General Motors gears up to ‘electrify’ GMC pickup trucks

With its CEO setting a goal of going 100 percent electric, General Motors is taking a close look at how, if not when, to offer an all-electric SUV, according to the head of the automaker’s GMC truck brand.

While it is not clear how far along such plans have come, GM would join a growing list of automakers looking to electrify some of their biggest and brawniest vehicles. A senior Ford executive just last week confirmed that an all-electric version of the F-series pickup is now in the works.

“Certainly, it’s something we’re considering,” Duncan Aldred, the vice president of the GMC brand, told CNBC when asked about the prospects of an all-electric version of the big Sierra pickup. While Aldred wouldn’t confirm if development is already underway, he pointed to comments made by GM CEO Mary Barra last March that the carmaker is on a “path to an all-electric future.”

An all-electric version of the GMC Sierra would all but certainly be accompanied by a battery-electric version of the more mainstream, albeit higher-volume Chevrolet Silverado, said David Cole, director-emeritus of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Both trucks share the same underlying platform, as well as conventional internal combustion powertrains. That would increase economies of scale and bring down the cost of developing and producing a battery drive system, several industry observers pointed out.

“They wouldn’t be saying this if they weren’t really confident about doing it,” Cole said. After having spent time at the GM battery lab recently, Cole said the automaker “wants to be at the forefront of battery-electric technology.”

But there are several key issues driving the company’s pace of product development, including the need for batteries that can both deliver better range and come down in price. When the Chevrolet Bolt EV launched in late 2016 product development director Mark Reuss — now GM’s president — said it had driven the cost of battery cells down to around $145 a kilowatt-hour. Cole said GM’s target is “lower” than $100, a figure that could put its future all-electric drivetrains close to parity with comparable diesel and gas technology. Battery cells generally cost between $150 to $200, according to estimates from researchers at Boston Consulting Group.

How soon that would happen is unclear. For his part, GMC chief Aldred told CNBC that battery technology still carries a fairly hefty premium that makes it difficult to target mainstream segments, unless a carmaker like GM is willing to accept lower margins. As a result, the executive said, automakers would likely target higher end products.

Pickups, on the whole, carry some of the highest profit margins in the auto industry, particularly some of those sold through the GMC brand. But the entire industry has been pushing pickups up-market, adding on more options and luxury touches to drive up the price. Ford is now offering a version of its F-Series loaded with luxury car features that carries a price tag nudging $100,000.

“It’s always a mistake to introduce a new technology on a lower-priced product,” said CAR’s Cole. “You have a better opportunity to cover costs if it’s on a high-end vehicle.”

Ford has not offered any details about the planned all-electric pickup that was announced by its president of global operations at a conference in Detroit last week. But Cole and others believe it will also target a premium, personal use segment of the market, rather than more traditional, commercial users, such as builders and contractors.

Detroit automakers continue to dominate the full-size pickup segment and offer a broader range of options, including powertrains, than import rivals. Company officials have not said whether the third domestic manufacturer, Fiat Chrysler, will also launch an all-electric model, though during a media event at the North American International Auto Show last week, CEO Mike Manley indicated the company will be expanding its electrified portfolio.

Whether Toyota and Nissan — the other two full-size truck manufacturers — will follow suit is unclear. But there will soon be new competition from several upstart brands. Tesla CEO Elon Musk previewed a prototype all-electric truck in 2017 and the company could have it ready to join current offerings like the Models S, X and 3 by sometime in 2020, he has indicated.

Then there’s Rivian, a suburban Detroit start-up that previewed its own full-size prototype at the Los Angeles Auto Show in November. If it lives up to its initial billing, the truck could match, and even exceed the expectations of many pickup buyers, in fact.

The company says it will deliver 400 miles of range, with four individual motors allowing for all-wheel-drive. The truck is expected to make “close to 800 horsepower,” Rivian CEO R.C. Scaringe said during a press conference at the show. He also said the R1T will be able to hit 60 in 3 seconds and tow up to 11,000 pounds. That would make the Rivian the world’s fastest pickup and give it towing capacity equal to some of the beefiest versions of the Ford F-150, GMC Sierra 1500 and Chevrolet Silverado 1500 now on the road.

Disclosure: Paul Eisenstein is a freelancer for CNBC. His travel and accommodations for this article were paid by General Motors.

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