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Electric Vehicles

The Next Great Electric Vehicle Will Be Cheap

The race is on to build a game-changing affordable EV.

A very affordable electric vehicle.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

This occasion passed with much less fanfare than you might’ve expected, but Tesla (formerly Tesla Motors) turned 20 this month. Back then, Tesla’s co-founder — no, not the guy you’re thinking of — Martin Eberhard called the very few green vehicles on the market around that time “punishment cars.” Abysmal little things. Seemingly designed by and for people who didn’t think you should be driving at all, and nothing with any real appeal beyond a vague notion of saving the planet.

One of Tesla’s greatest victories was making EVs sexy and fast and desirable. Particularly with the Model S, a flashy luxury car that competed directly against the best from Mercedes-Benz and BMW. And it worked, eventually; almost every automaker has spent the last few years racing to catch up using the same playbook.

But what the rising EV industry needs now — what the world needs even more — is more EVs at the bottom of the market. And this time, they won’t even be the punishment cars that Eberhard hated so much.

There remain two major barriers to wider EV adoption. The first is making charging more widely available and less terrible, both at home and in public; that’s changing quickly thanks to huge government investments and market forces. Just this week, seven major global automakers announced they’d team up to do what Tesla did years ago by building a vast charging network across North America. It’s going to take years to fully materialize, but it’s progress nonetheless.

The other barrier — the greater one — is cost. There are reasons EVs have been so expensive, of course. Every new technology follows that trajectory. Batteries are hard to source and build, the factories to make them barely exist at the scale automakers need to drive down costs, and the capital costs involved with this electric reinvention is hard for Wall Street to swallow. (Ask Ford about that one.)

Especially in recent decades, car companies have spent considerable energy focusing on the top of the market — the most expensive cars where they can drive the biggest profit margins. But right now, the market is speaking in the other direction when it comes to EVs.

Just this week, General Motors hit reverse on a plan to kill off the Chevrolet Bolt. GM would previously say the Bolt was old, based on outdated batteries, unable to charge as quickly as modern rivals, and reportedly rather unprofitable. But tell that to the nearly 20,000 Americans who bought a Bolt or its crossover version in the first quarter of this year alone, spurred by the fact that they could get a car that used no gasoline and had great daily range for a mid-$20,000 price tag — or less, if you knew how to score a deal.

Evidently, GM has finally seen the light and decided that killing off yet another beloved electrified car with a lot of potential and a huge following was a bad decision. Now, CEO Mary Barra says, the Bolt will return using GM’s all-new battery setup for more modern performance and the “great affordability” its current customers love.

It’s a smart business decision: The automaker even says 70 percent of people trading a car in for the Bolt are new to GM. That’s not something a car company should give up. So if GM can finally get the Bolt to profitability — and maybe it can since the new Bolt will be using the built-at-scale Ultium batteries it’s using for every EV moving forward — it could win a market that barely even exists right now. A future, hopefully sub-$30,000 Chevrolet Bolt is going to be a huge deal.

So too is the new Volvo EX30, a small electric crossover with 275 miles of range, an IKEA-tastic minimalist interior built largely with recycled materials, and a compelling $34,950 starting price. I spent some time with the EX30 at its debut in New York this week, and it’s one of the more compelling and interesting EVs I’ve seen in a while. Coming from a more premium brand like Volvo, this will be no “punishment car,” and people at the Scandinavian car company say the demand for it is already far greater than they expected. “We operate from Japan to Brazil to the U.S. and Sweden. Everyone wants this car,” a Volvo rep told me.

Finally, there’s the company that’s both the EV market leader and the industry wild card: Tesla. CEO Elon Musk has long alluded to some kind of $25,000-ish car, possibly called the Model 2 or Model C. This would be absolutely crucial to Tesla’s take-over-the-world sales goals, and it would address one of the biggest criticisms of the company as of late, which is that it’s not working on new products. Now, the usual skepticism around a Musk declaration is warranted here — he has also claimed before that Tesla could build such a car and make it “fully autonomous.” But if anyone selling cars in the U.S. can pull that off at scale right now, it’s Tesla. And I would not call such a car, or a revamped Bolt, or this Volvo a “punishment car.” Just an affordable one.

Note my qualification above about selling here. China’s automakers are already pulling this off. Thanks to years of massive government investment and a laser focus on batteries and software over ICE powertrains, its EVs are incredibly advanced now — enough to spook a lot of other automakers. They’re making inroads into European countries and stealing market share there. Why? Not just because they’re good, but because they’re cheap, too.

Political tensions and stiff tariffs keep Chinese-made EVs out of our market for now, but that feels destined to change; automakers are already finding ways around that. That screaming-deal Volvo EX30? It’s made in China, and it’s part of how Volvo, which is owned by a Chinese automaker, can achieve those low prices, even with the tariff. I expect we’ll see more of that in the coming years.

How do they get the prices down from their $54,000 average sticker? Production at scale, batteries made from cheaper materials like lithium-ion phosphate, simplifying interiors and other components like Volvo has done, and rethinking production techniques like Tesla has done and Toyota’s about to try. There might even be an unexpected benefit to all of this: those cheaper EVs starting to emerge on the horizon? They’re generally going to be smaller, too. If people are enticed to try these cars by their price tags — maybe even as a second or third car, as Volvo thinks will be the case — they may realize they’ve been buying a bit too big for their needs. From a safety, infrastructure, and resource perspective, EV weight needs to go down. Maybe smaller, cheaper cars will help with that, but I’m reluctant to be too optimistic about it.

Then again, even RJ Scaringe, the CEO of $75,000 EV truck maker Rivian, gets it. His company’s next planned EV is a smaller, more affordable vehicle. “We hope that the R2 platform helps pull a lot of customers across that jump where I want to spend $45,000 or $40,000 in a vehicle,” he told Heatmap in an interview published this week.

I’d go even deeper than that and say that the next automaker who can figure out a truly great $25,000 EV, and build it at enough scale to be profitable, is going to have a game-changing hit on its hands. At this point, it’s not a question of if, but when — and from whom.

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Patrick George profile image

Patrick George

Patrick is a writer and editor in New York. The former Editor-in-Chief of Jalopnik and Editorial Director of The Drive, he covers the future of transportation.

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