Marcel Romijn travels to Los Angeles and stands face to face with a legendary vehicle little known outside California. Introducing the GM EV1.
Many of you well know that the electric car is at least as old as the motorcar. And thus it has just as many interesting stories about its history. One of these stories has all the elements of an exciting blockbuster movie. In the 1980’s General Motors research department sets out to develop an electric vehicle. Not any electric vehicle, but a user friendly, everyday use commuter car. It is to be created based on experiences from the World Solar Challenge held annually in the Australian outback. In 1990 the first prototype, called Impact, is revealed at the Los Angeles Motor Show.
When GM announces the vehicle they immediately trigger the interest of the California Air Resources Board. They see the apparent new state of technology as a reason to set more stringent legislation on vehicle exhaust emissions.
They require that from 1997 onwards car manufacturers will need to make a percentage of their production zero emission vehicles. Totally by accident GM triggers a market for electric vehicles that will first exist in California, but could easily spread out to other states quickly.
In 1994 GM sets up a program where interested potential buyers can test drive an Impact for up to two weeks, allowing GM to gather field data. 50 hand-build Impacts are distributed. In LA alone 10.000 interested people call in before GM cuts off the phone lines. Although reviews are very positive, GM strangely enough isn’t convinced. They release statements that the Impact is the best they can do with the limited state of technology. GM looks at the test program as a failure and proof that the technology comes up short. Still based on Lead-Acid batteries the range is indeed limited. Secretly GM hopes that the California legislator will understand the limitations and acknowledge this legislation comes too early. Other car manufacturers follow the GM statement, thus provoking the wrath of legislators and public for being too conservative.
GM retracts all Impacts from circulation and takes the learned lessons into the EV1 vehicle program for the 1996 model year. Being the first car in history to wear an actual General Motors badge, the EV1’s aerodynamic body has a futuristic appearance. In the first model years, it has a range of up to 100 miles. Initially some 660 cars are build. GM, regarding the vehicles as only one step beyond prototype status, decides to lease out the cars rather than to sell them to third parties. The release of the EV1 is a large media event and many of the first EV1s are leased by celebrities during the event. The electric vehicles of the competition are based on standard cars and as such aren’t instantly identified as a vehicle for the future as the GM EV1. Controversy is part of the game with criticism on the tax benefits for the EV1 and the use of government money to build public charging stations. Some of the critics are even accused of accepting money from the oil industry. Once released GM soon seems to loose interest in promoting the EV1. So much so that EV1 fans start to promote the vehicle themselves. In 1999 an improved GenII of the EV1 is released with an optional Nickel-Metal Hydride (NiMH) battery, which extends the range up to 140 miles. Only a limited amount of EV1’s are produced leaving the total of GenI and GenII EV1’s to a measly 1117 vehicles. The waiting list easily outnumbered GM’s capability of producing the EV1 during its entire lifespan.
By 2002 extensive debate and lawsuits have modified Californian legislation to include near-zero emission vehicles in the definition. GM immediately announces that all EV1 lease contracts will be terminated. By the end of 2003 all EV1’s have disappeared from circulation. Most are crushed, only few make it to museums to be put on display. The controversy however continues for years. Conspiracy theories exist in large numbers with most suggesting that the oil industry had to be protected. Some of these theories target the car manufacturers, others suggest government officials being bribed. Fact is, that yet another attempt for electric cars failed due to unclear reasons.
The car pictured in this article comes from the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles. Although being rather young for a museum, the GM EV1 has earned its place in history and is on display regularly next to other examples of Electric Vehicles the collection has to offer. Being nothing new on its own, the GM EV1 managed to seriously stir up the automotive world. No-one could have predicted that the demise of GM’s first electric attempt would eventually lead to the rise of that other electric star from Silicon Valley, Tesla, some twenty years on.