If heads turned when General Motors launched the new Cabrio mini electric car in China last fall, they must be spinning now. The company is banking on its Buick branch to push sales of the new 5-seat Electra E5 SUV in China. That’s a pretty cheeky move considering the 124-year-old brand’s association with bygone times here in the US, but GM trendspotters seem to have spotted an opportunity.
Building An Electric Car Brand For The Car Buyer Of The Future
Bygone times or not, GM has been giving the Buick nameplate an electrification makeover in recent years, with an eye on the car buyer of the future. The company also notes that China happens to be the largest single market for its Buick brand globally, so there’s that. GM began producing Buicks in China under the SAIC-GM venture in 1998 and has sold more than 10 million since then.
GM also revved up interest in its brand family last fall when SAIC-GM introduced the latest iteration of the Hong Guang MINIEV, the Cabrio two-seater, billing it as the first convertible EV in China. The Cabrio launch generated loads of media buzz for the already-popular Hong Guang brand.
“The Hong Guang MINIEV family is the best-selling NEV in China – the world’s largest NEV market – where it has now been No. 1 for 24 consecutive months,” GM noted last fall. “It has also been the No. 1 NEV in the world for seven months, with cumulative sales of over one million units since its launch in July 2020.”
“It is especially popular among China’s younger generation,” they add.
The Electra E5 SUV Ups The Ante On Electric Cars
Having secured a demographic segment ripe with first-time electric car buyers, GM apparently figured the time is ripe to have a scaled-up EV ready and waiting for trade-up.
“The large five-seat electric SUV is the first of an all-new generation of Buick EVs in China developed on the Ultium platform to reinforce the brand’s presence in the mainstream EV segment,” GM explained in a press release last month.
“The Electra E5 features Buick’s all-new EV design language along with segment-leading spaciousness and premium appointments. It will also stand out from the competition through leading technologies, including the latest generation of the Virtual Cockpit System and the enhanced Super Cruise driver assist system for intuitive control and intelligent driving,” they added.
GM also underscored battery safety for the Chinese market. The Electra 5 will “adopt local battery solutions tailored for China that support high thermal stability, low degradation and long battery life,” the company explained.
“With its advanced battery management system and leading battery protection technologies, the Electra E5 is designed to deliver higher levels of safety and reliability for EV mobility,” GM emphasized.
Thermal Stability And Electric Car Batteries
Concern over “thermal stability” comes up in the electric car field because lithium-ion batteries are the energy storage medium of choice, and the technology requires the use of flammable solvents. Of course, gasoline and diesel fuel are flammable, too, but, electric car fires tend to draw more media attention. That’s partly because they are still fairly new on the automotive scene, and partly because fossil energy stakeholders are happy to make political hay over the issue.
Here in the US, electric car fires are relatively rare, and not just because their sales numbers are low compared to conventional cars. A widely cited comparative study by the online insurance shopping website AutoinsuranceEZ.com indicates that hybrid and all-gasoline cars are much more likely to catch fire than all-electric cars.
In China, the situation has been sensitized in recent months with a significant jump in the number of electric car fires reported, which could explain why GM chose to highlight battery safety for the Electra 5 rollout.
Last April, Car News China observed that just 86 EV “fire accidents” were reported by Chinese media over the past two years, for an average of one accident per week.
“However, in the first quarter of this year, 640 electric vehicles caught on fire, a year-on-year increase of 32%, which is equivalent to an average of 7 electric cars caught on fire per day, according to the latest data released by the Chinese Fire and Rescue Department of the Ministry of Emergency Management on April 3 this year,” Car News China added.
GM All In On Better Batteries For Electric Cars
The Buick Electra 5 is based on GM’s Ultium EV battery platform, sparking rumors that the SUV could make its way over to the US market eventually.
When it does, chances are that the US version could sport a new silicon battery formula for the Ultium family. As a full or partial replacement for the graphite anodes used in conventional lithium-ion batteries, silicon paves the way for lighter, more efficient, less expensive electric car batteries.
Last year, GM doubled down on its interest in silicon energy storage under a hookup with the California company OneD Battery Sciences.
Meanwhile, GM also scored a $2.5 billion loan from the US Department of Energy to ramp up battery production here in the US.
In addition to support from the Energy Department, silicon is also getting some attention from the US Department of Defense. The US Army, for example, just put up $10 million in funding for silicon battery R&D.
Speaking Of Lithium …
There being no such thing as a free lunch, the transition from gasmobiles to electric cars has drawn more attention to the environmental impacts of lithium mining.
Last week, the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony and other tribes organized a march to raise awareness about lawsuits against Lithium Nevada Corporation’s proposed Thacker Pass lithium mine in northern Nevada. The open pit mine project includes two waste rock storage facilities, stormwater sediment and runoff ponds, accommodations for coarse gangue (valueless material), a sulfuric acid plant, a processing plant, and clay tailings filter stack (CTFS).
The fate of the proposed project is still in court. Oral arguments concluded on January 5. However, opponents have pointed out that the project was fast-tracked during the Trump administration, and that Lithium Nevada has already begun “digging test pits, bore holes, dumping gravel, building fencing, and installing security cameras where Native Americans often conduct ceremonies.”
“They are claiming this work is legal under previous permits issued over a decade ago. But Tribes and mine opponents, including the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony and Summit Lake Paiute Tribe, disagree,” the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony stated in a press release last week.
Michon Eben, the Reno-Sparks Tribal Historic Preservation Officer, stated that the site is “a sacred place where our ancestors lived and died.”
“We still go there to pray, gather food and medicine, hunt, and teach our youth about the history of our people,” he said, referring to a history that includes battles and massacres on the site.
Regardless of the outcome in Nevada, the Energy Department is already eyeballing more sustainable sources of lithium, including a new method for extracting lithium from geothermal brine.
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Photo (cropped): Electra 5 EV courtesy of GM.
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Source: Clean Technica