People examine a model EV in front of an image of rock formations
(Gary Cameron/Reuters)

The company announces plans to release 20 new electric vehicles by 2023.

Of the 10 million vehicles General Motors sold worldwide last year, only a fraction—about 14,000—were powered solely by electricity. The rest were fueled by gas and diesel, with tailpipes that pumped carbon emissions into the air. Now, the automaker is making a commitment to completely phase out those internal combustion engines.

“General Motors believes in an all-electric future,” said Mark Reuss, GM's head of product development, at a media event on Monday where the company announced plans to release two new electric vehicle models in the next 18 months—and a total of 20 by 2023.

That future “won’t happen overnight,” Reuss admitted, declining to estimate when GM will discontinue gas-powered vehicles entirely. But the company once famously blamed for killing the electric car did offer some details on its pathway towards a zero-emissions future: Some new models will be battery powered, while others will run on hydrogen fuel cells. GM also plans to release an electric heavy-duty truck, somewhat spookily called the Silent Utility Rover Universal Superstructure (SURUS), that could be used for anything from a delivery vehicle to an ambulance.

The battery models will build on the same technology in the Chevrolet Bolt, GM’s recently introduced mid-sized hatchback and its first real mass-market EV. Bolts cost $36,500 (before tax subsidies) and can drive up to 238 miles on each charge, and the model ranked as the fifth-highest selling plug-in vehicle on the market so far this year—but GM may be losing $9,000 for every one they sell, Bloomberg Businessweek estimated in 2016.

Experts speculate that GM is doubling down on electric to drive down that purchasing price. “The more of the vehicles we get out there, the more batteries we make, that’ll drive down cost of batteries, and that will drive down the cost of these components,” says David Reichmuth, senior engineer in the Clean Vehicles Program with the Union of Concerned Scientists.

GM’s latest sprint in the race to zero-emissions parallels moves by other auto industry players. Tesla, the high-tech darling of the EV  industry, has just released its own mass-market mid-size vehicle, the Model 3, which starts at $35,000 before incentives; it’s also promising an electric semi truck. Just this week, Ford launched “Team Edison,” an electric vehicle task force that aims to “think big” about the global landscape of EVs, and develop 13 new models in the next five years. Indeed, as the Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal has pointed out, most auto manufacturers have promised an ambitious EV rollout in the coming years.

The auto industry’s sharp turn down the electric highway comes at a time when the U.S. government is trying to pull the wheel in the other direction. In August, the Trump administration rolled back Obama-era emissions and regulations, making it easier to get traditional gas-guzzlers on the road. Internationally, however, the incentives are different. China’s government, which now controls the world’s largest automobile market, just announced a growing commitment to selling zero-emission passenger vehicles. Several European countries are planning on tightening gas and diesel regulations, with outright bans looming (France and Britain by 2040, Norway by 2025).

“[American automakers] are responding to the fact that the rest of the world is encouraging or requiring the transition to cleaner vehicles,” says Reichmuth. “They have all acknowledged in the statements that electric vehicles are the future—they all know that’s where the industry is going.”

Some U.S. states are defying the federal government with their own pro-EV regulations. This summer, California passed a Zero-Emission Vehicle mandate, requiring automakers who do business in the state to produce and sell battery or hydrogen-powered vehicles. Nine other states (Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Vermont) have followed suit, and more might follow, predicts Virginia McConnell, senior fellow at the environmental think tank Resources for the Future.

Carmakers are still sorting through some conflicting interests, says Reichmuth. “Traditional auto companies [like GM] have invested a great deal of research and effort into developing gasoline vehicles,” he explains. “So they have an interest in making sure those vehicles stick around, at least in the short-term.”

It’s worth remembering as well that even an all-electric vehicle fleet won’t eliminate all the greenhouse emissions associated with the transportation sector. EVs are only as clean as the power grid they plug into. The environmental effects of EV adoption, therefore, are also often distributed unevenly. The bad news is, transportation has overtaken electricity as the top source of climate-changing emissions in the U.S.; the good news is, power grids are getting greener, and by extension, so are EVs.

“Getting cleaner vehicles and switching to cleaner fuels is an important step, but to do that we need the vehicles,” says Reichmuth. “And so it’s incumbent on GM and other car companies to bring those vehicles to market, so we can clean up transportation.”

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