Are legacy automakers claims of ambitious new EV plans just so much hot air?

Tesla gets a lot of criticism for missing deadlines and scaling back on promises. But guess what! The legacy automakers have always done the same, at least when it comes to their electric vehicle efforts. The buzz in the media these days is that Big Auto is finally getting serious about electrification, and will be cutting into Tesla’s market share...any day now.

Above: What happened, for instance, to BMW's "electrifying" plans that it touted a few years back? (Source: BMW)

GM has been rightly getting some good press for announcing an expansion of its battery development efforts. But how is the company doing at actually selling EVs? In October 2017, GM announced that it would release “at least 20 new EVs by 2023.” More recently, we heard that “GM is on its way to an all-electric future, with a commitment to 30 new global electric vehicles by 2025.”

How many EVs does GM have on sale or in development at the moment (two years from the first announced deadline)? Well, none right now, as the Bolt is temporarily out of production. The automaker is expected to have a new EV on sale very soon—the GMC Hummer, the least efficient EV ever built, and the epitome of “the worst impulses of the US auto industry.” Two or three more EVs are in the pipeline. The company brought not a single plug-in model to the recent LA Auto Show.

That’s not exactly a stellar showing for the company that President Biden recently said “electrified the entire automotive industry.”

How’s the EV revolution proceeding over in Dearborn? Ford has a strong new EV on the road in the Mustang Mach-E, and a couple of potential blockbusters (the F-150 Lightning pickup and the E-Transit commercial van) on the way. Ford is also wisely bulking up on battery production and recycling facilities.

Now the company has increased its planned EV production capacity to 600,000 vehicles per year by 2023. That sounds impressive (it would amount to a tenfold increase in Ford’s EV production in two years, a tall order even for an established automaker), but as Electrek’s Fred Lambert notes, it’s only 60% of Tesla’s current capacity, and Tesla probably won’t be standing still for the next two years. Ford previously said it planned to produce only 55,000 F-150 Lightnings in 2023—presumably that number is going to be revised upward as well.

What about the Volkswagen Group? It’s the most charged automaker east of California, and the only one that poses a credible threat to Tesla’s EV market share at the moment. The Financial Times, citing forecasts from Bernstein, IHS and, reports that “forecasts for six big car groups out to 2024 indicate that Volkswagen is the only legacy carmaker on track to overtake Tesla for EV production. While the others are expected to rapidly increase the number of EVs they sell, none will come close to rivaling Tesla.”

Bernstein predicts that the Volkswagen Group (including Audi, Porsche, SEAT and Skoda) will sell 450,000 EVs in 2021—far more than any of the Detroit crew can muster, but not yet in Tesla territory (the California carmaker hopes to sell around a million units for the year, and the Texas and Berlin Gigafactories are expected to start delivering product soon).

FT notes that Volkswagen’s Herbert Diess is the only incumbent CEO who seems to take Tesla seriously as a rival. Bernstein predicts that the Volkswagen Group will catch up to Tesla’s EV sales by early 2024. Of course, that assumes that Diess’s pro-EV vision prevails, which is not guaranteed. Diess has been facing challenges from within the company and its union, after some cavalier comments about the threat of job losses (if the company moves too slowly to electrify) and a controversial decision to invite Elon Musk to give a talk to VW execs.

For the past decade, the legacy brands have been talking big about their plans to electrify, throwing around terms like “commitment,” “all-in” and “market leadership.” So far, their words have proven to be mere wind. Are things going to be different this time around? We’ll see.

Tesla has certainly lit an electric fire under the chassis of the fossil-car builders, but we get the impression that they’re less concerned about Tesla’s production (which is still small in global industry terms) than about Tesla’s stock-market valuation (which is not small in any terms). The theory is that the more investors perceive that Big Auto is ramping up its EV efforts, the more Big Auto stock prices will rise—regardless of how many EVs the companies are actually selling.

Jalopnik recently expressed this dichotomy rather eloquently, saying that “building electric cars is only a small component of running a successful EV company in this day and age. Getting people to believe that you will be soon building many more EVs is critical.”


Written by: Charles Morris