Pause and rebirth
I joined the GM EV effort in April, 1991 and began pulling together a small team of test and development engineers and technicians at GM's Proving Grounds near Milford, MI.
One vivid early memory was driving the Impact concept car down a long, steep Proving Grounds hill early one August morning on the way to demonstrate it to a meeting of GM's Board of Directors. There was a sweeping curve near the bottom of this hill that I routinely drove nearly every day on my way to test tracks.
Suddenly, as I sped downhill toward that curve, I remembered that the Impact rolled on skinny, low-rolling-resistance experimental tires, and had almost no brakes. Visions of an expensive career-ending crash flashed through my head. Then I remembered that I could dial up "coast-down" regenerative braking with a rheostat knob between the seats, and that slowed the slippery little bullet enough to make the turn. Whew!
Sixteen months of hard work later -- on Pearl Harbor Day, Dec. 7, 1992 -- our fearless leader, Ken Baker, had to tell our Lansing, Mich. Craft Centre plant team, who were preparing to build our breakthrough electric vehicle, that the program had been delayed. Then he had to deliver that same emotional message to his engineers at GM's Warren, MI Technical Center.
The story continues after the jump.
"It was a very, very sad, tough day," he recalls today, "to tell them the program was deferred. I had grown very close to those people, and everybody there was proud of being on that program and what had been accomplished. We had already gone through a couple of budget reductions, but when we got that next cut, we just had to defer the program."
New GM CEO Jack Smith (no relation to former CEO Roger) later hosted our heavy-hearted EV team for lunch, where he apologized and explained why he had reluctantly decided to table the program as he struggled to save the cash-bleeding corporation. He told us that since his appointment to GM's top job the month before, he had canceled or delayed several volume programs, but this had been his last and perhaps most difficult such decision.
"I understood how difficult that decision had been," Baker says. "We had created the USABC [United States Advanced Battery Consortium], which had focused battery development collaboratively, and had the platform in place for clean technologies leadership at the vehicle, battery and power electronics levels. But we had to figure out which living branch to cut off the [GM corporate] tree to it keep alive."
When the program was delayed, nearly everyone wrote it off as canceled. But while three-quarters of our group was reassigned, a core team of roughly 100 engineers relocated to an off-site facility in Troy, MI and continued development. Baker was promoted to R&D vice president in April and kept the program alive under that organization.
In the fall of 1993, my Proving Grounds team planned and coordinated a series of briefings and test drives for selected media in "Proof of Concept" (POC) early development cars, and the resulting articles were highly positive. "GM's hard-charging Impact is practical, fun to drive and a master stroke of engineering," said Popular Mechanics. "The world's best electric car," gushed Popular Science. Even enthusiast magazines were pleasantly surprised.
Then a batch of 50 POC-level prototypes was hand-built in the Tech Center shop and prepped and tested by my team for a 1994 "PrEView Drive" program that loaned them to regular folks for three months at a time in a dozen U.S. cities. This very innovative, risky and expensive effort paid off handsomely by accumulating hugely valuable real-world experience, engineering data and feedback on how the cars performed, how people used them and what they disliked and (mostly) liked about them.
In March, 1994, with the corporation's shaky finances beginning to recover, Jack Smith and GM's Board appointed Bob Purcell, who was then Executive in Charge of Corporate Strategy, to revive the EV program. Interestingly, we heard later that those rave reviews from our POC-car press drives had positively influenced their decision.
Purcell's mission: make a business of it. "Jack's whole context," he points out today, "was that if we were going to get into electric vehicles, we had to figure out how to make them a sustainable part of General Motors." The plan was to lead the industry in EV technology and sell it to other automakers that chose not to invest billions of dollars to develop their own.
"We needed to be at the forefront of the technical evolution of the automobile," he continues. "Our success as a company was rooted in an era when we led in technology. The industry firsts that have come from GM - electric headlights, enamel paint, electric starter motors, automatic transmissions, catalytic converters, many technologies that are now core to modern automobiles - were invented and pioneered by GM. Based on that fundamental strategy, the decision was made to reactivate the program and take a leadership position on advanced technology."
The EV team became GM's Advanced Technology Vehicles (ATV) Division and began re-staffing with purchasing, manufacturing and other specialists as well as highly motivated and talented engineers. "There were two fundamental challenges," Purcell says: "technical feasibility - can you make it work? And commercial viability - can you make it at a cost that people can afford and shareholders can get a return on their investments? Those two themes ran through everything we did."
One key was to focus not just on the vehicle but on the component set that would make it work. "We developed this concept of generations of technology," he explains. "You cycle design generations relatively quickly to accelerate the rate at which you can get cost out and improve functionality. For example, we were working in parallel on three generations of power electronics - Gen I went into production in '96, Gen II in late '98 - and two generations of batteries, lead-acid [PbA] and nickel-metal hydride [NiMH]."
The business case that Purcell took to the Board that June won approval for both the Gen I car with PbA batteries for 1996 and the more advanced Gen II EV with NiMH for 1998. What happened next is now green car history.
Next time: Technology triumph, market disappointment.