Here's what is driving GM's reported plans to develop a commercial electric van

Kirsten Korosec
GM Chairman and CEO Mary Barra on March 4, 2020 at an event detailing GM's electric vehicle technologies and upcoming products in the Design Dome on the GM Tech Center campus in Warren, Michigan.

GM's electric offensive to bring at least 20 new EVs to market by 2023 reportedly includes a commercial van.

Reuters reported Thursday that the company is developing an electric van for the commercial market. Code-named BV1, the vehicle is expected to start production in late 2021 and will use the Ultium battery system that was revealed in March, according to the report.

When, and if, GM delivers on that goal in 2021, it will join an increasingly crowded pool. Amazon ordered 100,000 electric delivery vans from Rivian, the first of which are expected to be on the road in 2021. Ford has announced an electric Transit van that's expected to launch in 2021. Startups such as Arrival, Chanje, Enirde and XoS have received orders for electric vans from package delivery companies such as Ryder and UPS.

Tesla is one outlier that hasn't revealed plans to produce commercial electric vans. GM's move has been cast as a strategy to get ahead of Tesla in the commercial marketplace.

But there are likely other reasons driving GM's decision, including high margins that can be achieved selling commercial trucks and vans, as well as governments enacting increasingly strict emissions laws, particularly in urban centers.

Electric vans are a logical fit for delivery companies, which tend to have predictable routes, a specific geographic area and operate at high utilization, all of which fits with the EV infrastructure and charging ecosystems that enables their full economic use, a research note released Thursday from Morgan Stanley argues.

Morgan Stanley notes it hasn't been "smooth sailing" for all EV vans. For instance, DHL's StreetScooter program was recently shut down.

Prior to Reuters' report, it appeared GM's EV strategy was pinned to passenger vehicles. In March, GM revealed an electric architecture that will be the foundation of its future EV plans and support a wide range of products across its brands, including compact cars, work trucks, large premium SUVs, performance vehicles and a new Bolt EUV crossover expected to come to market next summer.

GM said the modular architecture, called “Ultium,” will be capable of 19 different battery and drive unit configurations, 400-volt and 800-volt packs with storage ranging from 50 kWh to 200 kWh and front-, rear- and all-wheel drive configurations.

GM’s focus on making this EV architecture modular underlines the automaker’s desire to electrify a wide variety of its business lines, from the Cruise Origin autonomous taxi and compact Chevrolet Bolt EUV to the GMC HUMMER electric truck and SUV and the newly-announced Cadillac Lyriq SUV. GM also showed a variety of electric vehicles that had not yet been announced, to show how this modularity will be exploited further out in their product plan, including a massive Cadillac flagship sedan called Celestiq.