Dead-End Technologies: GM EV1


The EV1 certainly had its flaws, but it did help to pave the way for modern hybrids - and EVs that actually work much better.

The GM EV1 is the one example of a car hitting a technological wall so hard that it actually caused public outcry. But to say that this outcry was (and in many ways still is) mired in misconceptions would be putting it mildly. Some of this comes from simple ignorance, but some is rooted in paranoid conspiracy theories, making it unlikely that these misconceptions will ever go away. But there is one thing for certain: the EV1 was a dud, and the electric car has since been almost completely reinvented.

By the time GM rolled out the EV1 in 1996, the electric car was hardly a new thing. They had been far more popular than gasoline cars a hundred years prior, and it wasn’t really until the rise of the Ford Model T that it became obvious that they wouldn’t be sticking around. Even in the more recent history of the automobile, there have been electric cars, such as the laughable Vanguard CitiCar. But the EV1 was different, it was a real modern car powered only by electricity. It is a frequently repeated fact that the EV1 was a huge leap forward in electric car technology, and this is unquestionably true, but the bar hadn’t exactly been set very high by previous EVs.

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The EV1 was a pure electric car first seen in prototype form in 1990. At the time it was known as the Impact concept, and it received a fair amount of positive attention. When the California Air Resource Board issued a mandate that zero-emission vehicles would have to be made available for sale in the state, GM green-lit the electric car project. The result was the EV1, a small and lightweight two-seater with a range of about 100 miles from its lead-acid batteries. Before production ended, the batteries were changed to more advanced nickel-metal-hydride packs, which marginally improved both charging times and range.

But the car was still fairly impractical, beyond any range issues. It was small, with very little in the way of cargo space, and would not really have worked as a good daily driver for very many people even if it had unlimited range. Over 1,100 units were produced from 1996 to 1999, and leased in specially-selected markets. The project had been incredibly expensive, and when it became apparent to GM that it was not going to be able sell a large quantity of these vehicles, it cut its losses and pulled the plug, so to speak. Thus began a massive controversy surrounding the car, as well as the part of the article where we talk about it.

The accusation was made that GM had conspirated with the oil industry to "kill" the EV1. And when GM rounded up all of the leased EV1 units in 2002 and crushed them, it was accused of trying to suppress the technology as a favor to big oil. This kind of thinking is, frankly, deeply flawed. For starters, the predictions of low sales have essentially been proven true inasmuch as they ever could be. The Nissan Leaf is a much more advanced, inexpensive, practical and aesthetically pleasing EV, and even though it's being sold at a time when gas prices are higher, it still fell massively short of its sales goal for last year.

Pure EVs just simply do not have mass appeal, but giving the benefit of the doubt, this fact wasn’t quite as obvious 10 years ago. As for GM suppressing EV technology, this is simple nonsense. No technology which has spent six years in the hands of the general public can then be suppressed. The atom bomb long ago taught us that technological genies do not go back into bottles, and any manufacturer that wished to could have built an EV after the EV1. They didn’t for the same reason GM stopped: there was no money in it. That's just how business works. But EV supporters couldn’t accept that was the case.

Something sinister had to have been at work to deprive them of their beloved electric cars, and every conspiracy theory needs a villain. Those familiar with what’s going on in the automotive industry know that the research which GM did into batteries and regenerative braking systems is credited as being one of the big reasons that enabled hybrids to hit to the market soon after the EV1. Still, the modern electric car was born with the EV1 and would die again with it. The EV became a different beast when reborn, with a different kind of batteries, but it can’t get away from the central problems which the electric car has always faced.