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.
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