Like all good crushes, it had a few flaws. It ran on inefficient lead-acid batteries, it had a short range per charge, the batteries hated cold weather, and it was a 2-seater. The EV1 was very expensive for GM to make because it contained many original custom-made parts and was manufactured in small batches in a custom factory. Read: destined to be unprofitable even at the $35,000 lease price. A price which guaranteed that this 2-seater would be primarily a high-class toy.
And the clincher. A fatal decision. To demand a proprietary charging infrastructure for the car. Electricity is (almost) everywhere. Why require users to drive around in search of a rare paddle charger? Why not enable users to plug the car into the wall?
Did GM and other auto manufacturers deliberately sabotage the electric car is the million dollar question. It is hard to say for sure, but as someone who spent 3 months there living and breathing EV1s, I can say this. GM should have known better than to design a completely custom car in a custom factory for supposed mass-sales through Saturn. Small volume and original parts are the kiss of profitability death for a car.
However, the EV1 teams were pouring their heart and soul into the car. Working 16+ hours days. A genuine spirit of camaraderie and determination around the noble mission. If there were sabotage occurring to wiggle out of the CA ZEV Mandate, it would have had to have been at the highest levels of GM.
GM invested all total over $1 billion in the EV1 program and
has been accused of then trying to kill it. $1 billion sounds like a lot to
me, but if you compare the potential cost of having to comply with
the ZEV Mandate (and the precedent it sets), perhaps it is cheap. Also, part of this $1 billion was for advanced technology vehicles in general and was subsequently leveraged for fuel cells.
The Zero-Emission Vehicle (ZEV) Mandate was created by the California Air Resources Board (CARB) and required an increasingly % of new car sales to be zero-emission, up to 10% by 2003. Battery technology caused no tailpipe emissions. Note that battery car performance is very sensitive to weight. Lightweight and small reign supreme. Heavy and big do not. Which cars were the most profitable for automakers at the time? The heaviest trucks and SUVs on the road, basically the opposite of the EV1. Because of all of the fixed costs in auto production, it is insanely difficult not to lose money on small cars unless you leverage cross-platforms, like Toyota does.
In 1996 under intense pressure by companies, CARB eliminated the ZEV sales requirement in exchange for a "good faith effort" to market EVs. GM had slapped the GM logo on the EV1. I remember the CEO making a big deal about this. It was to be the first car ever branded GM. This gave the appearance of a concerted effort to make an EV go of it, all of the underlying challenges aside.
And the batteries? I was asked to conduct research on the future of advanced technology vehicles. It became clear that nickel metal hydride (NiMH) batteries had higher energy density than lead-acid and delivered longer ranges per charge. Lithium ion (Li-On) batteries would be the holy grail, someday, but weren’t ready yet. Note that it took until 1999 for GM to release a NiMH EV1.
And the charging decision? I sat through those meetings, and I can say that no one seemed like they were trying to set up barriers to adoption. They were dreaming of a new revenue source from chargers and charging stations. I know people who quit over this decision however, because it was so illogical.
During my internship, I discovered a large cabinet of market research from the EV1 Preview Drive program. Stacks of binders just sitting there with driver feedback forms. Never summarized or tabulated. With permission from my direct boss, I analyzed the data. The results pointed to many issues with the practical marketability of the car, but it was too late. The EV1 was launching at the Olympics.
Regardless, I and countless others formed a strong connection with the EV1. It was like a best friend who greeted you every time with a thrilling clean ride. Whoosh.
For the intriguing rest of the story, please watch the outstanding documentary film “Who Killed The Electric Car” by director Chris Paine. You can now order the much-awaited DVD of Who Killed The Electric Car online!
I first met Chris Paine at an LA Auto Show riding in the Tzero electric sports car by AC Propulsion. Chris filmed my hair standing on end after the car went 0-60 mph in 3.6 seconds. The great thing about EVs: they have instantaneous torque. They are always in the right gear. No shifting needed, so acceleration is impressive.
The precursor to the hot Tesla Roadster, the bright yellow Tzero regularly beat Ferraris on the track. The Tzero used Li-On batteries and could be plugged in…anywhere. Hooray! Consequently, AC Propulsion regularly drove the Tzero up from LA to San Francisco and reveled in its 200+ miles per charge. Kudos to Alan Cocconi and Tom Gage for keeping the EV dream alive.
When Gildo Pallanca Pastor from Monoco caught the electric sports car bug, he tapped AC Propulsion for the technology. The Venturi Fetish ev sports car is still one of the sexiest and most beautiful clean cars ever designed. Here are Venturi Fetish pictures. It had the low minimum price of $500,000.
It was thrilling to see Chris Paine's movie premiere at the
Sundance Film Festival. Heartbreaking to see the EV1s being crushed, but I’m
glad that he memorialized the saga and spirit of the EV1s on film forever. We
hosted a Clean Cars Party for Chris at the San Francisco Film Festival on Earth Day. Please see cocktail party photos here. Chris, you are a
hero for clean transportation. We look forward to a new era of clean cars that help
solve air pollution, oil dependence and global warming.