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U.S. car makers are going electric and trying to change the world in the process

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

General Motors' CEO Mary Barra's speech to investors yesterday was pretty lofty.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARY BARRA: We have changed the world before, and we're going to do it again.

INSKEEP: Starting by changing her industry because the auto industry is looking to reshape itself as high-tech, climate-friendly, electric automakers. Companies are racing to follow Tesla's lead. Here to talk about it is NPR's Camila Domonoske, who covers the car industry. Good morning.

CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: I got to tell you, I'm noticing these cars on the highways, and not only Teslas - got a friend who has a Chevrolet Bolt. I've been seeing some of those cars around. How much more of this is coming?

DOMONOSKE: There are a lot more electric vehicles in the pipeline. Automakers are really betting their future on the idea that consumers are going to buy a bunch of these vehicles, even though right now they're a tiny fraction of sales. And this investment is happening before significant support from the federal government has actually materialized. You know, President Biden wants to send a whole bunch of money to support electric vehicles, to build all the charging stations that would be required to actually make this shift. But the proposal that would actually do that is stuck in a congressional quagmire right now. And automakers clearly aren't waiting around. They're driving forward.

INSKEEP: Yeah, but I'm curious about how this is going to work. GM's been trying to reach to the future for, like, 20 years. They were talking about hydrogen cell cars at one time. So what does it actually look like for an automaker to go electric?

DOMONOSKE: Yeah. So GM has set a target of making only electric vehicles by 2035, which really got everyone's attention. We just found out more about what that actually looks like, what that means for the near future, for the next decade. One, they've set a lofty target of actually doubling their revenue while they make this change.

INSKEEP: Wow.

DOMONOSKE: That's not just about electric vehicles. They also plan to do things like sell a lot of software add-ons for vehicles. And it's also really important to note, they're not switching electric overnight. For now, they're still going to make a ton of gas and diesel vehicles, but gradually, they're going to roll out 30 new electric vehicles, and they think that's going to attract new buyers to GM.

INSKEEP: How good are GM electric vehicles?

DOMONOSKE: Yeah. So you mentioned the Chevy Bolt earlier, and right now, that vehicle has been pretty troubled. There's a massive battery recall. Every Bolt ever made had to be checked to make sure that it wouldn't catch fire. The new vehicles that are coming from GM are going to have an all-new battery system, and it's going to really run the range from a $30,000 Chevy crossover all the way up to super fancy Cadillacs. We also just heard a bit more about the electric Silverado pickup, which is going to have a glass roof. As you know, pickups, of course, are hugely important for automakers like GM.

INSKEEP: Well, where is Ford in all of this?

DOMONOSKE: Yeah. Speaking of pickups, Ford is building a brand-new factory, but they haven't done that in more than 30 years, and it's going to be entirely dedicated to making electric pickup trucks. You know, the company says there's been so much demand for the electric F-150 Lightning that they're ready to double down on this. Two big numbers that just express the scale of the investment Ford is making here - one is $11 billion. That's how much they're spending on this new plant and some battery plants. The other is they're going to make enough batteries for a million electric vehicles a year.

INSKEEP: Wow. So they're moving in on Tesla's turf, even as Tesla had been trying to get more affordable cars and a bigger share of the market. What's happening with them?

DOMONOSKE: Yeah. Well, Tesla has been doing great. Tesla just had a record quarter. They sold more vehicles than they ever have. The latest model, the Model Y, is selling like hotcakes. And this is particularly impressive right now, when carmakers are struggling with a shortage of chips and other parts. Most of them had to cut production. Tesla is dominating, which - like you said, it's a reminder, companies like GM and Ford are playing pickup here. Tesla owns this market.

INSKEEP: Camila, thanks.

DOMONOSKE: Thank you.

INSKEEP: NPR's Camila Domonoske. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.