The GM EV1 Story (EVs Part 3)


By the end of the 1980s electric vehicles
had taken baby steps towards becoming practical. And companies would continue to produce small,
lightweight vehicles into the 1990s, using heavy lead-acid batteries. But one company
would strive, and some would say succeed in producing the world’s first electric vehicle
that was a practical replacement for an internal combustion engine car. It would take almost
ten years of work to produce and would come from the unlikeliest of sources, stodgy old
General Motors. This is the GM EV1 Story. (music) In the 1990s many electric cars were produced,
but these had evolved little since the 1980s, using lead acid batteries and simple motors
and drivetrains. The cars glacial acceleration was measured over 0-30mph as many of them
couldn’t even get to 60mph. The EV1 was truly a car apart, and the story starts with
the GM SunRaycer, developed in 1987 in collaboration with AeroVironment and the Hughes Aircraft
company. To win the race, an innovative new motor utilising rare earth metals was produced,
being 92% efficient and lighter to boot. Buoyed by the win, General Motors started
a program to build a test car that they might turn into a practical electric car. The result
was the 1990 GM Impact, not the best name you can give for a car! But the car used much
improved electronics that regulated the motor and its lead-acid batteries. Instead of using
low voltage direct current like most electric cars before it, the Impact switched to high
voltage alternating current that was much more efficient. It required investment in
an inverter to translate the DC into AC, making for a more complex drivetrain.
GM began a testing program with the Impact in 1994, loaning them to 50 members of the
public for one to two weeks. The testers needed to have a garage where the necessary charging
equipment could be installed. The interest in the programme was overwhelming, with 10,000
people calling in from around Los Angeles, and 14,000 people from the New York City area
before lines had to be closed. Customer and car magazine reviews were both favourable,
with Motor Trend finding it a revelation, writing “The Impact is precisely one of those
occasions where GM proves beyond any doubt that it knows how to build fantastic automobiles.
This is the world’s only electric vehicle that drives like a real car”. General Motors,
the stodgy company known for uninspiring cars by the 1990s had made the first electric car
that was a viable family car replacement. To show just how fast it was, a modified Impact
set an EV land speed record of 183mph that same year.
Yet in a New York Times article GM itself poured cold water on the whole endeavour,
saying they’d “come up short”. With such enthusiasm, why would they sabotage their
own car? Well, there are various likely reasons. The first is the practicality of the car.
The car had a limited range, just a few tens of miles, and took an age to recharge. In
a big country like the USA where people think nothing of driving for hours to get to the
next city, this didn’t really seem like a practical mass-market car. The second reason
was likely the cost. GM produces affordable cars, and they believed it would cost a lot
to produce. But likely the main reason had come from the
State of California. In the early 1990s they’d heard of GM’s Impact test program and brought
in legislation from CARB or the California Air Resources Board ruling that the top 7
automakers had to make 2% of all cars it sold in California emission free by 1998. This
would rise to 5% in 2000 and 10% in 2003. GM and other carmakers were aghast at how
much this would cost them to develop. Putting more money into R&D means lower profits, which
means the company’s share price dips. Plus making 10% of all GM cars sold in California
emission free in just 10 years seemed pretty far-fetched. The technology to produce the
cars hadn’t yet been created. Looking back, it does seem like an impossible task when
there were less than ½% of zero emission cars on the road in the USA by 2019!
So, by striving to innovate in the market, GM had kicked over a hornet’s nest, so were
now desperately trying to dampen expectations on the EV excitement while at the same time
starting work to challenge the CARB legislation in the Californian courts. In GM’s eyes
the Impact was a nice test project, but the electric car wasn’t ready for the mass market
any time soon. California pointed out the vast popularity of their test program and
told them to get on with making zero emission cars a reality.
Despite GM’s concerns, their EV programme continued and the car evolved into the 1996
EV1, the first production car in General Motors’ 88-year history to wear the GM badge. The
car used a lighter aluminium frame, with plastic body panels, super light magnesium alloy wheels
and had a low drag factor of just 0.19 all to help get the most performance and range
from its heavy 533kg lead-acid batteries. The three-phase AC motor produced 137hp with
no need to change gears and the FWD car had a range of around 80 miles, but like with
any electric car, hills and cold weather would eat into that range.
GM decided it would have a limited release in Phoenix and Tucson in Arizona, plus Los
Angeles. They were quick to highlight the benefits of an electric car. No oil changes,
no tune-ups, so no expensive servicing. With most people driving less than 80 miles a day,
and home charging taking just three hours, and a 9 second 0-60 time, GM sold this as
an everyday practical car. To get in the car, the driver used a keypad,
and entered an unlock code on the centre console to start the car. The EV1 had all the modern
conveniences you’d expect like airbags, CD player, cruise control and air conditioning.
The cars could only be leased, so they remained the property of General Motors. They were
initially offered to “influencers” like Hollywood celebrities and politicians, something
that GM would live to regret, and all potential owners would be pre-screened. Leases were
high, between $400 and $550 a month when you could lease a Honda Accord at that time for
only $230 a month. Despite GM’s reticence about the car, they
put $8M of advertising behind the launch, showing GM’s ability to lead the market
with a its first modern electric car. But with each EV1 having to be essentially hand
build, in the first 12 months of release, they’d only leased 288 cars. But those 288
drivers had “wonderfully-maniacal loyalty” according to EV1 brand manager, Ken Stewart.
After GM’s initial marketing push, the advertising stopped which got EV1 drivers spooked. One
such person was Marvin Rush, a cinematographer on the TV show “Star Trek: Voyager”, who
got so worried he made his own radio ad and paid $20,000 of his own money to get it on
air. GM was initially taken aback and opposed what he’d done, but later changed its mind,
saying it would make the ads official and reimburse him the $20,000. But as GM continued
to fight California’s CARB legislation in court, many felt that at best GM was conflicted
about selling its EV1, and at worst had already given up.
But EV1 development continued. GM had always wanted the original car to have lighter and
more powerful Nickel Metal Hydride batteries, and these were added to the quieter 1999 Gen
II car. This made it approximately 80kg lighter and improved the range from around 80 miles
to 140. Over the next two years, about 200 Gen I cars were retrofitted with the improved
batteries. During the initial market analysis of the
EV1, GM had identified that the 2-seat layout was a limiting factor, so they produced a
4-seat prototype by stretching the car by 19”. The heavier chassis limited the range
to just 50 miles so it wasn’t used for the 1996 EV1, but they would use it in 1998 to
showcase alternate propulsion technologies. The first was a series hybrid, using a gas
turbine engine in the boot, which could be powered by regular petrol or compressed natural
gas. When the EV1’s batteries needed charging the engine would start, providing the necessary
power. The second was a parallel hybrid, using a
1.3L turbodiesel engine to power a DC motor that powered the rear wheels, while the existing
batteries and AC motor powered the front wheels. The 0-60 time was just 7 seconds with a total
power output of 219hp. GM would use similar hybrid technology on the Opel Astra Diesel
Hybrid concept in 2005. The third used a methanol-powered fuel cell,
an expander/compressor and a fuel processor which was allied to the EV1’s batteries
and motor. This gave the car a range of about 300 miles.
The last didn’t use batteries at all. Instead it used a compressed natural gas tank allied
to a 1.0L Suzuki 3-cylinder engine giving a 0-60 time of 11 seconds. The tank could
be filled in 4 minutes to give a range of up to 400 miles.
By 1999 GM had also reduced the production costs of the vehicle, although they were still
not being mass produced. Just 457 were produced in the first 12 months after the Gen II’s
release, and GM ended production in 1999 after producing just 1,117 cars. At the time they
said they just couldn’t make the car for a profit.
In 2002 General Motors notified all those driving EV1’s that their leases wouldn’t
be renewed and that all the cars would be taken off the road. There was a public outcry
from the leaseholders, who loved their cars and wanted to keep driving them. GM said it
wasn’t possible to renew the leases as they couldn’t supply replacement parts for the
15-year life of the vehicle, which California law required them to do.
Some offered to buy the cars outright and wrote up contracts absolving GM of any requirements
to supply replacement parts. Some went as far as to post cheques with a deposit. GM
refused and returned all the cheques. EV1 owners were outraged, and one in particular
– Executive Producer Chris Paine decided to direct a documentary chronicling the end of
the EV1, and it ended up being a scathing attack on GM. He called it “Who killed the
Electric Car?” and if you want to go into more detail on the history of the EV1 it’s
well worth a watch. General Motors stuck to its guns and took
back all the EV1s, threatening leaseholders with legal action if they refused. Most were
crushed, but 39 were deactivated and donated to museums. One lucky EV1 wasn’t deactivated
because the beneficiary, the Smithsonian Museum of Washington DC, would only take it if it
was still driveable. This makes the EV1, a car from the end of the 20th century, a rarer
car than many cars from the early part of the 20th century.
GMs reluctance and the resulting documentary destroyed all the goodwill they’d created
with the EV1. Honda in contrast bowed to customer pressure with its similar EV Plus programme
and allowed customers to extend their leases. The auto companies managed to get California
to abandon the CARB legislation, which wasn’t going to be practical in any case. But it
spurred many automakers to look into alternative propulsion methods. Toyota and Honda launched
the Prius and Insight hybrids with small battery packs being charged by a regular internal
combustion engine. And Japanese manufacturers in particular invested in hydrogen fuel cell
technology which they continue to work on to the present day.
Hybrid technology became very fashionable after the Prius and Insight were launched,
but it made very little impact on regular internal combustion engine car sales, peaking
at just 3.2% of cars sold in the USA in 2013. Some of the people who worked on the GM Impact
prototype started AC Propulsion in 1992. They would focus on electric drivetrains which
would be used on the Tesla Roadster prototype, and they continue to sell their products today.
In 2009, outgoing GM CEO Rick Wagoneer said his biggest regret was killing the EV1 and
missing the growth of EVs and hybrids. GM would attempt to make up for lost ground by
using its EV1 knowledge with their high profile plug-in hybrid car, the Chevy Volt, and GM
touted this car would bring them back to profitability after its 2009 bankruptcy. The car was the
poster child for a new GM, but it failed to capture public interest and GM went back making
profitable petrol-powered trucks as the economy recovered from the Global Recession.
In 2020 there’s a land rush amongst large car companies towards creating electric vehicles,
with Volkswagen hoping to sell 1M EVs by 2023 and BMW delivering its 500,000th electric
car at the end of December 2019. The EV1 was a seminal car, the first practical electric
car but maybe a car before its time. How were people texting each other in the
1930s? Find out more in my Little Car video about the Telex. And a big thank you to all
my Patrons for supporting me! Thanks for watching and see you in the next video!