How GM’s New Ultium Batteries “Stack Up” Against Tesla

GM Ultium
GM Ultium battery pack

General Motors (GM) created quite a stir a few weeks ago when they revealed details of their upcoming Ultium battery platform. It didn’t take long for many people to start speculating whether GM would finally make a real “Tesla killer”. This happens every time a new EV is announced, so I’ve learned to be skeptical. But with 400+ miles of range, could GM be onto something?

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Ultimate flexibility

GM’s new Ultium batteries’ biggest strength is their flexibility. They’re made up of large pouch-style cells that can be stacked horizontally or vertically. This allows designers to make a battery pack that fits the car perfectly without wasted space. The platform is also designed to enable front-wheel drive, rear-wheel drive, or all-wheel drive.

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Flexibility like this is clearly important for a manufacturer with so many brands. There’s no way they could use the same platform for both a sedan and a pickup truck.

Except they absolutely could. There is no reason for them to need this level of flexibility in battery pack design. The problem is that the current “electric skateboard” platform design seen across the industry is already pretty great. Batteries are very heavy, so it’s important to keep the battery pack down low for the stability of the car. Check out this rollover test of the Model X and see how it refuses to roll.

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via Gfycat

Now if the battery pack were higher up all that weight would instead be working to roll the car over. Rollovers are one of the most deadly kinds of accidents, so moving any of that weight up is clearly a no go.

I’m sure the engineering allowing these battery cells to stack is amazing. But that doesn’t change the fact that GM is going to have to design the same “electric skateboard” platform as everyone else. The only real advantage this gives them is the ability to make thicker battery packs.

400-mile range

While the touted flexibility of Ultium batteries might not be impressive, 400 miles of range certainly is, right? That blows the 316-mile range of the new Model Y out of the water. Having the longest range on the market would certainly give GM a pretty big advantage.

Setting aside the fact that no production vehicle using these batteries currently exists, there’s another problem. This platform is nowhere near as efficient as Tesla. As I said earlier, the Model Y Long Range sports a 316-mile range with a 75 kWh battery pack. While GM can get about 27% more range than the Model Y with this platform, they’re using a 200 kWh battery pack. That is only 27% more range with over two and a half times the power.

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This is going to make charging any new EV from GM much slower than charging a Tesla. 400 miles of range doesn’t sound so impressive when you realize it’s going to take over twice as much time to charge.

I’m sure GM will market any vehicle with 400 miles of range as perfect for road trips. And for shorter trips, they will be. But any trip outside of that range is going to be abysmal. They won’t even be able to approach the performance of a Tesla Supercharger V3, which can charge 75 miles in just 5 minutes.

Very expensive

This inefficiency also means that GM is going to have to spend a lot more on batteries. No matter how much their partnership with LG Chem is able to bring costs down, they still need to buy more batteries. They could hit their target of driving battery cell costs below $100/kWh and still be paying way more overall.

Forbes estimates that Tesla’s battery cost per kWh in 2019 was roughly $127. That would put the cost of a 75 kWh battery pack at around $9,500. Let’s assume that a GM battery pack with a comparable 300-mile range is about 150 kWh. If GM is able to achieve costs of $100/kWh as they hope, this battery pack would cost $15,000.

Unless GM is able to massively increase the efficiency of this platform or significantly lower battery costs well below $100/kWh their EV efforts will struggle. They simply won’t be able to make a car that is both competitively priced and profitable. The only way they could actually challenge Tesla at the $35,000-40,000 price point is if they sell at a loss. I think it’s far more likely these costs will be passed on to the consumer.

And that’s assuming Tesla just sits on their hands until GM is able to get a long-range EV on the road. The Model S already offers a Long Range option sporting 390 miles of range. Elon says Tesla is working hard to drive costs down, and he expects them to hit the $100/kWh threshold soon. Frankly, after looking at these numbers, I don’t see how GM could be competitive in the EV market.

This is a guest post by Ryan Harper, the main writer at evword.com.