Auto buyers have yet to show much love for electric cars.
Sales of the Tesla Model S and Model X have stalled at around 25,000 per quarter. The company has yet to prove it can make and sell the lower-priced Model 3 in large numbers, saying Monday that it had produced only 260 of the cars through Sept. 30. Chevrolet sells only a few thousand Bolt EVs a month, despite rave reviews. Electric cars total only about 1% of total passenger vehicles sold in the U.S.
Yet on Monday, auto giant General Motors announced it will begin selling two new all-electric vehicles in the next 18 months, and will have at least 20 new zero-emission electric vehicles in its lineup by 2023.
The announcement follows similar plans revealed by major automakers around the world.
Volkswagen Group, which last year was the world's top automaker, has said it will offer 80 new electric vehicles by 2025, and will electrify its entire fleet by 2030.
Mercedes-Benz similarly promised to make all its cars available with electric drive trains by 2020, while Volvo and Jaguar have stated they will eventually stop building cars that run only on gasoline or diesel fuel.
"This latest event by GM regarding 'all electric' is further proof of a rapidly changing industry, whether the consumer wants it or not," said Rebecca Lindland, analyst at Kelley Blue Book.
If the consumer doesn't want it, at least not to date, who does?
China, India, France, the United Kingdom and California. All are reviewing plans to severely limit or ban regular gas and diesel engines between 2030 and 2040. Although details are scarce, automakers need to get ready.
This is especially true in China, which is both the world's largest auto market and its fastest growing. General Motors now sells more of its cars in China than in the U.S.
"China is their biggest market," said Michelle Krebs, analyst at Autotrader. "If China decides to go electric, they have to do it."
China's government last week announced that roughly 10% of passenger vehicles sold in 2019 will be zero-emission "new energy vehicles," moving up to 12% by 2020 and growing year by year. One highly placed Chinese official said the country may ban traditional engines altogether at some point in the future.
The stakes for automakers were made clear, Krebs said, by a Detroit auto executive who recently told her: "If the Chinese can regulate procreation, they can regulate electrification."
No one is expecting internal combustion engines to disappear anytime soon. In fact, many executives see hybrid cars and plug-in hybrids as a bridge that will move consumers toward all-electric cars.
"General Motors has drawn a line in the sand: Its future will be all electric," Krebs said. But she said GM was a little coy about what the new vehicles will be and when they'll start getting here.
"The automaker wisely gave no time frame for when its full line of product would be electric because, frankly, no one knows how the EV future will evolve," Krebs said.
GM Chairman and CEO Mary Barra made the announcement near Detroit at the company's design center. The new cars, she said, are part of a sweeping plan to move toward an automotive world that includes "zero emissions, zero congestion and zero crashes."
The two new cars will be based on technology derived from the company's Bolt EV, the 238-mile-range electric sedan that Chevrolet introduced late last year.
They will be plug-in electric vehicles or hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles that have no internal combustion engines and do not burn gasoline or emit harmful vapors from their tailpipes.
"GM is committed to a zero-emission future," said the company's advanced-technology spokesperson, Kevin Kelly. "We said the Bolt EV would be a platform for electric vehicles going forward. Today we are showing the next chapter of that."
The new vehicles could be more like SUVs or crossovers than standard passenger cars, Kelly said.
The company also said it is developing a new fuel-cell architecture that will allow twin electric motors, powered by compressed hydrogen, that could drive a heavy-duty truck, delivery vehicle or ambulance.
GM is basing the two new electric vehicles on Chevrolet Bolt underpinnings.
The company also pledged to start producing hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles for commercial or military use in 2020, and to convert its entire model lineup to zero emissions in the future.
The two new electric vehicles probably will be SUVs or maybe a sportier car designed to compete with Tesla's Model 3.
GM says most of the new vehicles will be based on a new electric architecture with a longer range than the Bolt's 238 miles.
The automaker made the announcements Monday at its technical center in the Detroit suburb of Warren. Executives offered few specifics on the new vehicles.
GM, with its Bolt and Volt plug-in hybrid, is pushing into an increasingly competitive space while facing an uncertain sales future.
Though Tesla says more than 350,000 people have put down $1,000 refundable deposits to get in line for the upcoming Model 3 sedan, sales of the Bolt EV have not met analysts' expectations.
On Monday, the company said it had produced only 260 Model 3s from the start of production in late July through Sept. 30, far short of the 1,500 vehicles it had forecast. Tesla had planned to be churning out 20,000 Model 3s a month by December, and 500,000 a year by the end of 2018.
In a note to investors, Tesla blamed "production bottlenecks" but offered no details. "It is important to emphasize that there are no fundamental issues with the Model 3 production or supply chain," the company said. "We understand what needs to be fixed and we are confident of addressing the manufacturing bottleneck issues in the near-term."
Analysts were more concerned with slow sales of the Model S and Model X, which have remained in the low to mid-20,000s for the last four quarters.
6:10 p.m.: This article has been updated to clarify Volvo's and Jaguar's plans for gasoline and diesel fuel cars.
5:00 p.m.: This article has been updated with Tesla production data.
2 p.m.: This article has been updated with additional context and quotes from an auto analyst.
10:15 a.m.: This article was updated throughout with additional details and context.