Originally published on Gas2.
In December, 1996, General Motors began leasing its innovative EV1 to customers in California. The EV1 generated a great deal of interest in electric cars but there was a reason why it was only available in California. The California Air Resources Board had promulgated regulations requiring manufacturers to sell zero emission cars if they want to continue doing business in the state.
California has been the largest car market in the US for decades. As distasteful as the zero emissions rules were to car makers, they could not bring themselves to ignore California, so they did the next best thing. They created so-called “compliance cars” — vehicles that met the letter if not the spirit of the regulations. They were intended for sale only in California at first, but they were later made available in other states that adopted the CARB regulatory scheme.
For General Motors, the EV1 was how it planned to appease the CARB gods. People who leased one raved about its abundant power and nearly silent operation. But that didn’t stop GM from joining with other car makers to attack the rules CARB set down. The industry argued that electric cars were too expensive, there was an inadequate network of charging stations, and there was little demand among the general public for electric cars. Ultimately, the car companies prevailed and the rules were rescinded.
As soon as that happened, GM stopped building the EV1. When the outstanding leases were up, it quietly collected all of the cars and took them to a crusher where they were destroyed. There was a huge public outcry at the time, giving the lie to the claim that nobody wanted to buy an electric car. (See the movie Who Killed The Electric Car?) People who had leased an EV1 were particularly upset and went around acting like someone had just shot the family dog.
That’s pretty much how things remained until Martin Eberhard created a marriage of lithium ion battery cells with the tzero sports car, an event that led more or less directly to the start of Tesla Motors. Today, Tesla has sold nearly 200,000 premium electric cars at prices comparable to the best luxury sedans from Mercedes, BMW, and Audi. In addition, some 380,000 people worldwide have plunked down $1,000 to reserve a Tesla Model 3, the midsize car due to go into production late next year. So much for there being no demand!
In addition, Tesla has reached into its own pocket to create a worldwide network of charging stations to address the concern that people who drive an electric car have that they will run out of battery power while away from home.
None of that has stopped Mark Fields, CEO of Ford, from puckering up to plant a big wet kiss on The Donald. Fields wants Trump to eviscerate the current emissions and fuel economy rules imposed by the EPA. Tired of all the sniveling by the manufacturers, the EPA last week went ahead and formalized an extension of those rules until 2025. “We can’t make any money!” Fields screams while the US auto industry is powering toward another year of strong sales.
Fields trots out the same tired shibboleths used by the industry 20 years ago to rail against electric cars — they are too expensive, there is no charging infrastructure, and nobody wants to buy the damned things in the first place. Nowhere in Fields’s plaint is there any mention of the environment and how fossil fuels imperil the entire population of the world with premature death and disease. “Profits before people” has been the rallying cry for business in the United States ever since “Engine Charlie” Wilson told Congress in 1953, “For years I thought what was good for the country was good for General Motors and vice versa.”
20 years on from the EV1, are electric cars any closer to public acceptance than they were in 1996? Despite the pulings and dark mutterings from Fields and his colleagues, the answer is a resounding “Yes!” The major German manufacturers have decided to dig deep to create a network of high power chargers in Europe. (Ironically, Ford of Europe is part of that group.) Car companies all over the globe are racing to bring electric cars to market. That includes plug-in hybrids which some people think should not be called electric cars at all.
The Chevy Bolt is on its way to showrooms in California and Oregon as we speak. Mercedes is ramping up its EQ electric car division. Volkswagen is planning its own electric car brand known as I.D. In the end, what will put electric cars over the top is not range or price. The second revolution that is building strength every day is the shift from private car ownership to carsharing networks of autonomous driving cars. While a self-driving car does not need to be electric to function, the two technologies go together like peanut butter and jelly.
The electric cars of today are like the early flip phones. Connected, self-driving cars will be like iPhones. Once people experience the convenience and low cost associated with not owning a car at all and merely renting one on an as needed basis, there will be no turning back. Elon Musk has every intention of making the Model 3 the first new car ever introduced with full self-driving capability from day one. The rest of the industry will be racing to catch up with Tesla once again.
The 20 year anniversary of the EV1 may look like not much has changed, but by the time its 30 year anniversary rolls around, the world of cars will have unalterably changed and there will be no going back.