At Witz End - GM's EV1, the True Story, part I

Triumph of technology set the stage for the future
  • Our gift is a world of opportunity. To leave it a better place than we found it is our greatest gift to the next generation. – Ken Baker, GM Electric Vehicles
  • "Since when does being an auto engineer makes you smarter than scientists specializing in the field?" – ABG reader John, on my 8/3/08 column, "Global Warming Pro." (Yes, "Pro")
Well, John, maybe not smarter, but maybe educated enough to have a valid opinion.

Engineers become engineers because - like people who become scientists - we are good at math and science, including physics, chemistry and biology. We study the same things eventual scientists do, then branch out into specialties. Some choose geology or climatology. I chose automotive engineering because I love cars and wanted to help make them better.

As technically trained people, engineers have a good understanding of what makes things work, how elements interact and what is physically possible...and not. We know that vehicle fuel economy is mostly about size, weight and aerodynamics. We know that technology can incrementally improve efficiency, but also that technology costs money. To redirect an old racing adage, how efficient can you afford to be?

Unlike typical non-technically trained people – including most government bureaucrats, lawyers, legislators and journalists – we form opinions and make decisions based on facts and data, not emotion and opinion. We have long-established BS alarms that go off when someone tries to tell us that something we know is physically impossible is not. We know there is no 100-mpg carburetor or 40-mpg SUV (If either was possible, why wouldn't someone be making a fortune building and selling them and blowing away all their less-enlightened competition?).
That said, let me tell you about the most exciting, challenging and inspiring engineering assignment I've ever had: Vehicle Test and Development Manager for what became the GM EV1. I know the real story behind General Motors' 1990s electric vehicle effort very well; I was there, working my proverbial tail off on it, and you can start reading this tale after the jump. A warning, though: those who harbor strong negative perceptions about EV1 and GM's intent for it - from that recent ill-informed crockumentary or some other non-knowledgeable source - may not want to read this, because the real true story will not reinforce what you already think you know.

GM's 1990s EV odyssey began with the teardrop-shaped Impact concept car unveiled by then-CEO Roger Smith at the January, 1990 Los Angeles Auto Show. Designed by GM but co-engineered and developed with high-tech California contractor Aerovironment, it looked great, sprinted from zero to 60 mph in eight-seconds and had achieved - in one test (from 100 percent to absolute zero state of charge) under ideal conditions at GM's Mesa, AZ Desert Proving Grounds - a remarkable 125 miles of range, better than any practical EV ever built. So positive was press and public reaction to the Impact that at the National Press Club on April 22 (Earth Day), Smith announced GM's intent to produce such a car. "After that reaction from the LA show," recalls then-GM President Bob Stempel, who would soon succeed Smith as CEO, "he felt we needed to follow through with it. He said, 'I want General Motors to showcase its technology, and I want people to understand that we are in the lead on this.'"

Stempel – along with President-elect Lloyd Reuss and Vice Chairman Bob Schultz -- was instrumental in recruiting Ken Baker (then head of Advanced Vehicle Engineering for GM's Chevrolet-Pontiac-Canada group) to lead the effort. Baker, who had been chief engineer of GM's short-lived early 1980s Electrovette (the converted Chevy Chevette EV) program, was reluctant at first. "I'd been to the electric-car show before," he says, "and didn't know that I wanted to go back." But when he learned how serious GM leadership was about it and became more confident of this new EV program's chances for success, Baker changed his mind.

"All three of us talked to him," Stempel says. "we told him, 'Ken, we've done this before, but we've got better tools now, a much better controller from Hughes and a much better feel for the batteries. We've got an opportunity here.' So he stepped in and took it on with a real vigor. He was a bit of a visionary, a futurist. He had a personal like for that kind of transportation and was enthused about it. He was definitely a good choice."

The mandate
"We recognized the obvious shortcoming of EVs," Baker says. "Our plan was to be battery agnostic - take the best available and focus on engineering the world's most efficient vehicle, which would give dramatically better performance once a better battery came along. We had just come off of the success of the [race-winning solar-powered] SunRaycer and were encouraged by the sold-state electronics that had been demonstrated in that car, and Impact.

"The goal was to do a new car in a new way and see how quickly and efficiently we could do it. The process would be driven by a new Systems Engineering approach, with a top-down set of requirements, and 36 months was our goal for a ground-up car."

Then, that Sept. 28, even as Baker was assembling his team of some of GM's best, brightest and most dedicated engineers to get it done, California's Air Resources Board (CARB) mandated the seven top-selling automakers to make a percentage - starting with two percent and ramping up over time - of their California sales "zero emissions" vehicles.

If a practical EV could be developed and built at a price people would be willing to pay, GM wanted to be there first and lead an emerging market for them. No one knew how many EVs could be sold, and no company wants every one of its toughest competitors forced into an unpredictable new market segment all at once. Also, no business wants to be told how many of anything it must sell, since no mandate can force people to buy something they don't want.

In the next installment: Pause and Rebirth

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