General Motors, the largest U.S. automaker and long a king of gas guzzlers, has a new aspiration: The corporation wants to stop selling gasoline and diesel vehicles by 2035.
The goal, announced on Thursday, is in line with GM’s recent actions indicating a desire to move away from internal combustion engines and invest heavily in electric vehicles, but it’s still a striking change for a company that has built much of its brand image and profits on SUVs like the Chevrolet Suburban and Cadillac Escalade.
GM’s push to eliminate tailpipe emissions is part of a larger plan by the company, also announced on Thursday, to get to carbon neutrality by 2040.
With the new timetable, GM joins Volkswagen as among the largest makers of gasoline vehicles to announce a fundamental shift to cut emissions. Analysts attribute the change to advances in technology that are making EVs more affordable and a global policy trend toward requiring companies to cut emissions.
GM’s announcement is “a big deal in the sense that you have now a single set of planning targets that apply to the entire company, and it’s timed very carefully to resonate with the important political debates that are happening right now,” said David Victor, an international relations professor at the University of California, San Diego and a co-chair of the Brookings Institution’s energy and climate initiative.
It probably is no coincidence, he said, that GM is aspiring to get to zero tailpipe emissions in the same year, 2035, that the Biden administration had identified as a target for several of its climate goals. Also, California Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an executive order last year saying the state would ban the sale of new gasoline and diesel vehicles in 2035.
GM’s 2035 target includes light duty vehicles, which are most of the cars, pickups and SUVs GM sells, but does not include heavy trucks.
GM is indicating that it wants to work with the administration and also wants help from the federal government to make sure the country has the charging infrastructure needed for such a major change, Victor said.
But there is some risk for GM, a company that has been a pioneer in EVs with the EV1 in the 1990s and the Chevrolet Volt in the 2010s, but that still gets nearly all of its sales from fossil fuel vehicles, and is far behind Tesla in appealing to current EV buyers.
“It’s an aggressive statement and it’s an aggressive target,” said Stephanie Brinley, an auto analyst for IHS Markit, about GM’s announcement, adding that “it’s a gamble” for GM to be so far out in front of many of its peers.
Part of the risk is that EVs still account for less than 2 percent of the new car sales in the United States, and competitors in the EV market are playing catch-up to Tesla.
But there also would be risks in not aggressively moving to EVs. The costs of batteries have been plummeting and are a few years away from reaching a level—about $100 per kilowatt-hour—in which an EV would cost about the same as an equivalent gasoline vehicle, according to BloombergNEF. The price trend means that EVs may soon be a better value than gasoline vehicles for many consumers.
GM had been ramping up its electric vehicle ambitions before this announcement. The company announced a new battery platform last year that has the potential to provide a longer range at a lower cost. Earlier this month, GM said it was increasing its planned investment in EVs to $27 billion and would introduce 30 new EV models by 2025.
The company is the largest automaker in the United States based on the number of cars and light trucks sold, and it is among the five largest in the world.
Mary Barra, GM’s CEO, said the carbon neutrality target is part of the company’s push for its operations to be in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement of getting to near zero emissions by mid-century.
“With these actions, General Motors is joining governments and companies around the globe working to establish a safer, greener and better world,” Barra said in a message posted to LinkedIn. “We believe that with our scale and reach we can encourage others to follow suit and make a significant impact on our industry and on the economy as a whole.”
But there are some big differences between GM’s carbon neutrality goal and actually getting to zero emissions. GM says it will use carbon capture technology to deal with the emissions it is unable to eliminate, and also will use at least some carbon offsets or credits. Offsets can include investments in tree-planting and other activities that reduce emissions.
GM’s new goals don’t apply to its suppliers, but the company said it will work with its vast supplier network to reduce emissions.
In light of GM’s announcement, Victor said he is eager to see what other leading automakers do that have not set such far-reaching targets, like Ford and Toyota. He expects some to follow GM’s lead and some to be much more cautious.
“What I see is the global auto industry fracturing,” he said. “It’s no longer Tesla and upstarts, kids in Birkenstocks smoking dope who happen to be making cars. This is the big kids who are getting crushed by those new entrants, and so you have this potentially complete reorganization of the industry.”