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Feature Story


by Bob Hagin

December 5, 1997

Many years ago, Ford had a promotional motto that stated "There's a Ford in your future." That same motto may be applicable to the General Motors electric car, the EV1, but the slogan would have to be modified to read "... your very distant future." Sales of the EV1 are anything but great.

Actually "sales" isn't even the right word to use here since you can't buy an EV1 outright at this point. The car is only available from specially chosen Saturn dealerships on a three-year lease and at that, they're only being placed in the "right" homes. Since it's academic anyway, no one at General Motors has come with a sales price for the EV1 but a cost of around $30,000 has been the local consensus.

Technically, the EV1 is interesting in that the car is built to utilize the most up-to-date electric car technology without going into Buck Rogers futuristic stuff that may or may not work on a long-term basis. The unitized chassis of the EV1 is built up from cast and extruded aluminum sections and the suspension system up front is a conventional modified MacPherson strut system with a beam axle and trailing arms in the rear. The 137-horse three-phase AC induction electric motor drives the front wheels in the now-conventional manner, and the power comes from a battery-pack of 26 extremely high quality lead/acid batteries. These are located in a "container" that forms a T-shaped backbone structure down the middle of the car between the two seats and ends in arms that extend out behind them. More than a third of the weight of the 3000-pound EV1 is in the battery pack.

Especially interesting is the braking system. The front brakes are more-or-less conventional discs, but the car incorporates a system that uses the wheel rotation on deceleration to turn the electric drive motor into a generator that actually puts energy back into the batteries. It's not much, but it's enough to extend the distance between charges. The rear drum brakes are totally independent of the front system and are electrically-operated by a couple of computer-controlled servo motors. The computer senses the driver's brake pedal pressure and the deceleration speed of the vehicle to apply a suitable amount of retarding force to the brake shoes.

General Motors only offers the EV1 in areas that have a generally mild climate (Southern and middle California, Arizona, New Mexico, etc.) because the heating and air conditioning systems are powered by the battery pack when the car is on the road. The company gives the EV1 a advertised range of between 70 and 90 miles on a single charge, but under hard driving conditions there have been reports that the car has been able to achieve only 50 miles before the low-battery signal warns the driver to head for the nearest recharge station.

This in itself can present a problem. The EV1 battery recharge system is somewhat unique in that it's an inductive (no metal-to-metal jumper cable-like connections) magnetic-field transfer system that requires a special charger. The charger is produced by Delco Propulsion Systems (a GM company) and its installation in a private residence may necessitate some special alterations to the house - like a separate electrical service just to handle the 220-volt charger.

The scenario for its installation and use takes some preplanning, too. A General Motors technician inspects the proposed home "docking" area for the EV1, determines the changes needed to implement the permanent electrical service required and supervises its installation. Once on-line, the EV1 driver parks the car in its dock, slips the charger's plastic charging "paddle" into the on-board receptacle and retires the car for the evening. It is suggested that the actual recharging be programmed to take place during electrical "off-hours" when a lower rate may be in place. It takes a little less than three hours for the battery pack to be fully recharged using this system, as opposed the a 12 hour time period that's necessary if the on-board 110-volt "emergency" charger that comes with the EV1 is used.

If an EV1 is used in commuter traffic and the destination is somewhat distant, it's almost a requirement that a similar charging system be installed at the other end of the drive otherwise the motorist might face the embarrassment of running out of electricity on the highway. If it is to be used strictly as an around-town means of transportation, the relatively short range of the EV1 won't present a problem.

Needless to say, the jury - in this case the general public - is still out on the present use of electric vehicles as made by the major auto makers. Electric car hobbyists and enthusiasts have been using home-builts and low-volume factory-built electric cars for many, many years. They know and understand the shortcomings of this means of transportation and have learned to live with them. Now the question facing General Motors (along with Toyota, Ford, Chrysler, Honda and Nissan) is whether everyday motorists will be willing to cope with the same or similar shortcomings.