Who’s Winning America’s Electric Vehicle Race?

 

A tsunami of electric vehicles is set to arrive on US shores in the next few years. Practically every automaker around the world, from small boutique operations to goliath multinationals is hard at work developing battery-powered cars and trucks. But among America’s traditional manufacturers, who’s winning the EV race?

The old guard

GM, Ford and Stellantis (Chrysler, if you prefer), Detroit’s Big Three automakers, are each spending vast sums of money to design and manufacture next-generation cars and trucks. GM is set to shell out more than $35 billion by 2025 to develop electric and autonomous vehicles. Through 2026 — the year it expects to produce more than 2 million EVs — Ford is on track to spend some $50 billion globally on the technology. As for Stellantis, this amalgamated American/French/Italian concern plans to invest around $32.5 billion (30 billion euros) in electrification and software through 2025.

American automakers are practically all-in on EVs, but plenty of their rivals are spending big bucks, too, from BMW and Mercedes-Benz, to HyundaiNissanVolkswagen and Volvo. For the purposes of this article, however, to keep it from dragging on for days, we’re focusing primarily on the Detroit Three.

The Tesla effect

But you can’t talk about EVs without mentioning a certain company with an eccentric CEO and cult-like following. “There’s no question Tesla’s winning the race right now, by a wide margin,” said Michelle Krebs, executive analyst at Cox Automotive. This organization keeps track of the most-shopped electric vehicles, and she said this company’s products absolutely dominate the list. “It’s going to be tough for anyone to catch up with Tesla,” admitted Krebs.

Aside from strong sales, this American automotive upstart also leads when it comes to market capitalization — being worth a record-breaking $1 trillion — and mindshare. “Tesla, whether you want to give them the credit or not … [created] the modern EV market,” said Edward Sanchez, senior analyst at Strategy Analytics. He noted that the Model S “flipped the script” and proved electric cars could be sexy, desirable and luxurious.

But not all is perfect in Musk-land. The company’s been dogged by longstanding quality problems, it’s facing labor woes at manufacturing plants, and is suffering from a lack of promised new products — where’s the Cybertruck, Roadster and Semi? No new launches are expected in 2022 and likely for part of 2023, so the automaker’s lead will likely erode as more and more rival electric vehicles start showing up at dealerships. During the company’s recent first-quarter earnings callElon Musk promised its robotaxi will be ready by 2024, but forgive us for not believing him.

A classic rivalry

If Tesla is miles ahead of the competition, who’s trundling along in second place? Sanchez said, “It’s a very dynamic space,” one that’s “hard to armchair quarterback” because the situation changes from year to year and even month to month. Still, right now, he sees Ford pulling ahead, something echoed by other analysts.

According to Bob Gritzinger, editor-in-chief of Wards Auto, “Right now, for all appearances, Ford is in the lead. Give it a minute and I think you’re going to see GM jump [ahead] in a hurry.” The Blue Oval put some distance between itself and other domestic car makers, thanks to hit products like the Mustang Mach-E SUV and F-150 Lightning pickup, both of which are sold out, a happy problem for Ford, if not its customers. Still, the battery-powered E-Transit commercial van shouldn’t be forgotten, either. “That’s another win, an early win for Ford,” said Gritzinger, as is the hot-selling Maverick compact truck, which is not offered as a pure EV but comes standard with a hybrid drivetrain.

Of course, it remains to be seen whether it’s as well optimized as pickups built on dedicated EV platforms, but Ford was super smart getting the F-150 Lightning out as soon as possible. All-electric rigs like the Lightning could be absolute gamechangers and the Blue Oval has a huge advantage in this space right now.

One potential area of weakness for Ford, though, is Lincoln. The luxury brand is aiming for more than half of its global sales to be EVs by the middle of this decade, but almost nothing is known about the vehicles it plans to introduce. Lincoln did, however, just show off its new Star concept, a handsome SUV design study that previews some of the features and styling cues we can expect on the four EVs it plans to introduce by 2026. Fortunately, it sounds like we won’t have to wait too much longer to learn about Lincoln’s electrification strategy.

“Ford is definitely beating GM on sales and shopping data,” said Krebs, leveraging its early-to-market advantage. GM has a lot planned, but it has to execute and avoid having issues like it did with the Chevy Bolt hatchback and its combustible battery pack, something Sanchez said severely humbled the automaker.

“There’s no denying Ford’s strategic advantage with Mach-E, being an early mover,” noted Sanchez, but GM has a torrent of new EVs in the works, an unprecedented onslaught that has only just begun. The GMC Hummer EV Pickup is finally available and the Cadillac Lyriq SUV entered production about a month ago. Beyond those models, an all-electric Chevy Silverado is in the works, as are Blazer and Equinox utility vehicles as well as a Hummer SUV and even a new flagship-caliber electric luxury sedan, the Cadillac Celestiq. “My concern with GM is they’re kind of almost going overboard,” Sanchez said.

GM’s much-publicized Ultium platform is set to underpin these upcoming vehicles, and many more. A relatively plug-and-play affair, “They’re investing in one technology they’ll be able to spread across the entire portfolio,” explained Paul Waatti, manager of industry analysis at AutoPacific. With shared underpinnings, GM can bring a load of vehicles to market without doing a lot of costly and time-consuming reengineering work. Compared to Ford, Waatti said, “I think GM is a couple years ahead on the technology curve,” though Ford is “catching up quick.”

Stellantis: The dark horse

While those two automakers duke it out, the other leg of the Detroit Three stool is quietly plugging away in the shadows. “I think the dark horse in all this is Stellantis,” said Gritzinger. “They’ve done a lot of work with hybrids and with their 48-volt system,” he added. “I think they will be surprisingly strong once they start putting product out there, in large part because they’re a European company and Europe is going 100% EV.” Historically, Chrysler has almost always been smaller than its main rivals, but it’s scrappy and willing to take risks, something that could give it a leg up in the electric vehicle space.

Sanchez said Stellantis is probably behind its major domestic rivals in EV technology, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing as “they’re kind of taking advantage of the early adopters paying the price.” As electric vehicles start to gain traction, the cost of batteries and related technologies should come down, which would be great for Stellantis. “Sometimes it’s not always the worst thing to be late to the game,” said Sanchez.

According to Waatti, AutoPacific forecasts that EVs will capture about 15% market share by 2027, something that leaves a ton of room for other propulsion systems, like plug-in hybrids. “Stellantis is probably taking that strategy, mostly because they’re behind on straight-EV technology,” he said. Plug-ins, like the new Jeep Grand Cherokee 4xe, give customers the best of both worlds: Silent, emissions-free (from the tailpipe, at least) motoring with the ability to drive cross-country without needing to charge. At least in the near term, this should be a good plan for Stellantis, “[and] from a business standpoint,” explained Waatti, “They’re making money on these right away.”

It may not be as sweeping as Tesla’s, but another potential advantage for Stellantis is its passionate fan base. Sanchez said even though the Dodge Charger and Challenger are absolutely ancient, their sales continue to grow. “If they can somehow leverage that enthusiasm for their EV models, they could surprise everyone.”

Don’t forget the smaller companies

Beyond Tesla and its Detroit rivals, a range of new independent automakers has come out in recent years. This old-school term was used decades ago to describe now-defunct brands like Hudson, Packard, Studebaker and Willys, but it works just as well in the 21st century. Today’s independent makes include the likes of FiskerLucid and Rivian, companies that are focused solely on building EVs. BollingerLordstown Motors and Nikola are in the same camp, too, though, for various reasons these brands have largely failed.

Whether any startup automakers will succeed remains to be seen. Waatti said they don’t have the baggage legacy companies do, plus they’re “something new and exciting,” which could translate into more sales, though as Krebs noted, it’s way too early to tell if any of these brands will take off.

This isn’t to say today’s EV independents aren’t doing some great work. “I think Lucid, from a technological standpoint … I would consider them probably the closet peer to Tesla,” said Sanchez. The company’s Air sedan is not only beautiful and luxurious, it’s loaded with clever features and offers storming performance. “[But] the big thing with Lucid is how quickly they can scale, that’s the determining factor,” Sanchez added.

Exciting times in the automotive industry

We’re living in a transformative period as the car industry shifts from internal combustion to electric powertrains. Right now, Tesla is the undisputed American EV champion, a position it will likely maintain for some time. Waatti predicts, “They’re still going to be the powerhouse into the end of the decade.” But as more and more electric vehicles come out, Tesla’s market share will almost inevitably decline. When GM’s EV salvo hits, plus battery-powered offerings from myriad other companies, “All of a sudden, there’s a lot of competition in your part of the sandbox,” said Gritzinger.

As for the Detroit Three, it seems Ford is leading the electric vehicle race right now, thanks to its speedy introduction of the Mach-E and Lightning, vehicles that proved to be extremely popular. GM, however, probably has a technological advantage and could overtake its rival in the coming years once its flurry of new products launches. Of course, Stellantis is hard at work, too, and it’s made some big promises, including the introduction of four dedicated EV platforms, though the finer details of its electrification plan are a little murkier. As Krebs said, aside from Tesla’s dominance in the EV space, “The race has only begun.”

By Sarah Seavey
Sarah Seavey