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Cutaway of GM EV1

Cutaway view of EV1 electric car, based on Aerovironments Santanna prototype. For a time, the EV1 held the world's electric car land speed record. Despite it's limited range, it proved popular with its drivers. GM built just over 1,000 of them, some 800 of which were leased to drivers mainly in California.

Why I Think GM Killed the EV1

Former EV1 specialist gives her perspective on the life and death of the world's first modern electric car.

By Chelsea Sexton

I've been toying with whether to jump into this one.... it's such a complicated and layered issue- and I'm not going to get into all of it. But I, of all people, am all for getting as much of the real story out as possible - and it's an important story.

First and foremost, it's important to understand that there's no "one GM"; it's a company of factions- if you've read "The Car That Could", you know what I mean. There are people within GM who never wanted it to happen, and there are people who, to this day, still wish the EV1 were here- I still hear from them from time to time.

It's fairly common knowledge that, in 1990, Roger Smith announced the car, and that many of the people who followed him felt it was a burden that they inherited. Others will argue that, before the mandate and while GM was poised to have the only EV on the market, they were excited about doing it; it was only when the mandate, and the inherent competition that was created by it, came to be that they became less enthusiastic about the prospect. It's also a popular adage that the quickest way to get an automaker to fight something, even the best of ideas, is to mandate that it happens- think seat belts and air bags.

So, GM and the others simultaneously set about both killing the mandate and meeting it.

To that end, we launched the EV1 in Dec. of 1996, and to look at the hype and hoopla, the GM and Saturn execs who came out, etc., you would have sworn that GM couldn't have been more behind the idea -- and some were. At the very least, there was a lot wrapped up in being the first to market, and many will argue, in terms of performance, sex appeal and passionate following, the best. And I'm sure that there were some that were curious to see where it would go in terms of mass market demand- some for pure reasons, and others out of concern for what it would mean were the car to catch on.

But here's the reason why I believe GM let the EV1 go to market in all it's cool, high performance (for the time) glory -- they didn't think it would succeed. I don't think there was initially a conspiracy theory because (overlooking the fact would have meant getting those factions all on the same page) it didn't occur to them that they'd need one.

Let's face it -- GM sent a car to market with one teaser ad and a bunch of print ads that barely showed the car and didn't tell you where to get it, and a dozen twenty-somethings that for all our Saturn-like enthusiasm and varied car experience, had never actually launched a car, let alone one with, due to GM's choice of Delphi batteries, 50-70 miles of real-world range and a lease payment of $500. But, sometimes the best way to assure that something gets done is to suggest that it can't be done -- and we young, feisty types were just the ones to suggest that to -- we couldn't have embraced our mission more, and we had some very committed support behind us in those technicians, engineers etc. that kept the cars on the road once we put them there.

Then something remarkable happened -- we ran out of cars. It didn't happen overnight, but it happened- it became clear that the market could evolve- which is when it also became clear that the auto industry wasn't about to -- and slowly but surely, everything changed in that program.

There's no one answer as to why GM and the others killed their programs. GM wasn't alone, of course, they were just the most arrogant and defiant about doing it. Partly, the automakers are partners with the oil companies, and it's in both of their best interests to keep us dependent on petroleum products. Partly because the auto industry makes 40% of their profit on parts and service -- much of which EVs don't need. People forget that, for some companies, selling cars is almost the loss leader compared to the profit on financing, aftermarket products and parts and service.

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