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GM’s pioneering EV1 was doomed almost from the start: What went wrong

Long before anyone heard of Tesla or Elon Musk, the EV1 inaugurated the modern electric vehicle age 25 years ago this month, when the first customers took delivery of their cars.

GM’s short-lived electric two-seater was the first contemporary vehicle designed from the ground up to use electric power. Best remembered today from “Who Killed the Electric Car,” the hit documentary about its bitter demise, the little car pioneered technologies and taught lessons paying off in today’s flood of electric cars and trucks.

From Tesla to Rivian to GM’s own 2022 Hummer electric "super truck," people and knowledge from the EV1 program have influenced nearly every startup's and automaker’s development of electric vehicles.

“In many ways, the EV1 is the O.G. of modern electric cars,” said John Voelcker, a journalist and analyst specializing in electric vehicles. “Unlike converted internal combustion cars and trucks from Ford, Toyota and others, it was purpose-built as an EV — and that produced a better vehicle than any conversion.”

Despite that, the EV1 was doomed almost from the start, partly because 1990s battery and electronic technology couldn't deliver an affordable EV, and partly because GM saw it as both an experiment and a way to satisy emissions regulations that would be dropped when it became apparent automakers couldn't or wouldn't satisfy them.

The world is very different today. GM, Ford, Volkswagen and other global automakers have concentrated nearly all their technological efforts and investments on EVs.

The public has responded with intense interest:

—Ford stopped taking reservations for its upcoming electric F-150 pickup at 200,000.

—GM just began delivering the sold-out $100,000+ first edition of its electric GMC Hummer EV pickup.

—EVs from startups Lucid (Air sedan) and Rivian (R1T pickup) swept coveted Motor Trend Car and Truck of the year awards and are finalists for North American Car and Truck of the Year, respectively.

—GM CEO Mary Barra will unveil Chevrolet’s first electric pickup at the CES trade show, where she's the keynote speaker, in early January.

An underappreciated pioneer

The EV1 didn’t get the attention and respect of Tesla, which began the current EV surge more than a decade later, but “the EV1’s fingerprints are on every EV today,” said Chelsea Sexton, an EV advocate for whom a college job as an EV1 ambassador became a lifetime’s mission.

“Everybody was incredibly humble about the EV1, but it pioneered technologies we take for granted today,” Sexton said.

A partial list:

—EV1’s use of the battery as part of the car’s structure became the template for other EVs

—Tire pressure sensors

—Electrohydraulic power steering

—Keyless start

—Inductive charging

—Capturing energy from brakes to charge batteries

—First vehicle with a heat pump

—Still the lowest coefficient of drag ever for a production car

—The first DC fast charger in 1998

—The beginning of a U.S. public charging network, funded by GM

EV1 veterans went on to work at Lucid, Tesla, Rivian, Faraday, Canoo and at established automakers that were starting their own EV programs.

A continuing mission

More than two decades after the EV1’s demise, more than 80 veterans of the project still work at GM. Many are involved with the company’s current EV offensive, which is scheduled to launch more than 30 vehicles before the end of 2025. Its multibillion-dollar investments will include multiple assembly and battery plants.

“EV1 built a core of people in the corporation who have a passion for the technology,” said Tim Grewe, GM director of electrification strategy.

The EV1 team consisted of engineers hand-picked from throughout GM, said Gary Witzenburg, who was manager of vehicle testing and development. Witzenburg, now an auto writer and president of the North American Car of the Year jury, joined the program in 1991. Production began in 1996, with the first cars delivered that December.

“It was a great assignment. Life changing,” Witzenburg said.

Many members of the EV1 team moved to GM’s advanced technology group when production ended in 1999.

“We all knew electrification was the way forward,” said Steve Tarnowsky, another EV1 alumnus who’s now GM director of battery cell engineering. Within GM, EV1 expertise influenced development of hybrids; the Chevrolet Volt extended range EV, which paved the way for today’s plug-in hybrids; the Chevy Bolt, which became the first affordable long-range EV when it debuted with a 238-mile range and base price of $37,500.

“The EV1 was too far ahead of the market, technology and infrastructure,” Tarnowsky said, but lessons from it flowed to every vehicle GM built.

That didn’t keep the EV1 from becoming a symbol of what many believed was the auto industry’s hostility to EVs, though.

What went wrong?

GM wouldn’t sell EV1s to customers, partly because they were wickedly expensive — the monthly lease in 1996 was $480 in California, $640 in Arizona, Mercedes money at the time — and partly because GM considered the vehicles a test bed for technologies it was developing. It wanted to keep the knowledge in-house.

When production ended, GM ended the leases. It wanted the vehicles back, but owners loved the little EVs that GM had only leased in limited areas of California and Arizona because of emissions policies and to take advantage of climates that wouldn’t wreck the first-gen EV1’s lead-acid battery, which had a range of about 95 miles in perfect conditions. Upgrading to a nickel-metal hydride battery a couple of years after production began increased range to 135 miles.

By contrast, GM says its GMC Hummer EV pickup, which will probably weigh more than three times as much as an EV1, will be able to go 400 miles on a charge. The EV1’s motor produced 137 horsepower, compared with up to 1,000 hp for the Hummer EV.

That early in the EV revolution, the EPA hadn’t even formalized tests for range and charging time. All conversations about EV1 performance are matters of conjecture, colored by owners’ affection.

“I got tearful messages,” Sexton said. “One was, ‘They came to get Sparky today. I don’t know what I’m gonna do.’ He was a CEO. He could have any vehicle.”

Owners protested, including picketing at a GM facility in Burbank, Calif., that held some repossessed EV1s. Sexton’s then 6 ½-year-old son Chris drew an EV in a letter pleading with GM not to crush the cars.

The uproar inspired filmmaker Chris Paine to make “Who Killed the Electric Car?” The documentary won multiple awards.

The EV1’s stature as an environmental icon grew, but the car’s fate was sealed, an epic bad decision that still affects the company’s credibility on environmental and climate issues. GM lost between $700 million and $1 billion on the EV1 program, depending on whom you ask, and how much credit you give it for pioneering technologies that benefited other vehicles.

The electric car gets the last laugh

In the end, not every EV1 was destroyed. A few are in museums and universities. Sexton still tracks social media sightings, occasionally reaching out to an owner — the group remains close — with good news, “Your car wasn’t crushed!”

The EV1’s size, two-seat layout, short range and GM’s vision for the project doomed the car, but it “was a crucially important vehicle,” Voelcker said.

“It demonstrated EV owners could fall in love with a car that was cool, hugely fun to drive and not nerdy and terrifying.

“And GM had a quiet depth of knowledge and talent in EVs earlier than any other automaker," he said.

“I’ve always been saddened that GM has never been able to acknowledge the EV1 and take pride in it.”

That’s changed a bit over the years, though. EV1 alumni are a proud group within GM, and the company readily acknowledges the vehicle's influence on the long road that led to its current all-in bet on EVs.

By 2010, when the electric Chevy Volt swept nearly every award for car of the year, Paine was working on “Revenge of the Electric Car,” a documentary tracking its development as GM’s highest profile vehicle coming out of the company’s brush with death during the Great Recession.

“When I hired in to work on EV1, I wasn’t a car guy,” Tarnowsky said. "The EV1 excited me. I knew this was something special.

“We couldn’t quite make a business out of EVs in 1999, but I knew if I stayed, GM could make that vision a reality.”

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