Revisiting GM EV1, the Original Mass-market Electric

Just about anyone can name at least one electric car these days. People know Tesla, of course, or perhaps the Chevy Bolt or Nissan Leaf. But there was one just as famous back in its day, and mostly for the wrong reasons: the GM EV1.

It was built to fulfill a government mandate, and while it wasn’t the only vehicle that was, it quickly became the best-known. But when the mandatory program was terminated, just a few years after it was launched, GM took the cars back and crushed almost all of them – leading critics to call it the “company that killed the electric car.”

Green Laws and Greenbacks

The aerodynamic little EV1 came about because of a mandate California initiated in 1990. The state had (and still has) considerable clout on environmental matters. For one thing, it sells more cars than any other state, and for that matter, many other countries. In 2017, when Canada set its all-time national sales record of 2.038 million new vehicles, Californians bought 2.047 million.

Secondly, it can set its own “green” standards. That dates back to the 1960s, when the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was drafting the Clean Air Act. The sky over Los Angeles was brown with smog, and state legislators had already developed their own vehicle emissions standards to help fix it. These were stricter than what the feds were proposing, and California was granted a waiver to continue setting its own. It’s still the only state that can do so, although other states can choose to follow the federal minimum, or enact whatever stricter regulations California uses.

In 1990, with its waivers in hand, California passed a Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) program. If major automakers wanted to sell anything in the state – and since it was the country’s largest market, of course they did – then by 1998, at least 2 percent of what each one sold had to be ZEV.

E for Effort

These meant electric vehicles, and the automakers got to work. Some took existing models and swapped out their drivetrains. Ford had a battery-powered Ranger pickup, while Toyota put electric motors in its RAV4. Most electric models went to utility companies and fleets, fulfilling the mandate but without the expense and issues of promoting them to the public.

Honda and General Motors took a different road. In response to the mandate, Honda created the EV Plus in Japan and imported it into California. It was the first purpose-built electric car from a major automaker that didn’t use lead-acid batteries. Ultimately, it would build about 340 of them.

General Motors also built its EV1 from the ground up as an electric car, based on the Impact Electric concept it unveiled at the Los Angeles Auto Show in 1990. Unlike competitors’ fleet models, the EV1 was aimed at consumers, although it was by lease rather than purchase. The monthly rates ranged from $299 to $574, but the contract stated that once the lease was up, drivers had to hand the cars back in. There was no option to purchase. Delivery was through Saturn dealers in Los Angeles and San Diego.

Unlike Honda and Toyota, which used nickel–metal hydride (NiMH) batteries, GM went for lead-acid. NiMH batteries had a range of about 200 kilometres, while the EV1 only got about 110 kilometres on a charge. Its Delco-built batteries were also prone to failure.

These early battery packs were later recalled, and dealers replaced them with better units from Panasonic. They were still lead-acid, but now an EV1 could go some 175 kilometres. GM later switched to NiMH, but even when they had to put up with battery issues, those who drove EV1s loved them.

Struck Down, But Not Out

Although they’d complied with the requirement, the automakers had always objected to the ZEV mandate and they’d taken it to the courts, especially since California planned to increase it to 10 percent of sales. Ultimately, in 2002, the courts ruled against the state. The ZEV mandate was toast.

General Motors had already quietly stopped production in 1999, releasing inventory as needed to meet the quotas. Meanwhile, Toyota had opened its RAV4 EV to consumer sales. It stopped taking orders the moment the mandate lifted, but it continued to build them until the backlog of requests was cleared. The final tally was about 1,500 vehicles, and you still occasionally see the odd one on California streets.

As the EV1 leases inched toward their deadlines, GM notified drivers that their cars would have to be turned in. Almost none wanted to give them up. Lessees protested, sent in cheques to try to buy their cars, and tried to mount lawsuits, but nothing worked. The cars were collected, and all but 40 went to the crusher. Most of the survivors were donated to museums, but without their batteries on board.

Honda had also leased its EV Plus models, and took them back and crushed them, but it never made the news the way GM did. The Detroit-based automaker claimed the EV1 had really been a pilot project, and if they’d been put into full production, their development costs would have put their selling price well above what anyone would pay. GM also cited liability issues and the cost of producing replacement parts as the cars aged – and it had already sold the battery patent.

Critics, meanwhile, accused GM of deliberately sabotaging the electric car’s future in favour of profits, both in petroleum-fuelled vehicles and in oil companies themselves. It’s also thought the automaker didn’t want copies falling into competitors’ hands, since there was a fair bit of proprietary engineering tucked inside them.

As well, new players were getting into the game. Just as those pioneering electric vehicles were leaving the market, Honda’s Insight and Toyota’s Prius hybrids were arriving – revolutionary cars that offered fuel and emissions savings over regular gasoline cars, but without the range and recharging issues of electrics. It would be a while before battery cars would surface again, but they would do so on the foundation that vehicles like the EV1 initially laid down.

Legislation, the mother of invention. 4/30/2019 10:00:00 AM