At Witz' End: GM EV1 - The Real Story, Part III

NOTE: If you missed them, you can read parts one and two.

High tech development, market launch and retreat

Because its 1,175-pound pack of 27 advanced lead-acid (PbA) batteries - 26 propulsion, one for accessories - held a mere half-gallon of gasoline-equivalent energy, the production EV1 would have to be an incredibly efficient teardrop-shaped two-seater to achieve even barely acceptable range. Stretching it to accommodate four passengers would have reduced its already very modest range some 25 percent due to added weight and aero drag.

"The fundamental variables are mass, aerodynamics, rolling resistance, accessory loads and driveline efficiency," says Bob Purcell, who was our Advanced Technology Vehicles (ATV) Div. Executive Director. "So the exercise was to ensure that we would meet all customer requirements using the least possible energy in each of those areas."

Continue reading after the jump.

Breakthrough technologies
That effort brought breakthrough technologies such as the first heat pump automotive heater/air conditioner, electro-hydraulic power steering and electro-hydraulic, power-blended regenerative braking. "In every way, that car was the ultimate statement of energy efficiency," Purcell asserts, "and many of the benchmarks it established still stand today."

Our tireless ATV engineering team had to rethink and, in many cases, redesign virtually every element of the modern automobile. One major issue was noise. Once you've "drained the swamp" of the entire spectrum of internal combustion propulsion system sounds, a lot of other noises that you never knew were there rise up out of the dramatically lowered level. Every motor, pump and mechanical system had to be significantly hushed, and while the turbine-like whine of the "traction" (drive) motor might be heard as a positive by some, the louder, harsher noise of the step-down gearset definitely would not. It was a major challenge.

Even with standard traction control, cruise control, AM/FM/Cassette/CD premium audio, power anti-lock brakes, tire inflation monitoring (for weight and packaging reasons, EV1 was the first production GM vehicle with no spare tire), power windows, mirrors and steering and dual airbags, EV1's total weight was just 2,970 lb. Its aluminum structure - 162 pieces bonded together with aerospace adhesive, spot welds and rivets - weighed less than 10 percent of that. The exterior body panels were dent-resistant, corrosion-proof SMC and RRIM composites. With a near-perfect aero shape perfected by many hours of wind-tunnel tuning, its drag coefficient was an astounding 0.19, unmatched by any volume vehicle before or since.

Powered by a 137-hp 3-phase AC induction motor through a dual-reduction gearset with an overall ratio of 10.946:1, it was capable of strong, smooth performance (like the Impact, about eight seconds 0-60) and respectable handling on its narrow, 50-psi, low-rolling resistance tires, though its top speed was electronically limited to 80 mph. Gently driven in warm ambient temperatures, it could squeeze out 50-70 miles in city driving, somewhat more on the highway. It could be recharged in 3-4 hours using GM's innovative, all-weather "inductive" charging on its standard 220-volt charger or 12-16 hours on its 110-volt compact convenience charger.

Market acceptance?
Everyone at GM ATV understood that demand for an expensive two-seater with very limited range would not be strong. But we knew from our 1993-94 PrEView Drive, which put EV1 prototypes into daily use with regular folks for three months at a time that people loved the cars and learned to live with their limitations. Market research said that most peoples' daily commutes were well within EV1's range, and it would be most households' second, third or even fourth vehicle. Owners would simply choose a different ride for longer drives. And we knew that GM's customer-friendly Saturn dealers would take excellent care of EV1 owners.

We also knew that long-term success would depend absolutely on advancing battery technology. Our '99 EV1's much more expensive available nickel-metal hydride NiMH batteries could hold nearly twice the PbA pack's energy, stretching its range to a still-inadequate 130-140 miles. But the lithium-polymer chemistries being developed by 3M Corp. and others - which promised gasoline-competitive size, weight, cost and range - never panned out.

For several reasons – limited production volume due to component (especially battery), availability, unacceptable cold-weather range and very limited public-charging opportunities offered by cooperative electric utilities – EV1s were marketed at first only in Los Angeles, CA and Phoenix and Tucson, AZ. Two more cities, San Francisco and Sacramento, CA soon followed, but the optional '99-model NiMH batteries were not offered in Arizona because, at that early stage of their development, they performed very poorly in hot weather.

Dismal disappointment
Critics contend that GM didn't try hard enough to publicize EV1s. I thought the ads I saw were pretty good, and I know our PR team worked very hard with media to get the word out and provide test vehicles to auto writers in those areas, because I was heavily involved with that effort. ATV/Saturn's EV1 ad budget may have been limited after the initial launch (lots of other GM products also needed major promotion at the time), but I can't imagine that any potential customers were unaware that EV1s were available at Saturn dealers in those five markets.

Still, the EV1 was a fairly high-priced, low-range two-seater. How many two-passenger non-sports cars have succeeded in America in our lifetimes? Zero. Unfortunately, for whatever reasons, only 500 '97 EV1s were built and 400 leased. That dismal performance was followed by about the same numbers of '99 Gen II cars (there were no '98s), some with optional NiMH batteries. At that point, GM gave up and pulled the (ahem) plug. Until a practical, affordable gas-competitive battery technology could be developed, there would be no GM EV2 or EV3.

Not surprisingly, Toyota, Honda, Ford, Chrysler and every other automaker with volume EV aspirations also gave up for the same reason, and California was eventually persuaded to give up its ill-considered sales mandate of technology that was nowhere near market ready.

Those aware of serious liability risks with aging 300-plus-volt batteries, and state laws requiring parts and service support for decades after vehicles are sold, should understand why GM chose to lease, not sell, these early technology EVs. And why they had to be recalled and destroyed when their leases were up. As we well know, that necessity made those 800 or so lessees - people who genuinely loved their EV1s and did not want to give them up - extremely unhappy.

But don't let anyone try to tell you that GM wanted that program to fail. You don't table it, revive it, then do everything we did - and invest at least a billion precious development dollars - on a product you don't want to succeed. From CEO Jack Smith down to those of us who worked our proverbial tails off to make it work, everyone at GM desperately wanted it to.

Next time: Lessons learned as applied to hybrid development.

Share This Photo X