I really stepped in it last time by stating that GM never owned patent rights to Ovonic's NiMH batteries and never sold them to an oil company, and that no one sued Toyota. I believed those statements to be true at the time, but several of you straightened me out.
However, since that complex issue has little to do with range anxiety, I'll come back to it at the end. Meanwhile, I wanted to address more of your comments and responses before moving on to new topics in future essays. Here goes:

EV1 was a low-volume vehicle made of a bunch of low-volume parts with little shared with GM's other products and released on a limited-availability basis. I have no problem with GM portraying it as a testbed, an excellent testbed at that, but to use the defense that GM was trying to make it succeed in the marketplace is just plain silly. – meme

To make the assumption that GM's BEV program was about only EV1 is silly. It was the pioneer vehicle on which the technology was developed. We hoped it would have more takers but never kidded ourselves that an expensive two-seater with very limited range would sell in big numbers or ultimately turn a profit. What should have been profitable long term, if only the enabling (lithium-polymer) battery had arrived as planned, were more practical and affordable follow-on BEVs, plus selling the technology to other automakers.

(more after the jump)

EV1 was a test of the technology as well as a test of the market at that time. Its demise is due to the results of that test pointing to a technology that wasn't yet matured enough and a market acceptance not high enough to justify the premium the new technology would cost. So they scrapped all their cars to keep R&D from leaking to competitors. I get annoyed at conspiracy theorists who watched "Who Killed the Electric Car" too many times. It seems that people like giving GM a bad name for giving the technology a shot when no other car maker was considering it, because their test proved that it was not financially viable at that time. I'm not a fan of American cars, but they innovated when no one else dared. Any reference to "evil oil companies" and GM conspiracies come from those who are ignorant of R&D work and basic engineering project management. -- Avro

Instead of innovating and competing against the Honda Insight and Toyota Prius and producing fuel efficient alternative vehicles, GM has...declined to compete. Now you say that an affordable electric vehicle cannot be built. -- paulwesterberg

Paul, as GM has repeatedly said, after giving up on volume BEVs in 1999 for lack of a suitable battery, it decided to leapfrog gas/electric HEVs - preliminary work had shown them to be a bad business case in terms of cost vs. benefit - to invest heavily in fuel cells for future FCEVs, a much longer shot with a huge potential payoff. Company officials have also said it underestimated the PR value of hybrids and regretted not developing them sooner...hence its heavy investments in both highly sophisticated 2-Mode hybrids and range-extender EVs. I have never said that affordable BEVs "cannot be built"...only that they present a formidable challenge, mostly due to battery cost and limited range, that no one has yet overcome.

There's no evidence that any auto manufacturer, even Toyota, wanted to continue EV development after CARB dropped the "pure" ZEV mandate. NiMH packs with the capacity to move a regular vehicle (not a glorified golf cart) were and continue to be expensive. I know hobbyists are upset that they can't get large capacity NiMH packs without paying $1000/kWh or more, but exactly how would any battery manufacturer make a profit producing a relative handful of NiMH packs? Even if EV conversion enthusiasts could put together 1000 orders for a 25 kWh pack, it is unlikely such a small run would be profitable. -- Bill

We are all basically interested in achieving the same goals. Let's let the Teslas, Fiskers and others compete in a marketplace that has been closed to all options for 100 years. It's been ICE or nothing, to our extreme detriment, since cars came into existence. -- Ken Muir



Who is stopping Telsa, Fisker or anyone else from competing? What has prevented other options from succeeding? Only the irrefutable laws of physics and economics. The market has always been open to any technology that can meet our (myriad) government rules and satisfy customers at an affordable price. Problem is, only ICEs have been able to do that since steam and electrics died in the early years. When EVs finally get there, count me in.

The Gen II EV1 had a range of 75-150 miles on its [NiMH] batteries. What would it's range be with Li batteries? 300? I could charge a Gen III EV1 ONCE every two weeks. GM should have sunk 50% of its profits into EV development since 1999. -- Mike!!ekiM

Yes, a same-size (1200-lb.) Li-ion pack, had it been available then, could have doubled the NiMH EV1's range. Then it would have been a much more expensive two-seater with 150-300-mile range. GM profits have been precious few since then, yet its substantial investments in EV and HEV technology have continually increased.

Gary, thank you for your rational and positive look on battery electric vehicles. From following a lot of these blogs, it's clear that many BEV-advocates have their head in the clouds and no feet on the ground. It's good to be positive, but that can only get you so far. In order to make anything meaningful happen, you've got to be grounded in reality regarding the challenges. Only then can they actually be addressed. What's clear to me is that more than one type of vehicle is needed. The common theme will probably be electric, but batteries alone won't make a multi-purpose, long-range, family-sized vehicle anytime soon. -- PatrickS

As some of you pointed out, most of the facts on that ongoing Ovonic NiMH battery issue are available here. It is true that in 1994 GM bought a 60 percent interest in Ovonic Battery Company, including patents, and that Texaco purchased GM's share in 2001, and that Chevron acquired Texaco soon after that. And it is true that Ovonic Battery Company, a subsidiary of Energy Conversion Devices, sued Matsushita Battery, Toyota, Panasonic EV Energy (PEVE) and "several related entities" for patent infringement.

In 2003, that company was restructured into Cobasys, a 50/50 joint venture between Chevron and Energy Conversion Devices (ECD) Ovonics, in which Chevron also held a 19.99 percent interest, and in 2004 it was renamed Cobasys LLC. The suit was settled later that year in Cobasys' favor, and a total of $30 million in patent license fees was awarded. Other provisions awarded royalties on specific batteries sold by Matsushita/PEVE in North America and prevented it from selling "certain NiMH batteries for certain transportation applications" here until after June 30, 2007.

There's a lot more to it, and it's far from over today, as commenter Yanquetino points out: According to the current SEC filings, Chevron still holds 50% of Ovonics Battery, and the exclusive right to decide who to build automotive application NiMH batteries for, and how many. Currently they are being very selective about who and in what quantities they build, namely only for gas burning HEVs and only for GM. They are also currently still vying legally for complete control of the NiMH intellectual property.

Conspiracy theorists contend that Chevron-controlled Cobasys is doing everything it can to keep large NiMH battery packs (needed for BEVs) off the North American market for fear of competition. Business-savvy observers counter that it merely wants to protect its patent rights and own the market should they become affordable enough to be sold in profitable volumes. And while the facts are readily available, the motivations can only be assumed.

Award-winning automotive writer Gary Witzenburg has been writing about automobiles, auto people and the auto industry for 21 years. A former auto engineer, race driver and advanced technology vehicle development manager, his work has appeared in a wide variety of national magazines including The Robb Report, Playboy, Popular Mechanics, Car and Driver, Road & Track, Motor Trend, Autoweek and Automobile Quarterly and has authored eight automotive books. He is currently contributing regularly to Kelley Blue Book (www.kbb.com), AutoMedia.com, Ward's Auto World and Motor Trend's Truck Trend and is a North American Car and Truck of the Year juror.

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