Who Killed GM's EV1 Electric Car?
WHO KILLED THE ELECTRIC CAR?
A Provocative Question With Half an Answer
By Steve Purdy
SEE ALSO: 130 Other GM EV-1 Stories
I felt like a privileged fellow a few weeks ago at a suburban Detroit cinema. I was invited to attend the preview of a new car movie starring Phyllis Diller, Mel Gibson, Tom Hanks and Martin Sheen. Not an adventure, not a comedy, not a drama, not the happy-go-lucky Disney/Pixar flick called Cars, or the high-action car movie for youngsters called Tokyo Drift, both of which were also playing at the same theater. Rather, I was there to see a documentary, directed by Chris Paine and distributed by Sony Pictures, examining the rise and fall of the electric car - not as entertaining a flick as the other two, but certainly provocative.
A little history is in order. Prior to 1920 more than half the cars on the road were electric. They didn’t smoke, they didn’t have to be cranked, and they were quiet. Women, particularly, were much more comfortable driving an electric car in those days. Suddenly the electrics just went away. Perhaps, the movie implies, a conspiracy among manufacturers and oil companies might be to blame. Electric cars didn’t come back into the market until GM began leasing the EV1 in 1996. Within a few years even the EV1 was gone. Was this a conspiracy as well? Stay tuned. There is no shortage of villains in this story, and no shortage of conspiracy theories.
Having seen GM’s Impact electric concept car at the Detroit and LA auto shows, the California Air Resources Board (CARB), struggling with what to do about dismal air quality in LA and other cities, realized that electric cars were feasible. Feeling a surge of political power, CARB boldly wrote rules requiring a certain number of cars sold by the auto makers to be “Zero Emissions Vehicles.” That triggered GM’s production of the electric car - the EV1. Developed from the Impact and leased (never sold) through Saturn dealers, EV1 was a wonderful little 2-seat coupe, quick, stylish (for its time), fun to drive and convenient. EV1 engendered great loyalty from the few hundred folks fortunate enough to get one.
Of course, these first electric cars were not even close to being profitable for GM, and showed no promise of becoming so in the near term. But they garnered effusive praise in the enthusiast press. With development costs around $1 billion, and technology that was going in the right direction, but a long way from being economical or suiting the needs of a mass market, GM tried very hard to make a business case for sustaining the vehicle. In particular, battery technology needed a dramatic breakthrough to become main-stream. The first generation of batteries, the typical lead-acid variety, had very limited range and became considerably less efficient at lower temperatures - hence, test markets in Southern California and Arizona.
The second generation, nickel-metal-hydride (NiMH) batteries, had greater range but were very expensive and lost efficiency at higher temperatures. And, the NiMH batteries sweated so much when recharging there would be a big puddle on the owner’s garage floor every morning.
”In spite of all the problems”, says our colleague, Gary Witzenburg, then a development engineer on the electric car and who was right in the center of the project nearly from the beginning, “GM boss, Jack Smith, really wanted the project to work, as did the whole GM board. They saw the project as a way to get ahead of the competition on what could be an important technology for the future. And, after all, they were not going to spend a billion dollars on a whim. ”
So did GM unilaterally kill the electric car, for no good reason? Hold on. We’re getting to that.
In spite of protests from owners, in the end it became apparent, say the conspiracy theorists, that GM was dumping the car no matter what. Advertising was not designed, they say, to sell the cars, rather they were just running image ads. GM insisted that they could only build the car to demand, and the demand was not nearly strong enough - notwithstanding a waiting list for the car. Was the waiting list 5,000 as the movie claims or was it more like 50, as GM contends? Does someone saying they want a car (the 5,000) mean they’ll actually sign on the dotted line (the 50 deposits)? There is considerable controversy about that, as well.
There was always more demand than supply and in the last year of leasing the car GM required a dossier on new customers to be sure the car was getting into the right hands – the hands of folks who could be useful to the image of the car and to GM. Mel Gibson talks about having to spill his guts about his personal history to get an EV1. From 1996 to 2000 about 800 EV1s found their way into the garages of lessees in southern California and Arizona. The accusation in this documentary is that GM was determined to dump the EV1 in spite of its obvious potential.
Certainly, insists one disgruntled owner, the car doesn’t fit everyone’s needs. It fits only the needs of 90% of drivers – those who drive less than 60 miles/day and need only room for two,” says one of the celebs. We never hear from GM on that issue though. Nor do we hear much from GM at all, except from the marketing guy who makes GM’s case reasonably well for opting out of that tenuous market.
So, how about the oil companies? Did they conspire with the auto companies to kill the electric car to protect their market and thereby continue our dependence on oil – foreign oil - in order to line their own pockets? Only one oil company spokesman was convinced to go on the record for the movie. He insisted that they did not. You’ll need to see that presentation for yourself to see if you find him convincing. Most in the audience of which I was a part did not find him particularly credible, but they seemed to be dominantly far left of center politically.
Or was the lack of adequate battery technology the culprit? A few years after the demise of GM’s electric car Witzenburg, who is now a respected automotive journalist with a great deal of engineering expertise, makes this analogy. In terms of energy storage, he says, the electric car has what amounts to a 1200-pound fuel tank holding the energy equivalent of about a half-gallon of fuel. The problem, he contends, is that GM bet the farm on an assumption of dramatic advances in battery technology that never materialized. And, without such advances, GM could not make a business case for continuing the car.
Simple as that? Not according to Paine and his movie. He interviewed an old fellow who invented another advanced battery system, a fellow whose company was bought out by GM shortly after the new battery was proven. The implication being that the battery technology was ready to fill the need but GM didn’t want the technology to proliferate.
Ralph Nader, consumer gadfly and relentless critic of the industry, characterized the whole fiasco as an example of GM “going backward into the future.” Government regulations in California were a major impetus for creating the car and Federal Government rules and regulations could have sustained and promoted it, but both began backpedaling once GM and others began suing the government. Of course, like all good Americans GM resented being told what to do, especially when it didn’t make good business sense.
In the end, with the support of other auto makers GM, successfully sued CARB to dump the ZEV requirement. One of their stronger arguments was that, even though CARB could require manufacturers to sell a certain number of ZEVs, it couldn’t require consumers to buy them. So, is CARB’s and other government’s policies responsible?
Before trying to answer these questions the documentary goes on to explore some of today’s clean-car technologies - primarily hydrogen fuel cells and hybrid vehicles? The former just doesn’t make sense, they conclude, because of inherent inefficiencies of the entire system. The latter, perhaps a “plug-in” gasoline-electric hybrid, may be our savior. This plug-in hybrid is one that emphasizes the electric over gasoline power much more than current systems, and can get up to 160-mpg for the first 60 miles of any trip . . . or so they claim.
Honda and Toyota produced and sold electric vehicles in California as well but little time is spent talking about them in this movie. They didn’t bring them all back to be crushed (though many did get shredded) like GM did, and a few have found their way into private hands today. The movie also doesn’t specify why GM was so insistent on getting those cars back and having them destroyed. The implication is that there was some sort of villainy afoot. Certainly, Witzenburg notes, GM couldn’t leave those cars in the hands of owners when they would be obligated by law to maintain parts and the ability to service them for ten years. An untenable obligation for GM, I’d agree. In fact, that points out the wisdom and foresight of GM in only leasing the cars.
I’ll not give away the conclusion which may surprise some of you who thought you knew this whole story. I’ll just say the movie indicts some, exonerates some and finishes on an optimistic note. For color and emotion it exploits the love EV1 owners had for their cars and their disappointment in having to give them up, and more intensely, in seeing them crushed. A funeral service is held at a cemetery with a parade of EV1s, speeches and tears. Just realize that this is a story being told from only one side.
The movie’s researcher, Roger Gibbs, tried to answer a question from the audience after the show about why no one is building an electric car now if it is really as viable as the movie implies. “Well,” he says, “that’s one of the reasons we’re here in Detroit and one of the reasons we made the movie.” His implication was that a practical electric vehicle could easily be built today if anyone had the courage to build one.
I’m not sure how the audience for this preview of the film was recruited, but it was apparent that it was a waaaay left-of-center group. Most were gushing over the message of the film, grousing about what an injustice was done and in full agreement that corporate America can’t be trusted to decide what kind of car is best to build.
This documentary is worth the time and 8-bucks for those on either side of the political fence. Just keep your skeptic’s antennae tuned in to what isn’t in the movie – just like you would if you were watching a 60-Minutes piece.
Who Killed the Electric Car opened in New York and LA on June 24th and will be shown throughout the country all summer.
© Steve Purdy, Shunpiker Productions, All Rights Reserved