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20 Truths About the GM EV1 Electric Car
One of the most high-profile and controversial cars in modern history, GM's electric EV1, evolved from the GM Impact concept car. Over the years, the limited production EV1 has been held high by electric vehicle interests as a poster child for the electric vehicle's "success," and ultimate demise. This was done most recently by the film, "Who Killed the Electric Car," which presented an interesting story but took the easy road to creating a cult film classic rather than accounting for the real reasons why EV1s are no longer on our highways. Here's an array of 20 interesting tidbits about the GM EV1 plus, might we add, the real truth.
1. The GM Impact concept car that debuted at the 1990 Los Angeles Auto Show was created by the automotive and energy efficiency wizards at AeroVironment under the direction of Paul MacCready, renowned for his work in energy efficient vehicles of all types.
2. After the Impact's debut, Roger Smith, then-chairman and CEO of General Motors, announced that the automaker would build the electric car. This generated tremendous media attention, but was a surprise to many within his own company since much of the technology did not yet exist to transform the concept car into reality.
3. The California Air Resources Board (CARB) was finalizing its all-new Low Emission Vehicle program at the time, which would impose increasingly tighter restrictions on tailpipe emissions in future years. GM's announcement of a coming electric vehicle model was the likely reason why CARB added a new requirement for "zero emission vehicles," or ZEVs, to the program ... and the controversial 1998 Zero Emission Vehicle mandate was born.
4. Early development work on the Impact program used a variety of "test mules" - conventional vehicle models equipped with experimental electric drivetrains - to prove out the technology. Among these were vehicles as small as the Geo Storm and as large as the Lumina APV minivan, which Green Car editors test drove at GM's Desert Proving Grounds in Arizona.
5. There was no roadmap to follow that would guide engineers to the specific type of drivetrain to use in GM's as-yet unnamed production electric car based on the Impact. Dual front-wheel drive motors were explored in test mules. Ultimately, a single and powerful AC induction motor was tapped for the job in the production vehicle.
6. Proof-of-concept vehicles were developed based on the Impact concept car. Developmental Impact III versions performed similarly to the production GM EV1 that would follow, as Green Car found during test drives at GM's Milford Proving Grounds and on city streets in Michigan.
7. The evolution from concept to real vehicle involved concessions to the realities of manufacturability, with some changes in body style evident. The Impact concept car's stealthy slit headlamps and taillamps made way for much more conventional looking production counterparts. The deeply sculpted front air dam with its prominent dual openings evolved into a more subtle front end style. The concept car's overall teardrop shape remained intact as did its signature rear fender skirts.
8. GM introduced its new EV1 electric car at select Saturn dealerships in Los Angeles and San Diego in California, and Phoenix and Tucson in Arizona, on December 5, 1996. Several other cities were eventually added to the sales territory. An artificially low price of $33,995 was initially assigned to the car even though its undisclosed production cost was much, much higher.
9. EV1s were leased only and no purchase was available. This was a nod to GM's need to maintain ultimate ownership over highly advanced and extremely expensive vehicles, using all-new technology, that were being marketed in a deliberate way to feel out the market. The lease cost was initially $640 per month although financial incentives in some areas brought this down to $480. EV1 lease terms evolved over time and payments as low as $349 were available.
10. The EV1's "sales" process was unique, with GM going to extraordinary lengths to determine if a limited range electric car would fit the needs of those who wished to lease one. It was also necessary to ensure that a potential lessee's home electrical system could handle the power requirements of an at-home charger.
11. An innovative Magne Charge system was used to recharge an EV1's batteries. This charger offered a user-friendly charging paddle rather than a conventional plug and no metal-to-metal connection was used. Rather, the charger transferred energy to an EV1's chargeport via magnetic induction.
12. Nickel-metal-hydride batteries - the same technology that powers today's hybrid vehicles - provided enough energy in Gen 2 (second generation) EV1s for a 100 to 120 mile driving range. Gen 1 models used a less expensive valve regulated lead-acid battery pack that allowed a too-limiting real world driving range of just over 50 miles.
13. The EV1 was a joy to drive. We know ... we were behind the wheel of a Gen 1 model for a year. It was fast, extremely efficient, and quiet, although not really silent. In the absence of background noise from an internal combustion engine and exhaust system, a driver could hear other faint sounds like tires contacting pavement, wind streaming past windows, and subtle gear whine.
14. Slippery aerodynamics and low rolling resistance were refined to art forms by GM designers and engineers. The EV1 featured the lowest coefficient of drag of any production vehicle at 0.19 Cd. We're not altogether sure GM's claim was true about this being the same Cd as an F-16 fighter "wheels down," but it had a nice ring to it and sounded plausible. On a flat highway at speed, you could let off the accelerator and coast longer than you could believe.
15. The EV1's cockpit was reminiscent of what one would expect in a jet fighter with its overall layout and digital instrumentation. While it was designed to seat only two, great care was taken to reinforce that the EV1 was not only super-efficient, but functional in ways drivers have come to expect. Exemplifying this was the EV1's trunk, which was spacious enough to hold a set of golf clubs.
16. The EV1 was built at GM's Lansing Craft Centre in Lansing, Michigan, a plant that specialized in low-volume vehicle production. Prior to the EV1, the Craft Centre was used for the production of the Buick Reatta.
17. Battery costs are believed to have been $20,000 to $30,000 for the electric vehicle models manufactured by automakers during the 1990s test marketing period. While no auto manufacturer has officially stated actual battery costs, back-channel discussions with those involved in these programs indicate these cost figures are realistic. The EV1's T-shaped battery pack surely fell within this range. While it's true that mass production volume can significantly decrease costs for many components, battery cost was so great that volume could not overcome this problem at the time ... it would only result in more profound losses.
18. Without a business case for continuing the manufacturing and sales of its EV1 because of high production costs, GM ended the EV1 program in 2003. GM was not alone. Each auto manufacturer ultimately ceased production and marketing of its electric vehicles after meeting the numbers and terms required by the agreements signed with CARB for the test marketing of electric cars.
19. At the end of the EV1's short life, there were some lessees who rationalized that GM could have sold them their EV1 if offered a waiver of liability. No parts needed, no service required, no warranty expected. However, GM could no more abandon its responsibility to stock spare parts or provide service for EV1s for years to come than any automaker could cast away its responsibilities for any other current model vehicle, so this was not an option.
20. GM ultimately crushed all EV1s except for a small number that were permanently disabled and donated to museums, and a few that were retained by GM. The technologies developed by the EV1 program have been applied to GM's hybrids, fuel cell vehicles, and its future-looking E-Flex development program.
Green Car Journal editor and publisher Ron Cogan spent a year behind the wheel of a GM EV1, shown in this circa-1999 photo. He reported on the Impact/EV1 development program regularly while feature editor at Motor Trend in the 1990s and on the pages of Green Car Journal over the past 17 years.
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