General Motors Gets Serious About Electric Cars

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General Motors (NYSE: GM) announced on Monday that it will launch 20 new all-electric vehicles by 2023 -- with the first two due within 18 months.

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It's no surprise that GM, which became the first automaker to begin mass-producing an affordable long-range electric vehicle last year, appears to have an extensive electric-vehicle product-development program well underway. 

But this is the first official confirmation that GM plans to follow up its well-regarded Chevrolet Bolt EV with more -- and more advanced -- pure-electric offerings, starting soon. 

20 or more new electric vehicles -- and more fast-charging stations

In a statement released on Monday, GM confirmed that it has a slew of new electric vehicles in development. It promised to launch "at least 20" new all-electric vehicles by 2023, with the first two coming in the next 18 months. And it will begin "accelerating" the deployment of fast-charging stations for its customers, an executive said. 

At an event in Warren, Michigan, on Monday, GM showed off three clay models of vehicles designed around its upcoming new battery-electric drivetrain: a Buick crossover, a Cadillac wagon, and a futuristic-looking small vehicle that could be the next-generation Bolt EV. 

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GM displayed six other vehicles that were covered in sheets, according to an Automotive News report. One appeared to be a sports car along the lines of the Chevrolet Corvette, according to the News; the others were apparently SUVs. 

The new battery-electric vehicles will use a new-generation drivetrain that incorporates lessons learned from the Bolt, GM said. Pam Fletcher, who leads GM's autonomous- and electric-vehicle development programs, said that GM is planning efforts to expand the availability of fast-recharging stations for its customers. She said more details will be coming soon. 

Not just batteries: GM will build fuel-cell vehicles, too

GM's statement emphasized that not all of its electric vehicles will be battery-powered: The company plans to use hydrogen fuel cells in some vehicles when it makes sense to do so.

What does that mean? GM has said in the past that it thinks fuel cells make sense in applications where battery packs would be too big and heavy, or when recharging times are critical -- heavy trucks, for example, or vehicles used by first responders, which can't afford to be out of service for hours to recharge. 

As if to illustrate the point, GM showed a fuel-cell concept vehicle built on a heavy-duty truck frame -- sized for vehicles like a delivery van, a truck, or an ambulance, GM said. 

GM has set up a joint venture with Honda (NYSE: HMC) to mass-produce fuel cells at a facility in Michigan. The two companies said in January that they expect production to start "around 2020."

The bigger picture: GM is committed to going fully electric

More broadly, GM also drew a clear line in the sand on Monday: Its future is electric. Mark Reuss, GM's global product chief, emphasized that GM believes that a full transition to electric vehicles is inevitable and necessary:

General Motors believes in an all-electric future. Although that future won't happen overnight, GM is committed to driving increased usage and acceptance of electric vehicles through no-compromise solutions that meet our customers' needs.

GM's announcement is the latest in a string of statements from big automakers promising a broad transition to electric vehicles over the next decade or so. These initiatives have been prompted by tightening emissions regulations in Europe and China, the ongoing buildout of recharging infrastructure, and -- to some extent -- the continued success of Tesla (NASDAQ: TSLA). They include:

And rival Ford Motor Company (NYSE: F) is expected to announce a broader electric-vehicle effort soon, perhaps as early as Tuesday.

The takeaway: Don't make the mistake of thinking that GM is behind

While GM hadn't said much about its electric-vehicle plans before today, it has been clear for a while that the General has been working on a path to an all- or mostly electric future. Now that it has digested the market's reaction to the Bolt -- and now that its rivals are starting to make big promises -- GM apparently felt that it was time to make its plans a little clearer. (The fact that Ford CEO Jim Hackett is scheduled to present his strategy on Tuesday might also have been a factor in the timing of GM's announcement, of course.)

But GM investors can now be a bit more confident that the General will be a major player as the world transitions to electric vehicles. As for specifics, I expect that we'll learn more about the first of GM's upcoming electric vehicles over the next few months. 

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John Rosevear owns shares of Ford and General Motors. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Ford and Tesla. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.