GM trolls Tesla, changes approach with new ‘supertruck’

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GMC Hummer EV Edition 1

Michael Wayland / CNBC

PHOENIX – The new electric GMC Hummer pickup is different for General Motors and not just because it isn’t a gas-guzzler like its ancestors. It marks a major shift for the historically conservative Detroit automaker in both form and function, according to those who worked on it.

The “highly profitable” vehicle is the flagship for GM’s new Ultium EV technologies and is the new benchmark for the Detroit automaker in terms of development time. There also are other notable features inside the vehicle that insiders say are testaments to GM changing as a company to better compete against Tesla and newer EV start-ups.

Such features include a subtle dig at Tesla’s long-delayed Cybertruck, a prominently placed button that currently does nothing — and a “Watts to Freedom,” or WTF, mode that launches the massive vehicle 0-60 mph in about three seconds. That’s comparable to a Chevy Corvette and slightly slower than some Tesla performance models that can achieve the speed in under three seconds.

“Hopefully, there’s a lot that’s surprising with this vehicle because it’s all intentional,” Aaron Pfau, Hummer’s lead development engineer, said during a media event. “It is to kind of change your concept of not only what an EV can do but what GM as a whole can do.”

Pfau and other members of the Hummer EV team managed through the company’s infamously tight lawyers and broader bureaucracy to enable quick decisions and unique features for the vehicle that GM has never done before. They did so in a record 26 months. That’s about half the time of a typical vehicle program.

The overall mission, internally referred to as “moonshot” in a nod to NASA’s Apollo 11 first lunar landing, was to rapidly create a “fun” vehicle that would draw attention to the company and its new EVs, which are expected to scale to 30 models globally by 2025.

“The whole goal of this vehicle was to get people excited and thinking about EVs that wouldn’t necessarily be excited and thinking about EVs,” Pfau said. “We’re pulling everything, all the bells and whistles, into this one vehicle. It’s a bit of a halo vehicle, right? It’s not high volume.”

WTF

The Hummer team was largely given free rein to create the vehicle around the idea of building an open-air, performance and off-road “supertruck.” In essence, modernizing the gas-guzzling Hummer brand to create an audacious EV to showcase the best the company has to offer.

“We did empower the design and chief engineering team, and we said, ‘Hey, let’s go,'” Duncan Aldred, global head of GMC, said during an interview. “I think people have had a lot of fun with it, and I think that’s encapsulating that vehicle.”

To use “WTF,” an acronym typically associated with a vulgar term of disbelief, senior members of the Hummer team, with support from GM executives to do things differently, got approval after a battle with the automaker’s lawyers.

“It’s such a engaging experience, and we want to break the norms,” Pfau said. “We don’t want you to continue to have this belief that we’re this old, stuffy, legacy company. We on this program truly were like a start-up, internal to GM, and that cleared this path for us.”

Others such as exterior designer Brian Malczewski and vehicle dynamics performance engineer Drew Mitchell shared similar feelings about the program. Aldred gave credit to Barra and GM President Mark Reuss for giving the team such freedom to operate, within reason.

“That’s not to say we want to do anything that’s irresponsible by any means,” Aldred said. “But clearly we’re in an environment where we’ve got to offer things that customers want and that’s going to excite them. Tesla, to be fair to them, they’ve done a great job of all that stuff.”

Some of Tesla’s features have been controversial. Notably, allowing drivers to play video games while driving, which has been revoked, and concerns about its driver-assist systems being offered to consumers while still in testing or not properly monitoring driver awareness.

Aldred said GM has a history of safely deploying such features, citing third-party praise for its Super Cruise highway driver-assist system, which is available on the Hummer.

The Hummer also has four-wheel-steering that allows it to perform extremely tight turns and offer a “crab mode” that allows the vehicle to move in a diagonal direction. The current model being produced offers 1,000 horsepower, 1,200 foot-pounds of motor torque and 11,500 foot-pounds of wheel torque.

However, much like GM’s original Hummer vehicles of the 1990s and 2000s, such capability comes at a cost. While it doesn’t guzzle gas, it does go through a lot of energy and weighs over 9,000 pounds. That weight is about 4,000 pounds more than the heaviest Chevrolet Silverado 1500 pickup and more than double an average new vehicle, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Car and Driver reports the Hummer EV pickup has a rating of 47 MPGe, an electric vehicle range equivalent for miles per gallon. That’s about 33% less than its competitors, including the smaller Rivian R1T pickup and Ford Motor’s forthcoming F-150 Lightning. GM has declined to confirm the MPGe.

The Hummer Edition 1, which is currently being produced at a plant in Detroit, has an electric range of 329 miles, topping the Rivian and Ford electric pickups. Each of the automakers as well as Tesla have said longer-range options of their pickups will be available at later dates.

Easter eggs

Other hidden or surprising features in the vehicle, also known as “Easter eggs,” range from lunar-inspired design elements to customizable graphics for digital auxiliary buttons. The optional images include dynamite and skulls, as well as a Hummer EV running over a Tesla Cybertruck.

“We had so much fun with this thing that we normally don’t get to do on your average car,” Malczewski said.

The Hummer EV features customizable graphics for digital auxiliary buttons. The optional images range from dynamite and skulls to one of the vehicles running over a Tesla Cybertruck.

Michael Wayland / CNBC

There’s a prominently placed button on a center knob that when pressed, says, “Your Mode. Your Mission. EpicIdeas@GMC.com.” GM wants owners to submit their own ideas for a feature for the button that will then be added through a remote update.

Michael Wayland / CNBC

It’s looking profitable

Production is now set to begin at the former Detroit-Hamtramck assembly plant, less than two years after GM announced the massive $2.2 billion investment to fully renovate the facility to build a variety of all-electric trucks and SUVs.

Photo by Jeffrey Sauger for General Motors

While the Hummer EV pickup is for sale, new orders will not likely be fulfilled until 2024 due to the number of current reservations, Aldred said. The SUV, which GM unveiled last year after the pickup, isn’t expected to arrive until 2023.

“What we’re looking at now is how can we build the maximum amount and how can we deliver, fulfill these reservations as quickly as possible?” Aldred said. “We’re doing all the studies on that, and we’re confident we can go a lot quicker than we originally thought, but it still means a reservation now probably means delivering in ’24.”

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