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The REAL truth about the Chevy Bolt

[Se/Sn ratio: 2]

OK. Wow. This is like sitting down with a pile of string a herd of cats just got through fighting over — there have been threads all over the damned place about GM’s Chevy Bolt “versus” Tesla’s Model 3. All twisted up in knots and mostly going nowhere fast — very hard to sort through all of it.

So, since I’ve already written about Tesla:

…this post will focus on GM, and the Chevy Bolt.

Now please understand something from the get go: I am an electric vehicle advocate to the core. I *love* them. In fact, I never plan to drive another gas car for as long as I live — if I want to burn gas, I’ll go out behind my father’s house with his 1941 John Deere B…

This is a ’37, but you get the idea. Dad’s doesn’t have the spoke wheels in the back. Image:

…and do some donuts in the garden. [Note: dad wouldn’t be happy about that, maybe, but he plants too g#ddamned many sweet potatoes and string beans most times, and…well, you get the point.]

As I say, I love electric vehicles. More importantly, however, I’m an advocate of the progression to sustainable transportation — and facilitating it to the degree possible. That is why (if you’re anything like me — of the same of mind, anyway) by the time this post is over you’ll either have a sinking feeling in your chest or you’ll be ready to call me a conspiracy theorist.

The truth is nothing like it seems.

The Chevy Bolt in all its sordid glory. Image:

For one, the Bolt isn’t an electric car.

Wait, what?!

Hear me out. Just hear me out for a minute.

Now sure, the car has an all-electric drivetrain. It doesn’t take petrol and it doesn’t have a tailpipe (contrast with its hybrid cousin, the Chevy Volt.) The Bolt also has an array of lovely standard features you’ll find only in an all-electric car: Things like a good-sized battery and an AC/DC charging port (hybrids curiously never have ports in DC.) It’s also got a trace of that it must be an electric vehicle look to it.

Beyond all that though, the Chevy Bolt isn’t really an electric car.

Well, at least it isn’t really an effective tool to help forge the sustainable future. And don’t kid yourself, GM isn’t using it for that purpose.

You just got snookered. *AGAIN*

Now I’m sure you’re all flummoxed and ready to bluster your way into another amygdala-fueled rage at me for questioning the very core of your most foundational inner beliefs — however, a shovel is not a mallet just because you can pound a wooden stake into the ground with it.

Nor is a tool for meeting ‘obnoxious’ requirements or hurting one’s competitors an electric vehicle just because it looks and acts and smells and drives like one.

So now we get to the REAL truth of the matter.

The truth is, I don’t hate the Bolt.

I hate GM for posturing. I hate them for being disingenuous. I hate them for the little white (green?) lies. I hate them for not trying. *AGAIN.*

I hate them for fooling you once…with the EV1…and now going right ahead and fooling you AGAIN.

Figuring — as they absolutely have — that it’s worth crapping out a few thousand Bolts while Tesla frantically tries to meet the overwhelming demand for the 3. Why not pretend to flex your manufacturing muscles? You know, even though you aren’t prepared to make (and especially not *to sell*) anything close to 50,000 electric vehicles in a year. Even though you’d lose FAR too much money doing that.

You think GM is doing it out of the goodness of their hearts?

You think Mary Barra all of a sudden turned over a new and greener Leaf? You know, because they’ve been shining examples of excellent corporate average fuel economy — far in excess of the standards they are REQUIRED BY LAW TO MEET.


You got snookered, plain and simple.

Sure, the Bolt is an EV — it’s not even a bad one. Only that’s hardly the point. At least it’s hardly the point for people who actually care about the environment. The Bolt just allows GM to sell a few more pickup trucks — and game the system for a little while longer. Banking as many ZEV credits as they possibly can until the so-called ‘travel’ provision of the rules expires this year. All while their production-wide average fuel economy remains more or less exactly equal to what it has to be.

It’s all about the green, and I’m not talking about grassy fields and oak trees.

GM has been the LEAST green manufacturer one year after another (2012 and 2013 are two excellent examples — easily viewed here: [1]) If you don’t believe me, or don’t feel like you can trust Jay Cole, InsideEVs, or the California Air Resource Board, you can at least check GM’s own website [2]:

“Last year, GM had record sales of crossovers, large SUVs and pickups.”

GM has long been the company most willing to substitute the first green for the second. Now you might say, “Well, that’s capitalism, that’s as it should be. Money should give you a certain freedom to buy your way out of problems — I mean, if you’re willing to pay to clean it up, it’s okay to spill ten or twenty million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound every now and then. Accidents happen, you know?” Unfortunately, this isn’t even an accident. It’s an unwillingness to comply with the spirit of the regulations. It’s insincerity as I keep trying to tell you. Care to speculate as to where the money for weaseling their way through those rules comes from? Care to reflect at all about how the actual value of GM products necessarily has to go DOWN — all else remaining equal — when they fudge their way through regulations like that? Why they’re compelled by that very same capitalist premise to make marginally more profits off worse performers in order to make up for the costly annoyance of pesky regulations? It’s the same reason why automakers like Porsche don’t even bother gaming it — they just pay the fine and pass the (negative) savings on to the customer by duping them into believing their cars are worth the premium on the sticker: But, it’s a PORSCHE!

Among GM’s most profitable vehicles are its Chevrolet Suburban and Silverado lines. These are also among the most catastrophically wasteful (and popular) vehicles in the U.S. passenger fleet, and though calculations of U.S. corporate average fuel economy take their per-mile economy into account by using a harmonic mean rather than an arithmetic mean when determining overall compliance to CAFE standards, they DO NOT take estimated vehicle life into account. So even though Suburbans in particular are well known to be less than reliable, they’re also known to be readily fixed and very long lasting — which is ultimately what matters. As a result, GM — the company people keep defending for ‘being on the forefront of the EV generation’ — is ironically the company which effectively pollutes the very most over the lives of their vehicles.

And you bought it. Hook, line, and sinker.

No one at GM cares that your Bolt is destined to drop like a stone in value over the next two years and wind up being member of an entirely dead product line after that. [Remember the Pontiac Aztec?] Both because of the stratospheric replacement cost of the weakly warranted battery and because no one in their right mind will want one once Tesla finally puts the base Model 3 into production: A mere six months from now give or take. Stop lying to yourself for the eleven seconds it takes to realize “it’s never going to arrive” is nothing but a bunch of crap, and stop giving guys like me the lame excuse that you absolutely had to have a new car right away. Because it’s only a miniscule fraction of people who traded in a beater car on its last leg for a car with an MSRP of $38,000 and you and I both know it. Elon didn’t “force your hand” by delaying production — you just coughed up a bunch of money you should have rewarded to Tesla for actually trying in favor of a company that convincingly pulled the wool over your eyes. For a second time.

So no, I don’t hate the Bolt. I’m just a realist.

I just know that the Bolt’s 60 kWh main battery was listed last year at a replacement cost of a staggering $15,734.29 and that even replacing the larger 85 kWh Model S battery more than 5 years ago was less than that (~$12,000.) [3]

Q: Why is GM listing their battery at 85.8% higher per unit capacity than Tesla was FIVE YEARS AGO?

A: Because either a) they can’t afford to sell it for less, b) they’re trying to stifle interest in the car because it isn’t profitable on a per unit basis, or c) they’re using the PlayStation 3 approach: give away the system at cost and then make the real profits off replacing batteries which you’re already warning “may only have 60% capacity at 100,000 miles.”

Good lord, where does it really stop with these guys?

Maybe here:

GM is engaged in predatory pricing—taking an upfront loss on every unit they sell and leveraging the value of ZEV credits against that loss.

GM didn’t ‘swoop in’ with a paltry 23,000 Bolt sales in 2017 to somehow ‘save the day’ because Tesla dropped the ball. They took a calculated loss of over $200 million last year alone on Bolt sales (more than that if you consider full unit production) in an attempt to kill the metaphorical baby in its crib.

Though this time it wasn’t their own baby. It was the neighbor’s baby.

This is Tesla. Kindly neighbor GM is keeping a watchful eye on him. Image:

In 2017 — and continuing into 2018 — GM took an on-paper loss of roughly $9,000 per Bolt and converted it into banked ZEV credits that they’ll be able to use until about 2021 rather than having to buy a bunch of credits off a marketplace Tesla has consistently dominated for the past six years. Fact.

Does it irk Tesla? You bet it does. And you don’t have to take my word for it on that either:

Here’s what Elon had to say [4][emphasis mine]:

That’s why you shouldn’t ask like why, well, GM appears to be losing $10,000 a car on the Bolt. No, they’re not. They are making it up on CARB credits. But they get the full retail value of the CARB credit, whereas we get the wholesale value when we’re lucky. But the CARB credits are only effective at a production rate of about 20,000 to 30,000 vehicles a year. So that’s why you’ll see, mark my words, it’s not going to be any higher than that for the Chevy Bolt. That’s on order of 25,000 units a year, or 0.10% of our initial production rate for the Model 3, or (~5%) of what Model 3 will be next year.

Translation from Elonspeak:

GM is only building and selling the base minimum number of EVs they need to in order to zero out their balance sheets with respect to these ‘highly annoying’ regulations. You can see that by the precipitous fall in Volt sales as well. You can think it’s because GM devotees switched from the one model to another, and in many cases you’ll be right. However, that doesn’t change the fact that GM ultimately determines what it builds, and therefore GM determines what it sells — and that, my dear friends, is determined based on the credits they need, not on wistful dreams of a cleaner future for the world.

They’re not green *AT ALL.* They’re just competent with a paintbrush and a gallon or two of Sherwin-Williams Forest #0E-315.


Just check the so-called ‘travel’ rules on ZEV credits — an aspect of the program due to be phased out in 2018. In conjunction with the ‘banking’ provision, they basically mean that legacy automakers have a heightened incentive to produce electric vehicles only through the end of this year — because it’s only through the end of this year that the ‘pinball multiplier principle’ is in effect.

The travel rules allow manufacturers to claim far more ZEV credits than Tesla per EV sold — which is prima facie absurd. They’re essentially a gimme worked into the program by lobbyists who fought hard to delay the conversion to electrics. A mulligan. A free pass to delay the crossover — a means to ensure that the MINIMUM required increase in low emissions vehicle production is also the MAXIMUM they have any direct incentive to institute.

Here’s what the Union of Concerned Scientists has to say [emphasis mine]:

The travel provision allows automakers to receive credits in all other ZEV states for vehicles sold in California, proportional to the vehicles sales in the states. For example: if a car company sells a two credit ZEV in California, they receive two credits in a ZEV state that has the same sales as California and one credit in a state with ½ the sales of California. They receive the credits in all ten states (California plus nine others) despite only selling one vehicle (in California).

Here’s what that looks like in a chart:

How automakers game the ZEV system and leave Tesla holding a bagful of ZEV credits which are of limited usefulness to it.

The above chart shows the rough proportional population of the ZEV states, and uses an estimate of 5.5% of those people purchasing a new car yearly to calculate approximate total sales data. This concurs with the typical average new car sales in California of about 2 million units. If 1% of those cars in California are EVs, that would result in a production of 69,573.5 ZEV credits (presuming each was a long-range EV — worth 3.3 credits each.)

Now assume that these figures exclude Tesla sales. The manufacturers could claim 163,417.6 ZEV credits (234.9% as many) by selling all of their EVs in California and none anywhere else (i.e. the grey numbers don’t need to be EVs at all.) They would get 7.75X as many credits as the number of EVs they build merely by concentrating sales in California. Perhaps even worse, instead of actually building 1% of their vehicles as EVs, in this example they’ve only built 0.43% of their vehicles as EVs — which matters a lot to companies which tend to either lose money or barely profit at all from EV sales.

And they do this in practice.

No, they hardly bother trying to sell no electric vehicles at all in the other ZEV states, but virtually all of them sure as hell discourage it. Or haven’t you seen the glorious nationwide charging networks they’ve worked hard to deploy in order to encourage buyers outside California to make the transition?

What’s that you say? You can’t see them?

Maybe that’s because they aren’t there.

Feeling stupid yet? Feeling like you’ve been had? As they say, fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on ME.

Tesla obviously only builds electric cars—and as such can’t use the multiplier *AT ALL.* It doesn’t matter where Tesla sells its cars — they still only get 3.3 ZEV credits per car (presuming we’re talking about a Model S —remember, the number of credits is dependent on the vehicle’s range.) Is that fair? I’d say it’s hardly fair. I’d say it games the system in favor of manufacturers who build a smaller percentage of electric vehicles versus those who build a larger percentage — because it is literally impossible to deny that ZEV credits have a tangible (albeit a volatile) value.

Why should companies making a tiny percentage of EVs get MORE credits per EV they build rather than LESS?

So Tesla gets fewer of them AND the ones it gets are of a lower value, because so long as the other manufacturers are in compliance with the letter of the rule (not the spirit) the ZEVs are of limited — potentially even zero — value to Tesla.

The fact is, the rules essentially allow any manufacturer to meet its entire requirement for ZEV credits across the board merely by selling a few extra reduced emission vehicles in California. And that doesn’t even mean making up 4.5% (this year’s required percentage) of its sales in California with ZEVs — because that percentage is comprised of yet another multiplier: the number of credits per car.

That’s the reason why, even though most people hardly view an 84 mile range Nissan Leaf to be a usable car — the regulations effectively value it as 1.8 zero emissions vehicles.

Now I know what you’re thinking: “Well that’s just absurd! That can’t POSSIBLY be true.” I wish it weren’t true, but it is. I really wish an electric car was an electric car was an electric car.

I wish they were all just as equal as a lot of you still seem to think they are.

Unfortunately, they’re not. Unfortunately, the ZEV system — while it is no doubt somewhat useful to the expansion of electric vehicles in a direct sense — actually hurts Tesla dramatically because it allows con artists like the folks at GM to engage in predatory pricing as I pointed out above. It very mildly compels them to ramp up EV production — and at least GM has been clever enough to use that requirement to hack ever so slightly into Tesla’s expected sales:

Why not sell some EVs at a loss, provided it allows us the ability to continue to sell more Suburbans for longer?

Had they actually made a seriously compelling car, and had they been able to do so profitably, it might have been game over for Tesla. Since they still lose money per unit and cannibalize their own sales when it comes to GM loyalists whenever they make EVs versus any other car, they couldn’t really kill Tesla off quite as easily as they killed the EV-1.

A fairer approach to this would obviously be to tie credit accumulation to the ZEV percentage of the total vehicles sold. If the goal is truly to encourage the cleanup of our passenger vehicle fleet, then surely companies should be rewarded significantly more for having higher percentages of ZEVs in their fleets faster rather than being penalized for the same. Instead, the rules are relaxed at every turn — ensuring that manufacturers get maximum credit for minimal progress. And the worst part of it, as I’ve already explained, is that it allows unscrupulous manipulation to demonstrably hurt the company that’s driving the progression to EVs almost completely on the strength of its own back.

You want to drive a Bolt? Go ahead. By all means. You want to think that by doing so you’re doing right by the environment? Think again.

You think no-net-improvement to overall emissions somehow becomes a net improvement because you’re only looking at the backside of your own vehicle? You think it helps anything to buy an electric vehicle from a company which is selling it to you merely because it allows them the freedom to sell a few more Suburbans? Especially when doing so all but guarantees you’re not going to buy a car from a company that doesn’t play games like that?

You’re not thinking very clearly if you do.

What you ought to do is turn your nose up to ANY electric car that is made by a company which sells 99%+ petrol burners in favor of a company that sells nothing by electrically-powered vehicles. Buy an Arcimoto. Take a look at the Electra Meccanica Solo. Remember WheeGo and Think? Ah, I see. You’re too timid to foster a bit of competition in the automotive business, are you? You think Detroit will sort it out just fine without much market pressure from you. Marvelous!

Too impatient to wait for a Tesla, and too timid to risk buying an unproven (a.k.a. a non-Big Auto) electric car, but still want to claim you’re an environmentalist to the core?

Sell me another line, because I don’t buy nonsense quite as easily as you do. You’re the one who’s living in fantasyland, not me.

Do you really think GM execs aren’t wise to what’s going to happen when Tesla takes over the lion’s share of the affordable electric sedan market — especially in the U.S.? Do you think they’re somehow unaware of how much of the luxury market Porsche, BMW, Mercedes, etc. coughed up to Tesla? Most of which came due to a single model of car, the Model S.

Are they unaware that as of last year, Tesla had reached a staggering 45% of plug-in vehicle sales in the U.S. — up from 31% in 2016, as reported here [1]

Image: InsideEVs, reference below

They don’t realize the $hitstorm that’s on the horizon, right?


They ARE wise to all this, whether you accept it or not. They ARE trying to buy some green loyalty by — ostensibly, at least — being ‘first out of the gate.’ They DO know that Tesla owners are an incredibly loyal bunch, and that GM has a reputation for building cars that really aren’t quite up to snuff with manufacturers like Toyota and Honda. They can’t afford to lose customers who won’t ever come back. They also know that for a company which raked in $11 billion in profits worldwide last year, it’s better to lose $9000 on every EV sold than to let an upstart competitor gain that amount on selling theirs. They needed the ZEV credits anyway.

GM execs know that a good deal of their brand loyalty revolves around being an American automaker, but that isn’t going to be enough when it comes to Tesla — which in many ways is even more American than GM.

The EV market is rising, and it will not stop rising until it reaches 100%. That is a fact. The only questions are:

  1. how fast is it going to rise?


2. is Tesla going to be a part of it?

I have no doubts Tesla will, but is GM hoping for that?

Answer seriously, please. Use your noggin on it.

The answer is NO. A rather BIG f#cking NO at that. I’m not going to break down the financials associated with it. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that Tesla is posed to take at the very least 10% of the all-electric market long term, and that means every other automaker will have to cough up, on average, 10% of their share.

And GM is going to cough up far more than that, if I make my guess. If you measure it based on their global profits this past year, that’s a billion dollars of profits every year that they’re eventually going to lose solely due to Tesla if the latter company survives infancy.

There are a lot of people still hoping that it doesn’t survive. And people constantly get on my case for pointing that out, and trying to illustrate a nuanced argument about how you can like the Bolt but you STILL SHOULD NOT SUPPORT GM. Because an oath to a liar is no oath at all. You should STILL avoid buying the Bolt as much as you possibly can, and hold out for as long as you possibly can to give relative newcomer Tesla the best shot of success you can.

Besides, do you really want to come out of Trader Joe’s six months from now, find a base Model 3 sitting next to your Chevy Bolt in the parking lot and be compelled to sound cheerful when you’re talking to the owner even though you’re wishing you’d have waited?

Imagine…just imagine…

Those are just facts, folks. I’m sorry if you can’t handle them, and I’m sorry if you’re one of the people who bought the Bolt and who erroneously think I’m dissing your car.

Because I’m not.

I’ve test driven the Bolt twice (and the Cadillac CTS, and the Volt, and the Model S, and the BMW i3, and the Mitsubishi MiEV, and the Volkswagen E-Gold, and the Mercedes B-Class, and the Kia Soul EV, and the Fiat 500E, and the Leaf, and probably a couple others I’ve forgotten) and it’s a good car.

I’m an EV enthusiast — if I weren’t I wouldn’t have driven a 2013 Leaf over 43,000 miles on a single road trip — I think everyone should be driving an electric. But I also think if you’re measuring Tesla on the same yardstick you’re measuring other automakers, you’re making a big mistake.

It doesn’t matter that the Bolt is a good car. In fact, as those who hear me talk about this topic frequently tell me, it’s a better car than basically any gas car out there, and (in my view) better than any hybrid (which I think you know I’ve already defined as ANYTHING that has a tailpipe — even if it frequently pretends to be an electric car.) It doesn’t even matter whether the Bolt is a good ELECTRIC car, though it’s probably that, too.

What matters to the world — to the future — and what matters to those of you who are interested in buying electric vehicles for the very reason that they’re better for the environment — at least what SHOULD matter — is how your choice can and perhaps will impact choices in the long run. What matters is whether you go out into the community thinking you’re doing right by urging people to buy a Bolt versus getting behind a company which still *might* have a smaller chance of success than does GM — because you’re not if you do. You’re only delaying the process even more, and you’re not actually affecting a net reduction in carbon emissions, either, because while you’re happily driving your Bolt, three more people are puffing along in their Chevy pickups.

An electric car is no more a tool for a bright and sustainable future than a shovel is a mallet, so don’t conflate the two. Stop pretending that all electric vehicles are created equal, that all contribute more or less equally to the climate fight — if that’s what you’re in it for — or that the companies building them have “more or less” the same philosophies as the people driving them.

None of those things are the same, and I’m rather tired of hearing EV enthusiasts make statements that are only true if only they existed in the world:

“Driving a Bolt (or Clarity) today is better for the environment than burning fossil fuels while you wait for a future ideal.”

or chiding me to

“…encourage people to embrace all EVs.”

So the real truth about the Bolt? The real truth is it makes me a little bit mad.

I’m bothered by the fact that ostensibly intelligent individuals can’t see their way clear to develop a nuanced understanding of what the electric vehicle market looks like today, and what its future prospects look like.

Until they do, driving an EV won’t matter nearly as much as it could.