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As EVs evolve, automakers look beyond boring hatchbacks

Mainstream automakers are finally catching on to the fact that no one said an electric vehicle had to look – or drive – like an under-powered jelly bean.

The next several years are expected to deliver a slew of fully electric vehicles that are more attractive, more capable and look a lot more like the trucks, SUVs and cars seen on roadways today. That would be a departure from the tiny mainstream battery-electric vehicles that General Motors Co., BMW AG, Nissan Motor Co. and a few others have failed to popularize.

And while trucks and SUVs continue to be the best-selling vehicles for nearly every automaker operating in the United States, experts say the next generation of electric vehicles is likely to bring electrified versions of some of the largest, least environmentally friendly vehicles automakers ever made, such as the Hummer nameplate.

And the boring compact electric vehicle design seen sparingly on roads in recent years will die as electric vehicles evolve into machines more people actually want to be seen driving.

"There is going to be an explosion of new designs," predicted Ted Cannis, Ford Motor Co.'s global director of electrification. "There's going to be a lot more choice coming from manufacturers."

Call it the Tesla effect, or call it technology catching up with the times. Either way, analysts and experts say the next electric vehicle wave won't be the wimpy hatchbacks hardly anyone outside of California buys.

Ford plans to unveil its first-ever fully battery-electric crossover this year for a 2020 launch. They're calling it "Mustang-inspired," and targeting a 300-mile range. Executive Chairman Bill Ford has said the car will "go like hell," a reference to what Henry Ford II told his drivers during 24 Hours of Le Mans nearly 60 years ago. The automaker also has a fully battery electric F-150 queued up, and other fully electric vehicles on iconic nameplates are expected.

Those vehicles would supplement the fuel-efficient hybrids and plug-in hybrid variants Ford is launching for nearly every nameplate in its North American lineup. Cannis said Ford is testing future electric vehicles and holding them to the same standards as they would vehicles powered by traditional internal combustion engines.

That's how Ford plans to prove to consumers that it's building more capable electric vehicles than the cars built by competitors in recent years mainly to comply with emissions standards.

That has some analysts excited. Adam Jonas, an investment analyst with Morgan Stanley, said in a note last week that Ford's near-term moves into electric vehicles could define the company in the future. Ford doesn't currently have a fully electric vehicle in its lineup, and dedicating product spending to electric vehicles could be a boon to Ford's stock price long-term.

"A move to BEV could be adverse to near-term earnings, but positive for the stock," Jonas wrote. "We see a decisive strategy towards sustainable transportation as ultimately beneficial to the company's long-term strength and earnings multiple."

For consumers, the sweeping changes to electric vehicle design and deployment will mean better options for fuel efficiency, said Jeremy Acevedo, analyst with California-based Edmunds.com. Edmunds data shows that 56% of the nation's electric vehicle market resides in California.

That could be because of the lackluster design of most of the vehicles on the market. It could be because, in the United States, the spotty charging infrastructure is prohibitive to long travel. It could be the marketing behind the vehicles. And it could be because, for the most part, you can't get an electric vehicle that's good for much more than city driving in warm weather.

"These are vehicles that are not particularly popular," Acevedo said. "They're compact. They're austere. This segment has downward momentum. But as new entries take off, automakers will implement some size. They'll kind of look like any vehicle on the road that people want to buy. The technology is getting there. That's really where the technology needs to be: in the segments that people want to buy that look like vehicles people want to buy. True alternatives to mainstream vehicles."

That's the goal, according to Cannis. Ford is discussing a partnership with Volkswagen AG that could include electric vehicles. Ford also is partnering with start-up Rivian Automotive LLC on either a truck or an SUV. Rivian plans to launch a five-passenger electric R1T pickup and a seven-passenger R1S SUV with a more than 400-mile range and off-road capability in late 2020. Those partnerships would complement the more niche Mustang-inspired battery electric vehicle.

Then there's GM, which is angling toward an all-electric future it envisions as "zero crashes, zero emissions and zero congestion." Under CEO Mary Barra, the company was credited with being an innovator with the launch of its Bolt EV, though the Michigan-built car has yet to prove a strong seller. The automaker sold 8,281 Bolts through the first six months of 2019. By comparison, Chevrolet moved 194,426 light-duty Silverados in the same time frame.

Now the automaker is in the early stages of a plan to release 20 new electric vehicles by 2023. The automaker's next-generation EV architecture – which will debut on an all-new Cadillac model – is designed to support a variety of body styles. It will also be offered in front-, rear- and all-wheel drive configurations.

GM also is working on an electric pickup, the company has confirmed. There are also rumors of the automaker planning to revive the Hummer nameplate, which could adorn the electric pickup. GM has not officially confirmed which brand would get the electric pickup.

And the Silicon Valley start-up, Tesla Inc., and CEO Elon Musk have teased repeatedly a Tesla pickup with hard-to-believe specs, like 300,000-pound towing capacity. That would join Tesla's growing fleet of sleek, stylish cars and a crossover that broke the mold for what pure electric vehicles could look like and how they could perform.

While Tesla's speculative specifications for the pickup are not likely to be met, Edmunds' Acevedo said it's important to remember that battery-electric propulsion unlocks a slew of features that traditional combustion engines don't allow in most vehicle designs. Among them: the instant torque of electric powertrains make battery-propelled vehicles true driving enthusiast's vehicles.

"The industry has kind of moved on from the eco-messaging behind these vehicles," Acevedo said. "For these vehicles to get mainstream appeal, they need to go from saving the planet to the fact that these are really tremendous vehicles to drive around."

Still, questions remain surrounding the future of electric vehicles. Automakers haven't fully explained how more off-road vehicles like Rivian's, or the work-oriented commercial vehicles like the fully electric Transit van Ford plans to launch in Europe, would work until a more complete charging infrastructure catches up with them.

There's uncertainty around the world about government emissions standards, too. In the United States, the Trump administration is moving to relax standards left by the departing Obama team. In the European Union and China, emissions rules are largely getting more strict. And while electric vehicles produce zero emissions, the electricity generated to charge their batteries generally do anything but.

In a survey of 1,279 vehicle owners, website CarGurus.com found 15% said they'd buy an electric vehicle in the next five years, and 34%% would buy on within the next 10 years. Respondents were mostly concerned with the price, range and ability to effectively charge the vehicles at charging stations.

While those questions remain unanswered, expect more electric vehicles to be announced by more mainstream automakers building portfolios for today's market and what they expect for tomorrow's. And expect more people to give the new technology a try.

"Technology is moving on at a fast rate," Cannis said. "Cost comes down, power has gone up significantly. It's something totally alien and new. These things always start off with people saying 'you'll never.' It's an age-old problem in new technology. It requires as much focused effort and work as when we launched an aluminum-bodied F-150."

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