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The General Motors EV1 Program

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The General Motors EV1 program, though short-lived, holds a significant place in electric vehicle history. Its roots can be traced back to the early 1990s, a time when concerns about air pollution and dependence on foreign oil were gaining momentum. In 1990, GM unveiled the Impact, a futuristic electric concept car, at the Los Angeles Auto Show. The positive reception for the Impact, coupled with stricter emissions regulations from the California Air Resources Board (CARB), spurred GM to develop a practical electric car for consumers. CARB’s mandate, requiring automakers to offer zero-emission vehicles by 1998, became a major driver in the creation of the EV1 program. With both public interest and regulatory pressure, GM embarked on an ambitious project to bring the world’s first mass-produced electric car to the road.

The story of the General Motors EV1 has been told many times and in many ways. But before we go there let me give you some history and context. Back in the 1940s there were over a million cars in the greater Los Angeles area and there was significant pollution. So much pollution we had smog alert days well through the 1970s. It literally hurt to breath and even see.

gas station oil rationing
Photo by Pixabay

Then came the Arab oil embargo of 1973 and 1974 leaving motorists stranded for gasoline which prompted congress to pass the Corporate Average Fuel Economy or CAFÉ standards that would require automakers to significantly increase the miles per gallon in the 1980s. General Motors could see the writing on the wall and took it on by first developing the concept car Impact in 1990 which served as the legacy protype for the EV1. Car and Driver did a review of the EV1 that is quite good with a lot of detail and you can read it here plus they offer some really good images.

I first experienced the EV1 when I was an employee of the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI). Our transportation department somehow ended up with one of the cars to evaluate. We were told that the vehicle was available to experience however the then key people in transportation were hesitant to share the car. It was that great.

For the first batch of EV1s the batteries were old school lead acid ones like the one under the hood of your regular gas car. The life of these batteries was somewhat limited and they would require replacement after around five hundred charging cycles. And these cars had a range of about 70 miles.
However, when the battery arrangement was upgraded to a Nickel Metal Hydride or NUMH type there would be years before the batteries would need replacement and the range was double or 140 miles. Both of these batteries are completely recyclable. Too bad lithium-ion batteries were not available then.

High level history of the EV1

The birth of the EV1 has its roots in the General Motors concept car the Impact that dates back to 1990 where the technology was developed for the EV1. Our story unfortunately and quickly takes a dark turn ultimately to the death of EV1 in 2003. From 1997 through 1999 there were 1117 EV1s produced. Today it is estimated that 40 still exist. The car was only leased by General Motors and not available for sale. Ultimately the cars were taken back by General Motors and destroyed except for the handful that went to museums, universities, one at the Smithsonian and even one hidden by Francis Ford Coppola who refused to give it up. You get a glimpse of the EV1 he hid from General Motors in Jay Lenos Garage video where Jay Leno and
Francis Ford Coppola discuss the cars of tomorrow and visit Coppola’s winery in California.

Time to get some perspective. While this is not an apples-to-apples comparison it is similar in that a revolutionary vehicle was being offered during the same period. In 1997 Toyota introduced the Prius hybrid car, in Japan, and that year produced and sold 323 of them.

To date there have been over four million Prius built and sold. Toyota did not stop after selling only 323 cars in 1997. Toyota sold them as well as leased them. Sure, range was not an issue with the Prius…. actually, the cars went considerably further than your typical internal combustion car given their hybrid system that leveraged batteries and regenerative features. My 2014 Prius averages better than 45+ miles per gallon even on a bad day. General Motors however produced a little over a thousand EV1s from 1997 to 1999 and they limited the test market to Southern California, San Francisco Bay area and Sacramento as well as Arizona. Motor Week takes you through a review and test drive of a 1997 EV1.

The following not only gives you the up-close feeling of the EV1 but you also get a chance to hear from the people who drove them and loved them.

Final thoughts

General Motors took its concept car the Impact then produced a wonderful car that clearly was the car of the future and was no doubt the road map for the all-electric cars of today. Even then if you had a commute to work or whatever that was somewhat reasonable the EV1 would have been a viable
serious option to consider. General Motors is estimated to have spent a billion dollars and awarded twenty-three patents on the EV1 development then by the year 2003 ended the EV1 program taking back the cars and destroying them for the most part. General Motors claim for ending the EV1 because they
said they could not make a profit. Really…did General Motors quit to soon after only a little over a thousand cars produced and the failure to expand the market offering. Gee what if Toyota had quit after producing 323 Prius in 1997? And yes, the Tesla uses a similar three phase induction motor as did the
EV1.

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