Eulogy for the EV1
By Bill Moore
How many automobiles do you know worthy of a "wake"? The only one I am aware of is the much-loved -- by its drivers if not the company who built it -- is ... was the GM EV1. I say was, because as the photo above sadly illustrates, most of the limited-production, pure electric two-seaters have been smashed into junk.
Last summer, dozens of EV1 lessees, enthusiasts and supporters gathered for a memorial service to underscore not only their affection for the ground-breaking electric car but also to register their disappointment, frustration and in some cases anger with the corporation they believe prematurely "pulled the plug" on a car that runs on American-made electric power instead of imported fossil fuels.
The EV1 began life as the Impact at the 1990 Los Angeles Auto Show. It was more an exercise in imagination and engineering expertise -- as most concept vehicles are -- than intended for actual production. But then Roger Smith made the fateful remark -- exactly when and where is of some dispute -- that the car could be put into production, launching a decade-long, billion-dollar effort of corporate pride and then face-saving, as well as unintentionally helping father California's Zero Emission Vehicle mandate.
Paul MacCready's Aerovironment in Monrovia developed the car for General Motors after building the revolutionary Sunraycer, a solar-powered car that won the first World Solar Challenge race from Darwin to Adelaide in 1987. The success of the Sunraycer so intrigued GM, that they agreed to fund development of the Santana, as the Impact was originally called. It looked essentially like the EV1 and convincingly proved to GM that a modern battery electric car was possible, mainly because of advances in high-power electronics, if not in battery technology, which would continue to lag and eventually prove the Achilles Heel of the program.
To fulfill his promise to California, Smith and his successor, Robert Stempel would spend hundreds of millions of dollars to bring the concept to reality -- garnering dozens of important patents in the process -- leasing the first cars in late 1996. The company would eventually build over 1,100 cars in two limited production builds at its Lansing, Michigan assembly plant.
For reasons best known to GM and probably intricately entwined in complex questions of product liability and support, the company decided it would only lease the car, rather than offer it for sale, a decision that still vexes the few hundred drivers lucky enough to pass GM's rigorous lease qualification procedures.
The original EV1s came equipped with Delphi-built lead-acid batteries that gave the car a real world range of between 60 to 75 miles, depending on how you drove it. GM eventually replaced the trouble-prone Delphi's with Panasonic advanced lead-acid batteries in the second generation of the car, which became available in 1999. It also offered an advanced model equipped with GM-Ovonic NiMH batteries that nearly doubled the range of the car to 140 miles. Under special test conditions, the NiMH car could go 200 miles on a single charge, but there were problems with keeping the battery pack cool, especially in the warm climes of Southern California and Arizona where summer heat sapped the power out of the packs.
The EV1s inductive charging system would further complicate the introduction of the car. While a very elegant solution that relied on magnetic fields to recharge the car's batteries, inductive charging was significantly more expensive to manufacture. GM's competitors -- Ford, Chrysler and Honda -- preferred the simpler and less costly conductive system that relied on metal to metal contact.
GM won over Toyota and Nissan to the inductive side, convincing them that the system was safer, more convenient and helped lighten the car by removing the heavy charger off the vehicle, thus improving range. The disadvantage was that now the car could only be recharged at an inductive charger, whereas with the charger built into the car, all you needed to recharge was 110 or 220 volt outlet, available at a million different locations.
Sadly, the charging standard feud would force participating utilities and municipalities to offer two different public charging systems. Ironically, the original prototype car developed by Aerovironment used a conductive charging system, one which offered the future potential of two-way charging. Being able to move electrons both ways, from the grid-to-car and back promises to revolutionize the electric power infrastructure.
The program suffered a major set back when it was discovered that a capacitor in the electronic system was overheating, creating the potential for a catastrophic vehicle fire when the car was being recharged. Although GM quickly recalled all the Generation 1 cars to replace the defective component, that event no doubt served as a wake-up call for GM and probably hastened the company's decision to "pull the plug."
From most owner's perspectives, these were minor teething problems they, as early adopters, expected and were willing, for the most part, to live with. They adapted to the short range of the early Generation 1 cars, taking pride in its rocket-sled acceleration, even though the early cars were heavy in the turn due in part to the hundreds of pounds of lead-acid batteries, which sat in a tunnel between and behind the two seats in a "T" arrangement.
Eventually, GM would solve most of the range and handling problems by switching to Panasonic advanced lead-acid batteries, resulting in a car drivers of the earlier Gen I and NiMH Gen II's considered the finest EV ever built. Most drivers of the Panasonic equipped-Generation II cars were getting more than 100 miles range on a charge, a significant improvement over the earlier Delphi-equipped cars. Several owners even drove their EV1s across the United States, stopping every 70 to 100 miles to recharge their cars, to prove it could be done. One even used my home dryer outlet to recharge one night on his way to Detroit.
The EV1 -- which General Motors marketed and serviced through a handful of Saturn dealerships in California and Arizona -- was sleek and fast. For a time, it held the world land speed record for an electric car at more than 184 mph. It was fun to drive and best of all, generated zero tailpipe pollution.
While GM officially refused to accede to claims that there was a long waiting list of people wanting to lease the car, EV1 drivers contended that GM could have leased many more than they did. This divergence of view only served to underscore the love-loathe relationship that gradually developed between the company and its customers. GM's EV1 reps threw themselves into their jobs with a conviction and dedication that earned them the respect of their customers. In contrast, the company's marketing efforts left most supporters under-whelmed by its obtuseness and lack of focus. One lessee was so frustrated that he invested his own money in a series of radio ads to help drive sales.
By the start of the new century, GM was ready to call it quits. It started with the announcement that the Lansing plant would be converted to build a new Cadillac. From that point on, the road to the Arizona bone yard became increasingly obvious. Car leases were prematurely terminated and promises to refurbish older models were broken. The final indignity came when the company began stockpiling returned cars in a fenced lot in Southern California, amidst rumors that they would soon be crushed. The anonymous photo proves the rumors were true.
It will be left to history to decide whether GM's brief flirtation with the modern battery electric car was an expensive embarrassment -- as most automotive writers suggest -- or a hopeful, if short lived glimpse of an inevitable future. GM will naturally spin the history of the EV1 to its best light, pointing to all the patents its garnered and the knowledge it gleaned from the effort. They will argue they gave it their best shot and that it's time to move on to fuel cells, though critics -- many of whom are former EV1 lessees -- will probably never, ever see it that way.
One thing is obvious, GM's decision to crush the EV1 program as effectively as they have now crushed the cars, has dearly cost the company much goodwill among California's early adopter community and environmental regulators, the very people whom they will need to win over when it comes time to launch their hybrids and later fuel cell vehicles.
The EV1 wasn't perfect, but it was a quantum improvement anything previously attempted by any carmaker. It broke important new ground technologically. To those who drove it, including yours truly, it demonstrated that it is possible to meet virtually all one's mobility needs with a battery electric car. Hollywood celebrities proved it. Electric utility employees proved it. Ordinary people from all walks of life proved it.
That will be the real lasting legacy of the EV1: that it is easier to crush cars than dreams.
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