast rate. And they’re using that as a selling point.

24:46 AW – About how fast?

24:48 JM – I haven’t heard anyone say they. They’re charging at a rate that’ll get you. Any faster than maybe 10 minutes?

24:58 AW – Still, that’s pretty fast.

25:00 JM – Yeah, 10 minutes is about the best you’re gonna do right now, I would say.

25:04 AW – So we were talking about the American consumers fascination with large trucks and SUV’s, and how that relates to the EV market. Why don’t you compare that to how things? Are unfolding in Europe, Jim.

25:19 JM – Well, I’ve made several trips to Europe recently and it’s sad to say, but Europe has basically followed the US and topping the SUV, though not in its great numbers, not nearly as high a percentage. And I would say their rate of EV adoption is higher than the US them not. Maybe they’re at 15% EV adoption. It’s not, you know, at the rate that’s going to seem like a revolution and what’s on the road, you still see mostly gas cars everywhere, but the projections and and Europe has that 2035 deadline for no longer selling. It’s expensive to buy fuel in Europe because it’s so heavily taxed.

26:06 AW – And I imagine even though the car buying patterns are changing in terms of the makeup, they’re getting larger just like the US, the European consumer is starting to salivate over bigger car. As the average European household is owning less cars than they did two decades ago, I imagine.

26:26 JM – Well, Europe has very good public transit for the most part and people don’t drive as much as they do in the US because it’s more expensive to own a car and to use it. But I should point out that in some parts of Europe, the EV adoption is off the charts, specifically Norway, which last I heard had something like 85 to 90% of all new car purchases being electric, that’s the best in the world and it’s because of very good financial incentives. Norway is not the best place in the world to operate an SUV or an electric car because it’s very cold there and EVs don’t do great in the cold. But government policies have really shaped that market there.

27:12 AW – And it’s a wealthy country where consumers can afford expensive trucks.

27:18 JM – So I think Norway is showing the world the direction it’s going to go. I mean, if you ask me, do I have any doubt that the whole auto fleet is going to go electric? I would say zero, I have zero doubt about that. In fact, I predicted that in the book. I wrote in the forward of “Drive” that came out in the year 2000. And there weren’t even any EVs on the road then. I just said that’s what’s going to happen. Everyone’s going to be driving electric cars, and lo and behold.

27:49 AW – Well, we appreciate your time and your foresight is always right on the money. Jim Motavalli, Jim, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.

28:00 JM – You bet, Alex. Anytime.

28:17 Narrator – You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our intro music is by Sanford Lewis, and our outro music is by Alex Wise. Additional music by Galactic, Ry Cooder and Jr. Walker & the All-Stars. To read a transcript of this show, go to SeaChangeRadio.com stream or download the show or subscribe to our podcast on our site or visit our archives to hear from Doris Kearns Goodwin, Gavin Newsom, Stewart Brand and many others. And tune in to Sea Change Radio next week as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio, I’m Alex Wise.

One thought on “Jim Motavalli on the EV Revolution

  1. I purchased one of the 1st Bolt’s, number 316. The range was actually not 185, it was over 200, about 225 miles. Tesla charging stations in the US are not fully open to all non-Tesla EVs, they are instituting an incremental opening to other vehicles. since i own a Bolt and a Model 3, i can confirm that the Tesla supercharging network is vastly superior. I think one reason for the Bolt’s demise by Chevy is the black mark the car got from the battery fire issue, which was vastly exaggerated. I am surprised at how commonly climate activists still drive ICE vehicles, when driving an EV is such a positive action on climate.

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