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EV1 electric car

The Short History of GM's First Electric Car

by Larry Carley copyright AA1Car.com

Electric cars were supposed to be the cars of the future. Clean, efficient and quiet, whisking us to and fro while being kind to the environment and our pocketbooks. The EV1 electric car built by General Motors was to have been the first of what would be a whole new era in automotive transportation. But the dream was aborted shortly after its birth.

A documentary called "Who Killed the Electric Car?" by Sony Pictures, reports on the ill-fated General Motors EV1 electric car that was sold briefly from 1997 to 2000 in California (This is a "must see" documentary for anyone who loves conspiracy theories about oil companies and car makers plotting together to squash electric vehicles).

General Motors reluctantly built the car to comply with California zero-emission regulations which required auto makers to sell a certain percentage of zero-emission vehicles in that state. When the regulations were dropped due to pressure from the car makers and oil companies, GM abruptly pulled the plug on the EV1. The cars were all leased vehicles, so GM took all of the cars back from their owners and had the cars crushed and destroyed. End of story.

GM's Electric Car Prototype

At a GM press conference back in 1990, I saw and drove the first prototype for what would later become GM's EV1 production electric car. The car was originally named "Impact." GM later decided Impact was not the best name for a motor vehicle because of its negative connotations (like accident, collision, crash, injury, death). I still have the original press kit somewhere around here.

Here is an excerpt from an article I wrote 10 years ago about GM's electric car:

Report on GM's Impact Electric Car by Larry Carley

At the 1990 Chicago auto show, GM unveiled its plans for the future: an electric-powered aerodynamic two-seater called the Impact. Powered by 840 lbs. of conventional lead-acid batteries, the 2,550 lb. aluminum-framed, plastic bodied car could zip to 60 mph in 8 seconds and travel 125 miles on a single battery charge.

On March 11, 1994, a slightly modified Impact with six additional batteries set a land speed record for an electric powered vehicle of 183.822 miles per hour, proving that electric vehicles don't have to be slugs.

In early 1995, GM built a test fleet of 50 Impacts for what would be a two-year, 12 city ride-and-drive evaluation program involving 1,000 different drivers. By giving people a chance to actually drive and live with an electric-powered car, GM is gaining invaluable real-world experience with the car before it is produced for the mass market. So far, the results have been very positive. Eighty-three percent of those who have driven the car for a week or more said it meets their needs. The average cost to drive the car (excluding the ultimate cost of replacing the batteries) has been 3.75 cents per mile at standard residential electric rates (equivalent fuel operating costs to a gasoline-powered vehicle that gets 40 to 45 mpg).

The test fleet of preproduction Impacts are essentially production-ready now. They have such standard features as dual air bags, antilock brakes, cruise control, heat and air conditioning. The cars tip the scales at 2970 lbs., which is up over 400 lbs. from the first prototype. The driving range is about 70 miles city driving and 90 miles on the highway with the lead-acid battery pack. Zero to 60 mph acceleration is still in the 8-second range thanks to a 137 horsepower three-phase AC induction motor running on 312 volts of electricity from the battery pack. The batteries can be recharged in two to three hours using a 220 volt, 30 amp charger.

GM Electric Car Production

The prototype cars were very close to what would become the EV1 production car. At the time, I couldn't understand why GM was taking so long to put the cars into production, and when they did go on sale why GM limited the sales to a handful of cars. Wasn't this the car the world had been waiting for? To me, it seemed like the perfect solution for low cost urban commuting. Eventually, car went into limited production and was built from 1996 to 1999. Total production was limited to 1,117 cars.

The Battery Doomed the EV1 from the Start

The limited range (80 to 100 miles) of the heavy and slow-to-charge lead-acid battery in the first generation EV1 doomed the car from the start. The battery was also very expensive, causing GM to lose big bucks on every EV1 they built. The second generation 1999 EV1s had a batter Panasonic nickel-metal-hydride battery that extended the range up to 160 miles, but it was also very expensive. I assumed GM would continue its work on battery development and continue to upgrade battery performance while reducing battery cost, but that never happened.

Because the EV1 was a loser from the get-go financially, GM never actually sold the cars to the public. It leased them instead. Leasing concealed the true cost of these vehicles and allowed GM to retain ownership so eventually the cars could be returned to GM.

GM pulled the plug on the EV1 in 2002, and all the cars were repossessed. Most of those who had leased an EV1 loved their cars and wanted to buy them from GM, but GM said no because they did not want to continue providing dealer support, parts and service for the cars. Most of the EV1s that were returned to GM were crushed, with 40 being donated to museums and schools. The donated cars had their powertrains disconnected for liability reasons, with the understanding that the cars could not be reactivated or driven on the street ever again.

I'm not privy to the inner politics and motives behind the demise of the EV1 at GM, but from what I've learned from GM engineers the EV1 was a car GM executives never wanted to build. The car was only built to comply with California's zero emission regulations. Once those requirements were dropped, GM felt no need to continue the EV1. GM claimed electric cars were not yet ready for prime time and were too expensive to build. GM had reportedly invested nearly $700 million dollars in the EV1 program. One GM engineer told me GM was losing tens of thousands of dollars on every EV1 it produced!

Were Electric Cars the Answer to $4 a Gallon Gas?

In retrospect, it is too bad that GM did not stay the course and become a leader in developing and promoting the electric car market. GM has built some great (and not so great) cars over the years, but the EV1 was something that was a real breakthrough. But GM dropped the ball and backed away from electric cars as soon as California said auto makers did not have to produce a certain percentage of electric vehicles to sell cars in their state.

If the EV1 were still available today, with a more advanced lithium ion battery instead of a heavy, limited range lead-acid battery, they would probably be a much better car than the original. Sales, like the sales of all other electric vehicles, would be heavily dependent on the price of gasoline. When gas prices go up, people look for more fuel efficient vehicles (gas, hybrid or electric), and when the price of gasoline goes down the public could care less about fuel efficiency, energy conservation and electric cars. Had GM stayed the course and become a leader in electric vehicle technology instead of giving the lead to an upstart like Tesla, GM's position in the marketplace and their profitability might be much different than it is today.

November 2010

GM Launches Chevy Volt Extended Range Electric Hybrid

Chevy Volt electric hybrid

To much hoopla, GM climbed back aboard the electric vehicle bandwagon with their introduction of the Chevy Volt plug-in extended range electric car. The Volt was GM's answer to the highly successful Toyota Prius hybrid. Essentially an electric-powered car with a gasoline engine for a generator, the Chevy Volt offers extended driving (up to 400 miles) when the electric charge in the battery is used up. The Volt's range in full electric mode ranges from 25 to 50 miles, giving it the gasoline equivalent fuel economy of 93 miles per gallon while running on battery power alone.

The Chevy Volt's list price at introduction was a hefty $40,280, but was offset by a $7,500 federal energy tax credit. GM hoped to sell upwards of 30,000 Volts a year starting in 2011. But total sales to date (through 2019) was 177,000, far short of their goal. Due to the high development and tooling costs, an econimic recession and lackluster sales, GM decided to discontinue the Volt in 2019.

For an overview of the Chevy Volt, Click Here.

December 2013

Chevy Volt Outsells Corvettes in 2013 by a Significant Margin

General Motors reported that it has sold nearly 21,000 Chevy Volts in 2013, compared to roughly 13,000 Corvettes. Based on these sales figures, it looks like the clean practical plug-in extended range electric car is outselling American's number one sports car.

The Chevy Volt's main competitor in the plug-n electric car market in 2013 was the Nissan Leaf (over 20,000 sold), followed by the Tesla Model S (over 16,000 sold), the Toyota Prius PHEV (over 11,000 sold )and Ford C-Max PHEV (over 6,000 sold).

Overall, electric car sales are up over 300 percent in 2013. Compared to the number of hybrid vehicles and conventional vehicles that were sold in 2013, these numbers are still very small -- due in part to the limited availability of lithium-ion batteries. Even so, it does show growing public interest in electric vehicles and a slow shift away from petroleum based fuels.

June 2018

Electric Cars Sales Struggle Against Low Gas Prices

In spite of the fact that numerous auto makers now offer one or more electric vehicles or plug-in hybrid vehicles, the temporary drop in gas prices has kept sales below target in recent years. Today, electric cars and hybrids account for less than 3 percent of all new vehicle sales. Still, that's nearly half a million hybrid and electric vehicles that are rolling off of new car dealer lots.

July 2018

Who Saved the Electric Car?

Tesla becomes Number 1 Electric Vehicle Manufacturer in the World!

The upstart Tesla has been credited with saving the electric car by building electric cars that deliver outstanding performance, range and advanced technology. They have become the industry leader that other auto makers are trying to catch.

Production and profitability issues plagued Tesla from the start, but with the production of its highly successful and popular Model S line, Tesla established itself as not only a serious player in the electric car market but its technical leader. The Model X SUV soon followed, and the Model 3 thereafter.

After struggling to launch its Model 3 due to production issues (and internal sabotage by a disgruntled employee!), production of the new Model 3 reached 5000 cars per week. This makes Tesla the leading EV manufacturer in the world. The new Model 3 is now ranked in the Top 20 vehicles sold in the U.S.

The Tesla Model 3 has a maximum range of up to 310 miles on a charge, and can accelerate from zero to 60 mph in 3.5 seconds with the upgraded battery performance package (which is faster than a 2018 Corvette with a 460 horsepower 6.2L V8 engine!). Prices range from $35,000 for the base model to over $78,000 for the all-wheel drive performance model.

For more info on the Model 3, visit the Tesla Model 3 information page.

If GM killed the original electric car, Elon Musk has certainly been the one who saved and redefined the electric car. Nobody thought he could do it, but he did!

Tesla currently builds its vehicles in Fremont, California, and is opening a new plant in Shanghai, China. A third Tesla plant is planned for Germany. Tesla sold 245,162 vehicles in 2018, and is now selling nearly 100,000 vehicles globally per quarter. By the end of 2019, Tesla will have sole nearly one million vehicles worldwide (mostly in the U.S., China and Norway) since they started selling cars in 2012. Tesla currently has about 80 percent of the U.S. market share for electric vehicles. It's a great success story and one that GM missed the boat on when they killed their EV1 electric car.

November 2018

GM Discontinues Volt Plug-In Electric Car

Citing lackluster sales and a market move away from cars to SUVs, GM announced it would be discontinuing the Chevy Volt extended range plug-in hybrid/electric car. The 2019 model would be the last. Launched in 2010, GM sold more than 150,000 Volts. Annual sales the last two years of its production were about 20,000 cars a year (2X that of Corvettes in 2018!). The 2019 Volt offered up to 53 miles in pure electric mode, About 4500 were sold in 2019 before production ended.

Replacing the Volt is the all-electric Bolt, which offers a range of up to 238 miles. Whereas the Volt was marketed against the Toyota Prius hybrid, the Volt is targeted at the Nissan Leaf.

February 2020

GM Announces Rebirth of Hummer as an Electric SUV

During this year's Super Bowl, GM ran a TV commercial announcing their "new" upgraded and fully electrified Hummer SUV. Not a lot of technical details were given but GM says it will be a plug-in electric vehicle with upwards of 1,000 horsepower and will be marketed as a high performance SUV for those who want super car performance in a fullsize SUV. Stay tuned for further details as GM moves forward with their plans.

electric car Related Articles:

The Electric Car Revolution: They Are Back!

Should You Buy a Hybrid or Electric Car?

Toyota Prius Hybrid Report

Top Consumer Rated Electric Cars for 2019

Best Electric Cars (Edmunds)

Listing of Every 2019 and 2020 Electric Cars and SUVs (Cars & Driver)

Electric Vehicle Resources:

Wikipedia info on EV1


Electric Auto Association


Plug In America

Ultimate Guide to Charging an Electric Car

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