With its 200-mile range, price tag in the neighborhood of $30,000, pleasant styling and, according to reviews, fun-to-drive handling, Bolt is a "no compromises" electric vehicle that should find plenty of buyers.
If so, good for GM and for the makers of battery-powered vehicles generally. The industry will have found a blueprint for the type of EV that finally can win a mass audience. Thus far, models like Nissan Motor's (NSANY) Leaf haven't sold briskly, probably due to limited range. Tesla's (TSLA - Get Report) Model S can't appeal to buyers who aren't prepared to spend $100,000 or more.
But a successful Bolt also comes with the seeds of a new headache for the industry. A simple, utilitarian battery-powered vehicle won't be too difficult for other companies to design and build. Tesla has proven the capital and intellectual property barriers to entering the auto industry are hardly what they once were.
Speaking to journalists at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit on Monday, Sergio Marchionne, chairman of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCAU - Get Report) , argued the proliferation of EVs, built mostly from supplier components, "disintermediates" automakers. The carmakers' proprietary knowledge of how to build internal combustion engines and transmissions will be supplanted -- perhaps not right away, but eventually.
"We won't be manufacturing the batteries. We won't be manufacturing the electric motors that are part of that powertrain," he said. Marchionne's warning comes against the backdrop of his call for industry consolidation to prevent the wholesale destruction of capital needed for safety, clean air and other kinds of advanced technology.
If Bolt fares poorly, GM and other automakers must be prepared to confront a worry quite different than a wave of new competitors. The failure of Bolt would be proof that investments in battery-powered cars have been largely futile. Politicians and other environmental officials such as those at the California Air Resources Board must begin to consider some new responses to climate change.
Thus far, politicians and regulators have given the auto industry a Hobson's choice -- accept our solutions to global climate change or go out of business.
Toyota Motor (TM - Get Report) and others insist that physical and financial hurdles prevent the auto industry from delivering a battery-powered car that can sell in great enough numbers and at high enough prices to cover the investment. That's why Toyota is pursuing hydrogen fuel cells as its strategy for electrification. Honda Motor (HMC - Get Report) , Volkswagen (VLKAY) , GM and others have carried out fuel cell research as well.
Society's debates over global climate change aren't resolved, not by a long shot. Steps will be taken, though necessarily within the constraints of limited time, knowledge and resources.