Around the turn of the millennium, General Motors made a decision: Electric cars were out. Giant trucks were a hit.
So the company abandoned its pioneering electric vehicle — not just stopping production but pulling cars off the road and crushing them. And it went all-in on the gas-guzzling military-style behemoth called the Hummer.
The polarizing vehicle hummed along for a little while, before the recession and skyrocketing gas prices killed it.
Now, the Hummer is making a comeback that once would have seemed improbable, even laughable.
GM is reviving the Hummer brand. But this time, it's going to be electric.
GM is announcing the Hummer's resurrection in an ad airing during the Super Bowl this Sunday. The vehicle itself — an electric pickup — will be revealed in May, with production beginning in late 2021.
The Hummer carries a hefty load of cultural baggage, says Marty Padgett, an editor at The Car Connection and the author of Hummer.
The brand — descended from the military Humvee and famously beloved by Arnold Schwarzenegger — was made by AM General in the 1990s, before General Motors acquired the brand in 1999. Production of the GM Hummer ramped up as GM was shutting down its EV1 electric car program.
The company had "no foresight to think that maybe they should also keep their electric car programs alive," Padgett says. In GM's view, "trucks were selling amazingly well and electric cars were nothing more than an experiment."
Then GM heavily promoted the Hummer and the slightly less-gigantic H2 as America was launching the war in Iraq.
"Advertisements for the GM Hummer were appearing in between CNN segments on the invasions," Padgett says. "What other consumer product has launched in such a controversial way, at such a controversial time?"
If the rise of the Hummer was a sign of the times, its electric revival is a sign of how times have changed.
Americans are, once again, wild for giant trucks and SUVs. But Tesla definitively proved that electric cars are not just an experiment. And — inspired by Tesla — carmakers are making electric vehicles and highlighting performance, not efficiency and eco-friendliness.
"I have this theory that the electric car segment is getting bro-ified," Padgett says. "They're appealing to a very masculine demographic, and they're doing it overtly."
In fact, Schwarzenegger — the epitome of the manly Hummer driver — is an electric vehicle enthusiast who already owns an electric Hummer. It was refitted for him by an Austrian startup.
But the new GM vehicle might look a little different from Schwarzenegger's custom vehicle — we don't know much about the appearance yet.
We do know the new Hummer will be a pickup. And it will have a ton of competition.
"There is suddenly going to be a slew of electric trucks, almost as many as ... the full-size trucks that exist right now," says Jessica Caldwell, the head of Industry Analysis at Edmunds. Among them are the Tesla Cybertruck, Ford's F-150 and the startups Rivian, Lordstown Motors and Bollinger.
Trucks are tremendously popular. The top three bestselling vehicles in America are pickups. And they're not cheap.
"We think of them as workhorses, kind of that American icon," Caldwell says. "But they're expensive now. The average large truck transacts at almost $50,000."
Add premium options and you can easily drop more than $70,000 on a pickup, even without an electric motor. So automakers — who are struggling to make money off smaller cars, particularly electric cars — welcome high-margin pickups as a major moneymaker.
"The whole market is going to electrification," Caldwell says, and automakers like GM "don't want to lose a part of that very lucrative truck business."
By putting this new electric pickup in the GMC family and giving it a familiar name, GM is positioning it as a premium pickup, Caldwell says.
So while the cost, like much else about the vehicle, has not been announced, expect a hefty price tag — and the possibility that it will make GM a Hummer-sized pile of money.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Remember the Hummer, that massive military-style vehicle with terrible gas mileage? It had its heyday in the early 2000s? Well, the Hummer is making a comeback. And this time, instead of a gas guzzler, it is an electric vehicle. You heard that right. NPR's Camila Domonoske has more.
CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: Electric vehicles are quiet, so this is a Hummer that doesn't hum. General Motors is driving that theme home in a Super Bowl ad this weekend. The teaser videos say this is a truck with massive torque and 1,000 horsepower that goes zero to 60 in three seconds that'll sound like this.
And that silence says a lot. The embrace of an electric truck is an astonishing reversal from back when GM first launched the Hummer. GM was a pioneer in electric vehicles. But in the late '90s, the company decided to abandon its electric car program. And it purchased the Hummer name - the brawny, boxy brand beloved by Arnold Schwarzenegger.
MARTY PADGETT: And their was no intent, or there was even no foresight to think that maybe they should also keep their electric car programs alive.
DOMONOSKE: Marty Padgett is an editor at The Car Connection, and he wrote a book about Hummers.
PADGETT: Trucks were selling amazingly well, and electric cars were nothing more than an experiment.
DOMONOSKE: Over the next few years, GM sent its electric cars to the crusher and heavily promoted the military-style gas guzzler. America was launching the Iraq war.
PADGETT: So advertising ends for the GM Hummer were appearing in between CNN segments on the invasions. What other consumer product has launched in such a controversial way at such a controversial time?
DOMONOSKE: The Great Recession and high gas prices brought down the Hummer. It was discontinued a decade ago. And now, the electric revival is a sign of how times have changed. Tesla proved that the electric car wasn't just an experiment. Other carmakers are following suit, and they're not selling them as small, efficient cars that will save the environment. They're selling them, well, more like Hummers.
PADGETT: I have this theory that the electric car segment is getting bro-ified (ph). They're appealing to a very masculine demographic, and they're doing it overtly.
DOMONOSKE: Speaking of manly men and their cars, Arnold Schwarzenegger already has an electric Hummer fitted out for him by an Austrian startup. But the new vehicle from GM might look a little different than Schwarzenegger's big off-roader. All we know is that it will be a pickup, and it'll have a ton of competition.
JESSICA CALDWELL: There is suddenly going to be a slew of electric trucks - almost as many as the full-size trucks that exist right now.
DOMONOSKE: Jessica Caldwell is the head of industry analysis at Edmunds. She points to the Tesla Cybertruck, the electric F-150 and startups like Lordstown, Rivian, Bollinger. Carmakers are eager to make electric trucks. Here's why - the No. 1, 2 and 3 bestselling vehicles in America are all pickups, and they're not cheap.
CALDWELL: We think of them as workhorses, kind of that American icon. But they're expensive now. The average large pickup truck transacts at almost $50,000.
DOMONOSKE: And right now, you can drop $70 or $80 grand on a pickup without an electric motor. Automakers have had trouble making money off smaller cars, especially electric cars. But trucks, those are big moneymakers. So as companies look to the future...
CALDWELL: The fact that the whole market is going to electrification, they don't want to lose a part of that very lucrative truck business.
DOMONOSKE: Caldwell says by giving this new Hummer a famous name, GM is positioning it as a premium electric pickup. So while the cost has not been announced, expect a hefty price tag, which means plenty of rivals but the potential to make a Hummer-sized pile of money.
Camila Domonoske, NPR News.
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