LAS VEGAS -- Two of the world's largest automakers hit the stage at the planet's biggest technology confab here last week to talk about -- electric vehicles? Aren't those so 2011?
Chevrolet's Bolt EV and Volkswagen's BUDD-e concept were the stars of the two big automotive keynotes at the Consumer Electronics Show. But by the time General Motors CEO Mary Barra and VW brand chief Herbert Diess were done telling their respective audiences about all the whiz-bang features packed into their cars -- gesture controls, a rearview mirror with streaming video, a connection to the home thermostat -- the electric drivetrain was reduced to an afterthought.
Their keynotes highlighted just how far the very idea of electrification has come. Five years ago, the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf were one-off science experiments for geeks and greenies. Today, EVs are being baked into automakers' future vehicle strategies -- $2 gasoline and tepid sales be damned. Electrification is fast becoming just one piece of a broader showcase of connectivity and convenience as automakers try to find the right recipe for the future of urban mobility.
"The story is moving beyond electrification. It's just an enabler now for other coming trends," said Pam Fletcher, the executive chief engineer in charge of GM's electrification portfolio.
"The Bolt EV is really a purpose-built car for the sharing economy," Fletcher said. "That's a completely different story than 'Where are gas prices at?' Forget it. That's not the conversation anymore."
Of course, tightening fuel economy regulations and California's zero-emissions mandates are prodding automakers to develop EVs despite an ambivalent buying public. But GM and other companies are thinking beyond so-called compliance cars to offer practical daily drivers, increasingly with an eye toward a future in which EVs will be in high demand, says IHS Automotive analyst Egil Juliussen.
Once self-driving cars become a reality -- about a decade out, Juliussen predicts -- they will spawn urban mobility services that "will clearly favor EVs" over internal combustion engines because of pollution and EVs' lower operating costs, he says. "That's a big reason why you're seeing so much activity in the EV space even though the market so far has been a bit of a disappointment."
That suggests cars such as the Bolt EV eventually could feed the future self-driving vehicle network that GM plans to develop with ride-sharing company Lyft under a partnership announced last week.