By Chuck Squatriglia for Wired Autopia
It makes sense that a company called General Electric would be bullish on cars with cords. But even by that standard the company is diving into the deep end, with what it says will be the biggest order ever placed for electric vehicles.
Of course, almost any order would be the biggest order, but CEO Jeffrey Immelt isn’t screwing around. Speaking in London yesterday, he said GE will order “tens of thousands” of electric vehicles in about a week, a move that is sure to jump-start the nascent EV market as automakers like Nissan and General Motors bring the cars to showrooms later this year.
The plan makes sense for several reasons.
First and foremost, General Electric builds the equipment that provides one-third of the world’s electricity, so of course it will do everything possible to promote the technology. GE is moving quickly into the EV space, building charging stations and working with A123 Systems to develop batteries. According to Bloomberg, Immelt says about half of the company’s sales force of 45,000 employees will drive electric vehicles. That will go a long way toward raising public awareness of the technology. And don’t forget that GE Capital has a vehicle-leasing division.
“GE has been one of the biggest players in this game and certainly has a lot to gain from the electric vehicle,” Brett Smith, a vehicle technology analyst at the Center for Automotive Research, told Bloomberg. “They’ve really truly tried to push this hard to get things going, and it seems to be a core corporate value.”
Immelt didn’t specify a timeline for when the purchases would be made, nor did he identify which manufacturer(s) would receive the order. Smith told Bloomberg an order of that size would be filled by several companies. But our money is on Renault-Nissan getting the bulk of it.
GE and Better Place recently announced a “technology and financing partnership” to develop public charging infrastructure and accelerate the adoption of electric vehicles, especially by corporate fleets. Better Place, a Silicon Valley startup founded by Shai Agassi, plans to roll out charging infrastructure and battery-swap stations in Israel and elsewhere — and Renault is its partner in that endeavor.
Better Place and Renault signed a deal last year to put 100,000 EVs on the road in Israel and Denmark by 2016. Better Place also has been using converted Nissan Rogues to show off its battery-swap technology in Tokyo.
It’s worth noting that GE’s partnership with Better Place includes a plan to develop a mechanism for financing batteries — beginning with a pilot program to finance 10,000 batteries in Israel and Denmark. Who’s currently building the only car with a swappable battery? You guessed it — Renault. That car, the Fluence Z.E., is being tested in Israel.
General Electric and Nissan also are working together to develop so-called “smart charging.”
What’s more, Renault-Nissan is, at this point, the only company that looks like it could have the capacity to fill GE’s order. Renault-Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn has made it clear he believes electrics are the future, and he is positioning the two automakers to lead the market.
Renault has at least three EVs in the works, and Ghosn has said it will have the capacity to build 200,000 EVs annually by 2015. Nissan’s Leaf arrives at the end of this year and will be followed by an electric Infiniti in 2013. Nissan says it has the capacity to build 50,000 Leafs worldwide next year and will increase that to 500,000 worldwide by the end of 2013.
This is all speculation, and there’s nothing to suggest GE won’t be buying some Chevrolet Volts or Ford Transit Connect Electric delivery vans or perhaps even some Codas or Teslas. But it looks like there are going to be a lot of electric Nissans and Renaults in GE parking lots before long.
And no matter how it works out, it’ll be an interesting play to watch.
Photo: Renault. The Renault Fluence Z.E. rolls in Paris.