Between 1996 and 1999 GM produced the electric vehicle EV1 and it inspired the Californian Air Resources Board (CARB for short) to pass a mandate that required the big seven car manufacturers to produce zero-emission vehicles. The EV1 was made available only through a lease construction without the option to purchase it at the end of the lease period.
The public received the EV1 with great enthusiasm, but GM considered the EV1 not profitable enough. They were only able to lease eight hundred vehicles in a period of four years. Together with the other big car manufacturers they went to court, which ended in less stringent conditions of the mandate. Instead of pure electric vehicles they were also allowed to produce low emission vehicles and hybrids. In 2002 the EV1 program was terminated and the cars that were still out on the road were repossessed and most of them were destroyed. A few were donated to a museum or a university, dismantled and with the agreement not to reactivate and drive them on the road again; almost as if talking about a weapon of mass destruction.
The termination of the EV1 program has been highly debated (and still gets a lot of attention), it even led to the movie “Who killed the electric car?” and a book by the same name. GM claimed there was no market for the EV1 and that it was not profitable enough to continue with it. The EV1 fan-base (people who had driven one, environment groups, etc.) claimed the program was discontinued to prevent losses on spare parts sales (spare parts are highly profitable for internal combustion engine vehicles, but since an electric vehicle has less moving parts, there is less to profit from), but also because it would disturb the status quo of the big oil companies.
An ad on the EV1
Currently, GM is about to unleash the Chevrolet Volt, their first big hybrid, onto the market. In an interview GM R&D chef Larry Burns now wishes GM had not killed the plug-in hybrid EV1 prototype his engineers had on the road a decade ago. “We could have had the Chevy Volt 10 years earlier” he said.
What made the EV1 different from other attempts of the big car makers at an electric vehicle, was that first of all this one became a big hit, but also this vehicle was not some conventional car converted with a battery and an electric motor; this one was an EV from scratch.
The technical properties of the EV1 that also helped achieve its great performance was for example the aluminium being used in the construction of the vehicle. This made it very light, ensuring more miles could be covered on the same battery charge. Also body panels were made of plastic, taking out more weight and making the vehicle dent resistant. On top of it, they also introduced anti-lock brakes, traction control, a keyless entry and ignition system, electric power steering and a few others. Many of which were later used in today’s cars. The EV1 was fitted with low-rolling resistance tires and had a very low drag coefficient, which also helped boost the performance of the car.
Succes or failure is a tricky question to answer. It was a success because it was one of the first electric vehicles that became a hit. It showed that it was technologically possible to create an electric vehicle that had good properties and was practical to use. From GM’s perspective, it was not really a commercial success, though if they would have kept the EV1 back then, we might already be driving in electric vehicles or hybrids by now and they would have gotten a head start. Toyota had its Prius out in that time and that is currently a well known car.