The Terra News

How Did G.M. Create Tesla’s Dream Car First?

Farhad Manjoo




General Motors produces the Bolt EV at its existing production system at the Orion Assembly plant outside of Detroit.


Laura McDermott for The New York Times

ORION TOWNSHIP, Mich. — Ten years ago, a little-known tech entrepreneur named Elon Musk published a secret master plan for Tesla Motors, an ambitious electric car start-up he had funded.

Revolutionary technologies always start as impractical and expensive, Mr. Musk explained, so Tesla’s first car would be a two-seat roadster that sold for $110,000. But by plowing profits from that car into research and production capacity, Mr. Musk promised that Tesla would quickly create a series of cheaper cars in higher volumes, all toward an almost mythical aim: creating a long-range electric car that could travel more than 200 miles on a single charge, but that cost less than $40,000 for the privilege.

This year, Mr. Musk’s white whale — a car that will get 238 miles per charge, and will sell for about $30,000 after a federal rebate — will finally make it to the roads. Mr. Musk’s master plan has gone exactly as he promised, except for one tiny hitch.

A first affordable long-range electric car, which I drove last month and which blew my mind, is not a Tesla. I had to fly from Silicon Valley to Detroit to drive it because the vehicle was invented not by a celebrated start-up, but by that hoariest cliché of tarnished American manufacturing glory, Chevrolet, which is owned by General Motors.



Darin Gesse, the G.M. product manager for the Bolt, says the car has “a lifestyle focus, and it’s not just a commuter car.”


Laura McDermott for The New York Times

The car is the Chevy Bolt EV, a squat, wedge-shaped compact hatchback. It is an important car for G.M., and, in a larger sense, for the traditional auto industry. It demonstrates the seriousness with which automakers are taking the threat posed by start-ups that are promising to alter everything about the car business. Not only is the Bolt the first inexpensive long-range electric on the road, but it will also function as G.M.’s platform for testing new models for ride-sharing and autonomous driving.

The Bolt is also proof that, in the car industry, size matters — that even if they may be slow to come around to the latest tech, big automakers can alter the car business even more radically than Tesla has, purely as a function of their bigness.

Mr. Musk, the chief executive of Tesla and SpaceX, has made a habit of embarrassing his naysayers, but there are increasing signs that his little car-company-that-could is nearing the limits of its potential. This spring, Tesla unveiled its own low-priced car, the Model 3, which will sell for just under $30,000 after a rebate, and will go 215 miles on a charge, which is less than the Bolt. About 400,000 people have paid $1,000 to get on the waiting list for the vehicle, which Tesla says will begin shipping to customers in late 2017.