General Motors (GM) unveiled a surprise at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit: The Chevrolet Bolt, an all-electric car said to have a range of about 200 miles -- at a price around $30,000.
It's just a "concept" for now, meaning that GM hasn't announced plans to produce it. But there have been some big hints that the Bolt, or something very much like it, will arrive at Chevy dealers as a 2017 model.
With good range, a good price, cute styling, and an all-American nameplate, will the Bolt be the electric car that finally wins over the American mass market?
Electric-Car Sales Are a Tiny Part of the Overall Market -- for Now
Certainly, electric cars have attracted a lot of attention. And a few have racked up decent sales numbers. Nissan (NSANY) sold 30,200 copies of its battery-electric Leaf in the U.S. last year. Tesla Motors (TSLA) hasn't released its 2014 sales totals yet, but the Silicon Valley automaker probably sold about 33,000 examples of its Model S luxury sedan.
Those numbers are impressive for an automotive market segment that didn't really exist until a few years ago. But they pale against the size of the overall market. To take just one example, Ford (F) sold 753,891 F-Series pickups in the U.S. last year -- or an average of almost 63,000 a month.
Back in 2011, President Obama predicted that there would be 1 million electric cars on U.S. roads by 2015. That hasn't happened -- not even close. Why haven't more Americans rushed to buy electric cars?
The Big Reason Most Americans Have Shied Away From Electric Cars
Part of it is probably people's tendency to be cautious with new technology. But part of it is the cars themselves, or more to the point, their batteries.
Despite the millions and millions of dollars that have been invested in trying to make them better, electric-car batteries are still heavy, expensive, and limited in capacity.
%VIRTUAL-WSSCourseInline-947%All electric cars on the market represent compromises among those factors. The Leaf is compact and affordable, but its range is limited -- because its battery pack is limited in size. The Model S has great range, but it's big and heavy and expensive, because it's engineered (artfully) around a big, heavy, expensive battery pack.
President Obama's prediction assumed that we'd have better, less-expensive batteries by now. We don't. But after years of research, better batteries are finally on the horizon. The secret to the Bolt is a new type of battery being developed by GM partner LG Chem that promises to be more affordable than current options.
Likewise, Tesla and its partner Panasonic (PCRFY) are working on improved batteries that will be built in Tesla's "Gigafactory," under construction in Nevada. One of the premises behind the Gigafactory is that even if batteries aren't significantly improved over the next few years, the factory's scale will help bring costs down.
But even if battery-electric cars become more affordable, will enough Americans want them to make a difference?
Will Better Batteries Help Electric Cars Outpace Rival Technologies?
Electric-car advocates argue that battery-electric vehicles just make too much sense not to be widely adopted: They're clean, they're quiet, they can be recharged with electricity made from renewable resources like solar panels and windmills, and -- as Tesla has proven -- they can be stylish and fun to drive.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk says that his company is showing the way, proving that electric cars can be a "gotta-have" product that can work for mainstream customers (albeit well-heeled ones). With the Bolt, GM (an electric-car pioneer in its own right) is saying that it has received the message and is determined not to be left behind.
But right now, it's far from settled that battery-electric cars are the way forward. Toyota (TM) is making a huge investment in hydrogen fuel-cell technology. Ford (F), after a big initial push into the world of hybrids and electric cars, is focusing on wringing more power from ever-cleaner gasoline engines.
Most of the other automakers are hedging their bets in similar fashion, waiting to see which way the market goes. So will battery-electric cars like Chevy's Bolt win over the American mass market? It's still far from a sure thing.
Motley Fool contributor John Rosevear owns shares of Ford and General Motors. The Motley Fool recommends Ford, General Motors, and Tesla Motors. The Motley Fool owns shares of Ford and Tesla Motors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. Find out the easy way for investors to ride the new mega-trend in the automotive industry inour free report.