Deliveries of the Chevrolet Bolt, the first mainstream electric car to offer a 238-mile range, have officially started. On Tuesday, three customers in San Francisco received their cars and by the end of this week, deliveries will extend to other cities in California and Oregon.

"All of the hard work that the Chevrolet team have put into designing, engineering and building the Bolt EV brings us to this truly satisfying moment of making the first deliveries to customers on-time, as planned," said Alan Batey, president of GM North America and Global Chevrolet brand chief.

In and of itself, delivering three cars isn't much of a milestone, but it does enable Chevrolet to claim a victory over rivals such as Ford and even Tesla who are still more than a year away from offering ecologically-minded consumers an electric car that can go the distance.

More importantly, the Bolt represents a mainstream seal of approval for the EV. If electric cars are going to supplant gasoline, they need to be seen to be supported and endorsed by the world's biggest car makers.

"Only Chevrolet is able to offer a vehicle like the Bolt EV, with groundbreaking technology wrapped in a modern design that is also fun-to-drive at an affordable price," Batey claimed.

And for the moment at least, price is the key. After governmental financial incentives, the Bolt costs around $30,000, less than half the price of a Tesla Model S, which is currently the undisputed king of electric vehicles in terms of range (337 miles), features, technology and exclusivity.

Tesla is hoping to get its own affordable EV, the Model 3 ($35,000, 215-mile range) into production before the end of 2017. If and when it does arrive it will compete directly with the Bolt in terms of price and range, but it will also have to stand out against the Nissan Leaf, which from next year will also be capable of travelling 250 miles on a single charge.

In Europe, where the Bolt won't be arriving until 2017 and where it will be badged as the Opel Ampera, drivers are already able to buy the new Renault Zoe. Unveiled at the Paris Auto Show in September, it shares the same platform as the Nissan Leaf and the same battery tech, meaning that affordable and usable electric cars are already a reality.

Next year promises to be a watershed for the EV market. By April, one percent of new cars on the road, globally, will be electric for the first time in history and when that tipping point arrives, those carmakers that have been on the sidelines, including Mercedes and Volkswagen, will join the market.