Polaris acquired Global Electric Motorcars (GEM) from Chrysler in 2011 for the purpose of entering the growing market for low emission small vehicles. At the time of the acquisition Scott Wine, the CEO stated "GEM provides Polaris with an established position in the low-emission small vehicle market and supports Polaris' strategy of penetrating on-road market segments poised for growth. We are excited about the outlook for growth within this market space, and are looking forward to developing even stronger growth prospects for the GEM business."
Since then Polaris has made some changes to the GEM product line, adding the eM1400 utility vehicle for model year 2014 and an LSV version the following year. The gas powered, light-duty M1400 was also added for model year 2015 to diversify GEM’s commercial market offerings. These 1400 models feature a more traditional utility vehicle look then the iconic GEM "bubble" design seen in the e2, e4, e6, eS, eL and eL XD models. The "bubble" models had a makeover for the 2013 model year with some changes to brakes, suspension, options and accessories, but one can argue that the changes were incremental. The model year 2016 changes are more substantial, both stylistically and from an engineering perspective. These changes address longstanding customer issues, reflect new customer research and take a step forward towards a long-term vision for the brand. I recently interviewed John Stockman, Director of GEM to discuss the 2016 product line, the GEM brand and its’ place in the small vehicle market.
What’s New for Model Year 2016?
Polaris has made extensive changes to the GEM lineup for the 2016 e2, e4, e6 and eL XD models. Stylistically the iconic "bubble" design is still noticeable from a side view, but a frontal view reveals significant changes. The new design was in large part based on customer research. According to Stockman, in the neighborhood of 10 different designs were vetted by customers and consumers before a final design was chosen.
Even more important than stylistic changes, were the engineering changes made under the skin in direct response to several phases of customer research, including multiple ride clinics with dozens of customers and consumers, feature and finish related research, as well as feedback from dealers. The research focused the product development process on a number of key areas. One was the comfort of users as they ingress and egress from the vehicles all throughout their day. Towards that end, more legroom and headroom has been created. A past complaint about hot seats was also addressed as well as items as minor as having self-canceling turn signals.
A second issue highlighted by the research was vehicle safety. Stockman states that, "We are hearing more and more from corporate campuses, colleges and universities, hotel and resorts, that they are moving away from the traditional golf carts towards LSVs because of their safety features." With that in mind the safety features the GEM is known for were kept but also improved. This included better brakes, vehicle handling in evasive situations and seatbelts. "We really focused on making sure that this was the safest LSV you could get", remarked Stockman.
Another focus was making sure that the cost of ownership for customers is a winning proposition, which in part manifests as GEM’s Smart Power concept. Smart Power allows customers to choose among five different battery options and three different charging options to customize a GEM model for their specific application needs and price point. Battery options range from the basic flooded lead acid bank of batteries to AGM options to lithium ion battery packs. The following graph illustrates the different range potentials for different models based on the type of batteries chosen. Battery choices include flooded electrolyte, standard maintenance free, distance maintenance free, 8.9 kWh lithium ion and 12.4 kWh lithium ion.
Level 1 and Level 2 chargers are available offering charging that is 3 times or 6 times faster, respectively.
An interesting aspect of the different battery packs is that vehicles with a lithium ion battery pack have their suspensions fine-tuned to account for the weight differences between the standard lead acid batteries and the lithium ion batteries. Director Stockman relates that while a dealer can do this if a customer switches to lithium batteries after their initial purchase, they will also have to pay for the suspension fine-tuning. Therefore, it is better to make a choice during the initial purchase when the suspension work can be done at the factory.
The model year 2016 GEMs also address past customer complaints concerning vehicle durability. According to Stockman, "…everything was tested at three times the length of the life of the vehicle so [the vehicle] works for them when they really need it to work for them."
Dealer feedback provided more direction for the product development efforts. Dealers wanted to maintain the characteristics that have made the GEM popular including the zero emissions, street legal qualifications, low cost of ownership and the ability to customize the vehicle for specific needs. To those ends, while the vehicles were made roomier and more accessible, the vehicle’s small footprint was maintained. This is critical for school or corporate campuses where they may have to squeeze through pylons or operate on sidewalks in close proximity to pedestrians.
The customizability of the GEMs was bolstered by more than doubling the number of options and accessories available including: the previously mentioned battery and charger options, cargo area configurations, integrated door options and comfort/climate options.
The new cargo area options for the eL XD have the potential to increase the range of end use applications and to better meet current uses of the vehicle. As long time GEM dealer, Andy Kaplan of Dominion Utility Vehicles remarks, "This [eL XD] is our best seller. Buyers use them for numerous and varied tasks. The addition of a recessed bed option, a tailgate ramp, additional toolbox options are very attractive to our customers. It permits them to equip the vehicle to more exactly to suit their actual usage."
Additional accessories have also been added to address driver and passenger comfort and climate issues. A new heater has been added as well as an in-windshield defroster. A premium gray seat option is now available which offers a nicer look and feel.
Perhaps, the most important options added for the 2016 models are a range of newly engineered doors. Whereas only full doors were available previously, but not for the e6 model, now full, half, and quarter hard doors, as well as full canvas doors are optional for the e2, e4, e6, and eL XD. Director Stockman states that GEM "…worked on a better door design that was more integrated with the vehicle and really delivered what a door experience should be." He is particularly enthusiastic about the quarter door option adopted from the off-road vehicle market because they offer a sense of security while still maintaining an open-air feel. GEM dealer Kaplan adds,
"The redesigned doors are far and away the most significant improvement. The hard doors on the prior models had frequent hardware problems, did not offer reliable protection from water intrusion, did not open wide enough, were not available for the 6 passenger model and interfered with outward vision. All of these issues have been addressed in this redesign. This is a Hallelujah! moment for our customers and for our technicians."
The process of making these changes to the GEM lineup reflects the adoption of a Polaris approach to product development.
Polaris Process and Technology Applied to a GEM Makeover
The method used in developing the new GEM vehicles is indicative of the Polaris process, customer and technology driven, while leveraging the company’s growing expertise and technical knowledge across many vehicle platforms. While GEM has it’s own product development and engineering group, the brand also drew from expertise around Polaris. Stockman remarks that within Polaris there are groups of experts centered on areas of expertise such as suspensions, braking, electric powertrains, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering and others.
These expert groups were leveraged to build the new GEM line. GEM drew upon suspension and braking knowledge from the Aixam, the leading European maker of quadricycles. This was further enhanced with braking and suspension knowledge from the motorcycle division. From Brammo, which Polaris acquired earlier this year and had previously invested, expertise in lithium-ion powertrains was leveraged. The GEM vehicles also utilize a CAN bus controller common across many Polaris vehicles and Stockman notes that vehicle connectivity will be a significant focus moving forward. In conjunction with the common controller, the GEM lineup now features a common 48V AC system rather than the 72V DC powertrain used in previous GEMs.
The Future of GEM
Over the last several years Polaris has been strategically adding to their portfolio of on-road small vehicle brands and technology. Besides GEM, Polaris has added Aixam Mega and Goupil Industrie in Europe, Brammo in the US and a joint venture with Eicher in India that launched the Multix utility vehicle this year. According to Stockman, "There is a vision of how we could bring this portfolio together to offer our customers and consumers a broader portfolio of options.
The most significant GEM makeover to date fits into this strategy. As Stockman notes, "Polaris is making a big investment in the business..." with the expectation that it will "…grow much faster than the small vehicle market as a whole." Currently GEM sales are primarily in the US, where they have over 200 hundred dealers, but they have a presence in Europe as well. Approximately 20% of GEM sales are to consumers for personal transportation according to Stockman. (Polaris doesn’t release sales figures for GEM) The remainder is to commercial customers with key markets being colleges and universities, resorts and hotels, municipalities, corporate campuses and real estate companies with a need to move around large properties.
In the commercial segment, GEM vehicles often displace pickup trucks, offering a lower cost of ownership, more accessibility in restricted confines, and a safer driving option in high pedestrian traffic areas. The safety features of LSVs also drive the displacement of golf cars within fleets as some insurance companies are urging fleet owners to move to the safer LSVs. One example of corporate campus usage is Hunter Industries, which produces irrigation systems. GEMs are used to transport personnel around the sprawling campus, to deliver mail and by the IT department to move technicians and equipment.
In the future, Stockman views the urban market as a potential growth market. He notes that some cities in the US already have 25 mph speed limits, are adding traffic lanes specifically for other vehicles such as bikes and/or LSVs, making charging more accessible and parking LSVs is easier. In Europe, the urban market is already making use of small vehicles like quadricycles. In Asia and South America LSVs could offer urban families a more affordable transportation option while addressing pollution issues.
The future of product development
Before GEM being acquired by Polaris, the brand had stagnated with little innovation or changes to the vehicles taking place for many years. One only has to look at what Polaris often calls their "armada" of off-road vehicles, which cover a range of market segments, niche segments and price points, to understand the emphasis the management puts on innovation, product development and the pace of new model introductions. According to Stockman GEM’s product development will be at a "…more rapid pace than in the past." While the model year calendar will be a consideration in the pace of development, "…the market will dictate the need for innovation." Some of the potential trends Stockman sees dictating the pace of innovation in the commercial and personal transportation markets include:
· Commercial Trends
o Continued displacement of pickup trucks
o Desire for the safety features of LSVs
o Greater emphasis on fleet management as smaller commercial customers adopt technology and practices already being used by larger commercial entities such as geo fencing, remote starting and other features that make work easier and add value.
o Improved battery technology for faster charging, greater vehicle range, increased discharge/charge cycles and decreased cost.
o Wireless charging and other innovations to make charging easier and less error prone.
· Personal Transport Trends
o Improved battery technology as in the commercial market.
o Ease of use through easier/free parking, more charging stations and reduced fees.
o More accessibility through LSV car sharing and taxi services
o Increasing appeal of the open-air design of LSVs and the ability of occupants to experience and interact with the surrounding environment.
The 2016 GEM models can be ordered now and will begin shipping in December.
A follow-up article will feature some reactions from dealers after they have had a chance to put the new vehicles through their paces.