Pop quiz: What American automaker brought a pure electric car to market in the 1990s? Even a fresh-faced neophyte to the world of EVs probably knows the answer. But wait. Here’s another one: What automaker attempted to make a pure electric car in the 1960s, and again in the 1970s? Fewer may know the answer to that one. Final question: What automaker triggered a series of events in 1990 that led to the California Air Resources Board (CARB) passing a mandate requiring all major automakers to have no-emissions cars be a percentage of their sales by 1998?
The answer to all three questions is in fact the same: GM. Yes, General Motors. In the first of this “looking back” series that meanders through the history of the electric car, we take a short step back in time to educate ourselves on the rather intriguing story of how the GM EV1 was born. In doing so, the above three questions will be addressed. Many of us know how the EV1 — the short-lived electric car of the 90s — died because we have watched the eye-opening documentary Who Killed The Electric Car? (if you haven’t seen it, you should). The footage of hundreds of EV1s being crunched at a wrecking yard is unforgettable, but the story of how the EV1 was born is just as compelling. Much of the tech employed in contemporary electric cars was actually spawned during the development of the EV1.
But before documentary filmmaker Chris Paine removed his lens cap to shoot Who Killed The Electric Car?, and before Elon Musk eyeballed the sporty tzero EV that inspired him to invest in fledgling Tesla Motors, journalist Michael Shnayerson penned a book entitled The Car That Could. Published in 1996, the book is our gateway to this strata of EV diggings, as The Car That Could covers the development of the GM Impact (the long-standing name of the EV1 until just before it was released into the wild). For those who wish to come along for the ride, it’s time once again to step into the Wayback Machine and take a trip back to one of the most interesting times in the evolution of the electric car.
I’ll tell you right now, Shnayerson’s book is a page turner. The drama surrounding the attempt to bring a zero-emission vehicle to market in the ’90s didn’t start when GM pulled the EV1 off the streets in 2003. The spectacle began back in 1990 when then Chairman of GM Roger Smith showed off the prototype of a modern electric car at a Los Angeles car show. GM wanted to put the vehicle into production and Smith wanted to let the world know that. It was back then that the Republican deputized 10-member CARB board got wind of the one-off automobile and decided it was such a good idea that the State of California should force every major carmaker to have 2% of its sales be zero-emission vehicles by 1998.
To set a context, GM had introduced an electric truck way back in 1912, just one year after the company’s incorporation. But consumers of that era had already begun to choose gasoline-powered vehicles over electrics for a variety of reasons, and production of the truck stopped in 1917 (interestingly, GM produced about the same number of those electric trucks as they did the EV1 some 80 years later). GM later built an “experimental” EV in the 1960s named the Electrovair … a spiffed up Corvair Monza powered by an AC motor and a silver-zinc battery pack. Later on, in the post-oil embargo ’70s, GM created a contingent plan to maintain car sales if gasoline was to go to $2.50 gallon by developing the Electrovette, a retrofitted Chevette, this time with a DC motor and lead-acid batteries (and later nickel-zinc batteries). Both attempts were thwarted by the immature electronics and the short-range, short-lived, and very expensive batteries. And in the case of the Electrovette, $2.50/gal gas never materialized in that era. A link at the end of this article showcases a couple of other attempts by GM to pull off non-fossil fuel vehicles and explains what that van is doing in the below photo.
If GM gave up on electric cars after the forays of the ’60s and ’70s, it wasn’t for long. The author of The Car That Could embarks us on an up close and personal look at the agony and the ecstasy of a new — this time for sure — endeavor to bring a workable electric car to market in the 1990s. Shnayerson was given a backstage pass right into the heart of the program and he took full advantage of the no-holds barred liberty GM bestowed upon him by interviewing everyone involved, from a production line worker to the Chairman of the Board. Shnayerson went deep, and the story he tells is one of a dedicated team of people trying to do the improbable by building a car whose technology was so adolescent, at times it seemed the initial goal to have the EV1 in production by 1994 was akin to a fairytale. Yet technology was not the only hurdle. Governments started to intervene. And, politics within GM would at some point have the program sputtering like a ’55 Chevy driving by Lover’s Lane. Regarding the green-colored petrol we call dollars, they became short in supply as the unfortunate timing of the commencement of the EV1 program coincided with GM’s decline into the worst financial struggle in its history.
From a tech perspective, can you imagine what portion of the powertrain presented the biggest challenge? Right. The batteries. Again. But before the challenges of designing a cost-effective and long-range battery pack were even fully understood, the immediate insurmountable obstacle was the inverter, the circuit that turned the battery’s direct current (DC) into the alternating current (AC) that powers the motor. GM had gone back to an AC motor with the Impact, which did not have parts that wore out as was so with DC motors of the time.
GM had a working inverter in the Santana (the aforementioned prototype electric car that woke up CARB. It has been named the Santana after the Santa Anna winds that occasionally blew the smog out of the Los Angeles Basin). The inverter in that car had been designed by a brilliant young engineer named Alan Cocconi (a name you may recognize). The challenge with Cocconi’s early inverter in the Santana was that it wasn’t reliable enough for a production vehicle. It also cost “several hundred thousand dollars” and took eight man-weeks to build just one unit. GM had a goal to get the price tag of the production inverter down to $2,000, with a 3–4 hour build time. Shnayerson tells us that, amazingly, GM reached that goal, at least in terms of reliability and build time, redesigning the analog-based prototype into a digital design, rendering the basic design still in use.
The book is full of similar stories of remarkable, reason-defying technical achievements that not only made the Impact/EV1 work but are used even in today’s EVs. Another example would be regenerative braking, also invented by Cocconi.
One story in particular that sticks in my mind is that of a major breakthrough in battery technology during the EV1 development program. Enter the classic eccentric, white-haired, Einsteinish-looking inventor Stanford Ovshinsky. Stan’s father had owned a metals recycling company, and because of his exposure to that business, Stan at some point did something fairly rare in trying to create the perfect battery chemistry. Instead of drawing metals straight from the Periodic Table of Elements … lead, nickel, iron, silver … Stan mixed up a composite of several of these metals, creating a unique alloy. The resulting formulation rendered a patent-worthy improvement of the nickel-metal-hydride battery.
GM was one of the first to employ batteries based on Ovshinsky’s Frankensteinian design. Although the EV1 would start off life with lead-acid batteries, it would later be fitted with lighter, longer-range nickel-metal-hydride cells as they became available. And although the fashion in EV battery tech is now lithium-ion chemistry, nickel-metal-hydride batteries are still found powering a vast array of consumer products, as well as being a popular choice for hybrid vehicles. The whole Stanford Ovshinsky saga and his relationship with carmakers is a tale unto itself within the book.
A major subplot in The Car That Could is politics, and the political heat, drama, and maneuvering run in arc from the beginning of the Impact/EV1 program to its end. Shnayerson describes a number of players in this Mad Hatter style tea party. California’s powerful CARB wanted a handful of zero-emission vehicles on the road by 1998. As Shnayerson tells it, though, the technology was simply not ripening fast enough to comply with that mandate. So, at some point, the carmakers started to push back. In the meantime, other states got wind of what California was doing and wanted to copy the mandate for their state (mostly Northeastern states, where the cold weather aggravated the core issues of the EV powertrain). Then GM ran out of money and, mandate or no mandate, cancelled the Impact program in 1992.
The Phoenix Rises
Someone turned on the light at the end of the tunnel in 1993, when a new Chairman and an improving economy jointly snatched GM from the jaws of death and gave it a record-breaking year. With dollars once again flowing, the EV1 program was re-started in 1994, albeit with a greatly reduced budget and a shortened development time. Reportedly, that marked the first time in history a defunct car program was resurrected. Interestingly, the decision was made to bring the Impact/EV1 to market regardless of what happened with the CARB mandate.
The only politics visible early on in this saga were played out internally among various divisions within GM as each discreet entity vied for which aspects of Impact/EV1 production — batteries, electronics, drive components, etc. — each would be responsible for. There was a fight over who would get to build the car. Virtually everyone at GM appeared to support the EV1 program. The company saw an electric future and wanted to be a leading player. Polling showed that Californians, especially women, understood the benefits of an electric car and wanted to play. The goal was to comply with the mandate (although attempts to delay its implementation would start before long). Furthermore, there was no interference from the oil companies at this point, and the electric utility companies were firmly behind the EV, seeing an opportunity to sell mass quantities of electricity overnight with virtually no infrastructure upgrades. GM was fearful only of the other automakers, including those in Japan and Europe, most all of whom had some sort of an EV development program in the works during the ’90s.
It was only after the Impact/EV1 program was resuscitated in ’94, and 50 handbuilt Impacts were under construction, that opinions and alliances started to shift. Fissures began appearing in GM management. Not everyone in the company thought the Impact/EV1 would, or should, come to market. It is reported that the doubters were skeptical that the cost to build the car could come down far enough to make a viable “business case” to produce such a vehicle. It is at this point that Shnayerson starts to refer to the Impact/EV1 program taking steps to protect itself from the “corporate immune system.” The program had been restarted in secret to avoid pressure from regulators and the competition. Not even everyone at GM knew the program was back on the tracks, and the program managers used that fact to their advantage. As you can see from the below quote not even everyone on the project thought that costs could be reined in.
Even though the revived Impact/EV1 program had gone dark, somehow, as automakers around the globe began to wake up and smell the electricity, the entity that the automakers referred to as the “oilies” awakened as well, sniffing competition in the wind. It may be that the oil companies had simply stretched out with their Sith sense, but there was EV development taking place at virtually all the major automakers, and an alliance of the Big 3 (GM, Ford, Chrysler) had been formed to develop a more workable EV battery … with federal government participation. That’s when the Department of Dirty Tricks was engaged. But not at the bequest of GM. The auto giant had been doing its best to delay the government mandates. But as Shnayerson characterizes it, GM had been lobbying CARB pretty squarely, explaining where they were at and trying to buy time for the tech to mature. The carmaker objected to what it termed “invention on a schedule.”
The oilies, however, played a very different game. They went low-ball right out of the gate and employed strategies such as sponsoring so-called grassroots consumer groups that waved a flag about how EVs could actually make the air dirtier … in spite of a CARB study refuting the assertion. Even in the ’90s, any electricity used to charge EVs would have caused a net drop in pollutants in spite of a dirtier grid than today, due in part to the far greater efficiency of an electric motor over its gasoline counterpart (90% vs 20%). The oil-funded groups lobbied against both the mandate as well as various EV kickstart programs sponsored by the utilities. The anti-mandate movement gained further support when Governor Pete Wilson — who was running for President — was told in no uncertain terms that support in key states would be absent unless the California mandate was altered. Indeed, the 1998 mandate would end up getting rescheduled.
All in all, the technology developed during the Impact/EV1 program was nothing short of remarkable. A Motor Trend article of the time characterized the tech as “unparalleled breakthroughs.” Here are some of the significant accomplishments of what has been characterized as the most technically ambitious program in GM’s history:
- The Impact/EV1 was designed from the ground up
- Refinements to the AC induction motor
- A workable DC to AC inverter that powered the motor
- A breakthrough battery design using alloys (NMH)
- Implementation of a rudimentary battery cooling system
- Regenerative braking
- 8 second 0–60 MPH time
- A body design with a record-breaking .195 drag coefficient. 45% less drag and 40% lighter than the average gas car
- Aluminum frame, plastic body panels
- Electric brakes (80,000 lines of software code allowed for 100 fewer brake parts)
- Covered wheels to reduce drag
- First use of a heat pump in a vehicle
- An inductive charger to reduce the chance of shock
- A network of over 1,000 high-speed “MagneChargers” in homes and public locations
- 23 new patents granted
- First time in GM history a woman headed one of the production departments
In addition to that impressive list, the isolated Impact/EV1 program had at least one staffer on board with deep insight as to what GM had achieved. Take a look at this passage from Shnayerson’s book characterizing John Dabels’ point of view:
And yet the electric car failed to hit critical mass at that point in time. Those who have seen Who Killed The Electric Car? know that the automakers ultimately sued the State of California, won the suit, and the CARB mandates of the day were repealed. Shortly thereafter, GM stopped production of the EV1, and in fact recalled all the vehicles and destroyed most of them.
We’re Gonna Need a Better Battery
But do we really know why the electric car was killed at the turn of the century? It may not be as simple as what’s revealed in the documentary. It appears that the EV1 was simply too costly to build. The author of The Car That Could quotes a price tag of $350,000 per car for the first 50 handbuilt cars. Former GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz is reported as stating the production cars came in at $250,000 a pop. Without even getting into the part about how sales of an EV would cut into GM’s other more profitable lines, or how GM’s spare parts unit would be impacted (no pun intended) due to a car line with so few moving parts, there seems to be an argument that there simply wasn’t sufficient market demand for an EV priced even at breakeven for GM. A major goal of $150 per kWh costs for the battery had not materialized. It should be noted, too, that even after CARB rescinded the earlier 2% mandate, plans already in place to put the car on sale three coincidental weeks later continued unabated.
With a reliable, long-range, cost-effective battery still somewhere off in the distance, it may have once again been a bit too early to market a viable electric car. Such a notion is underscored in today’s EV market, where the (much more advanced) battery is still the standout cost of the vehicle.
Note that after a significant gap between major iterations of the Nissan LEAF, the new 2018 LEAF sports a reported 150 mile range compared to the 107 mile range of its predecessor and the 73 mile range. That falls well short of the now passé 200+ mile benchmark set by the Chevy Bolt EV and the Tesla Model 3. And the news came with an accompanying report that Nissan is leaving its current battery supplier. The battery is still the missing link in this ever evolving story. Certainly, standout automaker Tesla has made the greatest strides in reducing the cost of battery production, and we may finally be on the cusp of the elusive electric car going mainstream, but further breakthroughs are still needed to get the price of an affordable mass market EV on a par with its gasoline engine counterpart.
Speaking of batteries, one other quotable from Shnayerson’s book really jumps off the page. GM purchased Hughes Aircraft in 1985, and had utilized the company’s advanced solar panel technology to develop a solar-powered race car named Sunraycer, which was the progenitor to the one-off Santana, which as noted was the prototype for the Impact/EV1. Hughes also made significant contributions to the Impact/EV1 itself. At a 1993 luncheon in California that included Impact program manager Ken Baker and recently retired Chairman and CEO of Hughes, Malcolm Currie, the retired executive put forth the notion of using “hundreds of small laptop batteries” in an EV conversion. Currie taunted the GM execs a bit, suggesting that GM could do conversions with such an approach for as little as $10,000 a car. The idea didn’t take root at the time, but 15 years later, Tesla cofounder Martin Eberhard sponsored a conversion from lead-acid batteries to lithium-ion laptop-style cells for the famous tzero, the progenitor to the Tesla Roadster. The rest, as they say, is history.
Let’s close out this installment of EV archeology by quoting GM Chairman Jack Smith at a January 4, 1996 press conference the day the EV1 was released …