How General Motors’ First Electric Car Failed – How-To Geek | CarTailz

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The EV1 was a real electric car on the streets in 1996. So where to?

The modern electric car revolution is still in its infancy, but could have started much earlier if history had been a little different. This is the story of the EV1, General Motors’ first modern electric car.

The need for electric speed

In January 1990, General Motors showed a concept car called the “Impact” at that year’s LA Auto Show. It was an all-electric two-seat vehicle, designed from the ground up to be an electric vehicle rather than using an existing gasoline car frame. GM said it could go from zero to 60 mph in 8 seconds. For comparison, the Tesla Model 3 Performance does it in about 3 seconds, while the 2023 Chevy Bolt EV is advertised at 6.5 seconds.

The Impact was powered by 32 lead-acid batteries – the same type of battery used in petrol cars then and now. Official range was 124 miles, but the battery would need to be replaced every 20,000 miles, which GM estimates would cost around $1,500.

Although the car was impressive, General Motors was reluctant to put it into mass production, anticipating low demand from buyers. However, some US states, such as California and New York, hoped to pass legislation encouraging the adoption of electric cars, with the goal of further reducing urban air pollution and reducing dependence on oil — the last major oil supply crisis was just a decade ago . The concept car Impact showed governments that such legislation could be workable as viable electric vehicles became a reality.

Later that year, in September 1990, the California Air Resources Board passed a low-emission vehicle and clean fuel program that required a certain percentage of all cars sold by a given company in California to be low-emission vehicles (LEVs). The original rules, starting in 1998, stipulated that LEVs should be 2% of each automaker’s sales. The bar would be raised to 5% in 2001 and 10% in 2003.

The law applied to any manufacturer that sold 35,000 or more cars a year in California, including Chrysler, Ford, Honda, Mazda, Nissan, Toyota and General Motors. New York and Massachusetts also agreed to follow California’s example. Suddenly GM had a market for the Impact.

From concept to reality

Although the Impact was an impressive concept car and regulators wanted automakers to sell electric vehicles, some at General Electric continued to insist nobody wanted an electric car. A production version of the Impact would cost too much, and the limited range wouldn’t be enough to interest anyone. State governments claimed automakers just didn’t want to throw away decades of investments in gas engines.

General Motors tested the Impact in early 1994 with potential customers across the country, lending 50 cars to 1,000 homes on two-week loans. Much to GM’s surprise, interest in the test drives was overwhelming. The company expected 4,000 replies in Los Angeles, California – instead it received 9,300 calls. In New York, GM estimated fewer than 5,000 interested households, but over 14,000 people were interested. Sean P. McNamara, then head of market planning for electric vehicles at GM, recounts The New York Times“just because we have all these calls doesn’t necessarily mean they’re all buyers.”

The testers were fitted with a charging station in their garage, much like modern home EV chargers, and had to pay for the electricity. Not long after, California changed its LEV adoption schedule as automakers were slow to develop high-performance electric cars. Companies like GM only had to produce 3,750 electric cars between 1998 and 2000 – a much lower bar – with a 10 percent rule still in place for 2003.

Finally, in December 1996, the Impact became a real car. It was almost identical to the Impact, but now bore the name “General Motors EV1” – the company’s first car with a “General Motors” nameplate instead of “GM” or a sub-brand. The MSRP was $34,000 (about $60,494 in 2022, adjusted for inflation), but you really couldn’t do that Buy the car. The EV1 was only available through leasing programs at Saturn dealerships in California and Arizona, and the car could only be serviced at those dealerships.

General Motors EV-1 diagram
Smithsonian

Despite the limited range and availability, the car was relatively popular with drivers. A review from 1996 car car said: “You can’t help but be impressed with the overall driving experience. Impressively fast, comfortable and agile, the EV1 offers all the standard amenities. It’s also brimming with cleverly designed features.” March 1997 edition car and driver said: “We can observe that the EV1 has limited appeal at the moment. It’s quiet, powerful, and emits no pollutants, but the range issues, charging time, and high initial cost (see sidebar) are obstacles that must be overlooked or overcome before the EV1 becomes a viable alternative gas-powered car. Still, it’s a start.”

The Star Trek Crossover

Early drivers were enthusiastic about the EV1, or at least willing to accept the early technology’s compromises, but General Motors still wasn’t fully on board. Advertising was mainly limited to direct mail and a few magazines. General Motors had leased just 176 EV1 cars by May 1997, and only 300 by the end of 1997, a GM employee later recounted The New York Times“We launched the car in December 1996 and around April I thought we had been duped. You did not market the vehicle.”

Much like Tesla cars years later, a small community of enthusiasts formed around the EV1, promoting the car to friends and family. Some believed GM wanted the EV1 to fail in the market so California would be persuaded to drop its LEV requirements. The community took the marketing into their own hands.

A fan of the EV1 was Marvin V. Rush, a cinematographer who worked on the TV show Star Trek: Voyager back then. He said The New York Times, “Everywhere you look about this car, there is exceptional technology.” Faced with GM’s lack of enthusiasm, Rush spent $20,000 of his own money to produce and air four unauthorized radio commercials for the EV1. He even convinced actors Star Trek: Voyager to lend their voices, including Robert Picardo (the series’ holographic doctor) and Ethan Phillips (who played Neelix).


“Wouldn’t that be awesome…” voiced by Robert Picardo (eanet.com)

“Dusty!” voiced by Ethan Phillips and Robert Picardo (eanet.com)

“Issues” voiced by Ethan Phillips (eanet.com)

Four radio spots aired on KFI AM 640 in Los Angeles in May 1998, and at least five others were recorded by Rush. General Motors later decided to reimburse Rush and continue using the radio advertisement.

Farewell to the EV1

General Motors updated the EV1 for the 1999 model year, calling it the “Gen 2”, available in two versions. The first used the same lead acid batteries as the original with a range of 80-100 miles. The other option had nickel-metal hydride batteries with an estimated range of 100 to 140 miles. General Motors also cut the cost of installing home chargers by half to $500.

When the Gen 2 came out, the charging infrastructure was better too. There were just over 300 public charging stations in Southern California and the San Francisco Bay Area and 43 in Arizona. However, GM only built 500 of the Gen 2 cars, just enough to meet California’s requirements.

California changed its EV adoption schedule again in January 2001 – the requirement that EVs account for 10% of a company’s sales by 2003 was reduced to just 2%. General Motors still thought that number was too high and a month later filed a lawsuit against California to drop the requirement. Remarkably, no other car companies immediately joined the lawsuit, and most of them are also developing electric vehicles. Honda released the EV Plus in May 1997, but was discontinued in 1999 in favor of the hybrid Honda Insight. Toyota had the RAV4 EV and Ford sold the Ranger EV pickup for a time.

The legal timetable for zero-emission vehicles was finally suspended entirely due to a court order. After the legal pressure was gone, General Motors retired the EV1. The company informed EV1 drivers that their leases would not be renewed, and since the car would never be available for purchase, the move would return all EV1 vehicles to GM. Most of the leases ended in 2003, the last ones expired in August 2004. In July 2003, a mock burial was held at Hollywood Forever Cemetery.

Photo of several EV1s parked in a cemetery with flowers and a curtain covering one of the cars
Photo from the mock funeral on July 24, 2003 Bob Sexton / EV1 Club

General Motors smashed most EV1 cars after they were returned, claiming that selling the cars (or allowing them to be salvaged) would cost too much money in warranty claims and parts costs. However, some cars were kept for donation to universities and museums.

GM donated one to the Smithsonian Institution, which is currently on display at the National Museum of American History in Washington, DC. Another EV1 was given to Western Washington University, which was restored by students and faculty in 2007, as seen in the video below.

General Motors said the school violated their original agreement that the car could not be driven on public or private roads and the car was eventually converted into a hybrid vehicle. Donated to Brigham Young University, the EV1 was modified for racing competitions, and in 2005 it clocked a quarter-mile distance in 14.08 seconds at the Mason Dixon Dragway in Hagerstown, Maryland. An unmodified EV1 surfaced in 2021 and was stored on an unspecified college campus in the United States.

Perhaps the funniest surviving EV1 resides in the collection of Francis Ford Coppola, the director of The Godfather and other classic films. Coppola drove an EV1 when GM rented her, and according to a 2015 episode of the show Jay Leno’s garage, he simply hid the car in his house when GM reclaimed it. The key to keeping your car on an expired lease, it turns out, is being a famous Hollywood director.

In the years following the EV1’s discontinuation, hybrid cars carved a niche in the market, but true mass-market electric cars took much longer. The Mitsubishi i-MiEV and Nissan Leaf, launched in 2009 and 2010 respectively, spurred EV adoption in Japan and later in other countries. The Tesla Roadster was introduced in 2008, which eventually led to today’s Model S and Model X.

General Motors finally returned to electric cars in 2010 with the Chevrolet Volt, a large primary battery plug-in hybrid, and later the all-electric Chevrolet Spark EV in 2013. It may have been over a decade after the EV1, but GM finally got there.

This story was originally an episode of Tech Tales, a podcast dedicated to technology history.

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