Who Really Killed the Electric Car
Electric cars are now available from virtually every manufacturer. In fact, they're taking over the industry like few innovations ever have. Their performance, low cost of ownership, almost nonexistent need for service and repairs, and freedom from gas stations have demand saturating the waiting lists. So at this point, it might seem a little bit silly to ask the same question posed in the 2006 conspiracy theory film Who Killed the Electric Car? But let us assume that there was indeed some fossil-fuel driven conspiracy to get the General Motors EV1 off the road in the early 2000s. Even if the effort did ultimately fail — as we can see today that electric cars are everywhere — it's still entirely possible that the conspiracy did exist. Today we're going to look at that basic claim, and find out why nobody was allowed to keep their EV1.
The way the story is usually told is this, and it centers around GM's relationship with CARB, the California Air Resources Board, in charge of protecting and improving California's air quality. One of CARB's best known functions is to define vehicle emission standards, and it's unique among all 50 US states' air quality boards in that it is the only one empowered to enact its own emission requirements. Other states can choose to follow either CARB's or the EPA's, but may not set their own. As California is the biggest market for new cars in the United States, car manufacturers prioritize meeting CARB standards, giving CARB enormous industry influence.
In 1990, CARB mandated that all seven of the largest automobile manufacturers, of which GM was the biggest, would be required to make 2% of their cars sold emission-free by 1998, ramping up to 10% by 2003. Of course this outraged the manufacturers, none of whom were prepared to produce viable electric cars. So they fought back, even suing CARB in federal court; but they also tried to do their best to see what they could come up with. All produced some kind of zero-emission prototype, and GM called theirs the Impact. They handbuilt 50 Impact prototypes, and loaned them out to people for a few weeks. Tens of thousands of people flooded GM's phone lines trying to get one of those 50. The automotive press loved the Impact, calling it the world's first electric car that drives like a real car.
GM and CARB came to an agreement that if CARB would relax the new requirements a bit, GM would go ahead and produce a limited run of actual production cars. CARB did, and so GM followed through, and manufactured 660 first generation cars in 1996, now calling them the EV1. They were all leased for limited terms, none were sold. Oddly, they did virtually no marketing at all. Many suspected GM hoped the car would be a flop, and perhaps CARB would drop the requirements altogether.
But demand was absolutely crushing. In 1999 GM produced a second generation EV1, this time equipping some with NiMH batteries that gave it almost a 50% improvement in range.
But behind the scenes, the manufacturers' pressure on CARB finally worked. CARB caved, and withdrew the zero-emission requirement completely. It allowed low-emission hybrids to satisfy the new regulations. Hybrids the manufacturers could do. It was definitely a victory.
Consequently, in 2002, GM announced that it would be withdrawing all EV1s from the road, and directed all lessors to turn in their cars. Many objected, sent extra payments, tried to buy their cars outright; but it did no good. Soon, all but a very few cars that slipped through the cracks were back in GM's hands — and then, in the most infamous chapter of this story, they were all sent to the crusher and destroyed.
And that's the basic storyline. GM set up the EV1 to fail, produced bogus studies claiming that nobody wanted an electric car when all the real studies showed that they did, pressured CARB to drop the zero-emission requirement, and then declared the car a failure and yanked them despite great demand for more. It was all in the interest of wanting to continue to rely on dirty, polluting, internal combustion cars that were cheap, reliable, and highly profitable. There are endless speculations on who they conspired with: other manufacturers, fossil fuel companies, politicians, the government, whomever. Whatever the structure of the conspiracy, the people and the EV1 lost, and the fossil fuel interests won.
So this is where we say "Well, actually..." because it turns out a number of important details in that narrative are wrong. Most importantly, CARB didn't come up with their zero-emission requirement out of the blue, and GM didn't develop the Impact in response to it. It was actually the other way around. GM's Impact prototype was so impressive that it actually inspired CARB to create the zero-emission requirement. Clearly, the manufacturers were perfectly able to produce great electric cars.
So, if it wasn't in response to CARB, why did GM develop the Impact? Well, let us answer that by looking at another example from automotive history.
In 1963, Chrysler introduced a big, beautiful two-door luxury sedan. Its futuristic, sweeping body had been designed and built in Italy by Ghia. But it had a killer feature under the hood: it was powered by a gas turbine engine, and its name was the Chrysler Turbine Car. However, what Chrysler didn't do was create a proper support infrastructure for the Turbine Car. No factory service technicians were trained. No service manual was ever written. No supply chain for spare parts was ever established. None were offered through dealers, though four were given to dealers for display only. In fact, Chrysler didn't do a single thing that every manufacturer does when they create a new car. Chrysler asked people to write and tell them why they'd want to drive a jet car. 30,000 people wrote in from all walks of life, indicating far more demand than Chrysler had expected. They built 55 of the cars and loaned 46 of them, for 90 days apiece, to a total of 203 different people (180 men and 23 women) over three years. The only proviso was the lucky drivers all had to keep logs of their thoughts on the car. What did they like, not like, was it what they expected, was it better or worse. Some things they all loved were its smooth power delivery and the fact that it had no vibration at all. After the 90 days were up, Chrysler said "Thank you very much," collected the cars and the log books, and sent the cars to the crusher. A very few were preserved for museums and some highly select private collectors (including Jay Leno today). Chrysler carefully studied the drivers' experiences, and according to whatever rubric they were working with, decided it was the end of the Chrysler Turbine Car.
The Turbine Car program differed from the EV1 program in a few ways. Although both had owner's manuals, a three-binder service manual for the EV1 was created while none was for the Turbine Car. This is likely because the EV1 program lasted about twice as long and the cars subsequently were on the road for longer. EV1s were leased, while the Turbine Cars were loaned.
But the programs had a lot more in common. Neither car was ever offered for sale. Both were offered only to a very limited market. Both were given to their drivers with the understanding that it was to be for a limited period of time only. Neither ever had a spare parts supply chain, and neither ever had any factory trained service technicians at dealerships. Why would any manufacturer launch a new car without such essentials?
Simple. These were test programs. They were designed as test programs, implemented as test programs, and terminated as test programs.
As for the crushing of all the cars? Was there any reason not to let the people who wanted to keep them pay for the right to do so? It turns out that yes, there were indeed three big reasons to crush both the Turbine Cars and the EV1s. First, and more than sufficient by itself was simple liability. Imagine if a manufacturer gave a prototype car — basically a test rig — to a customer and that customer was killed or injured in it. These cars were not built to last a quarter of a million miles, they were engineered for the anticipated duration of the tests. Second was the very pragmatic concern of not wanting examples available for competitors to acquire and reverse engineer. Both these cars were advanced prototypes filled with original intellectual property. Third and finally, crushing them was a lot easier than jumping through all the legal and regulatory hoops needed to make a production car satisfy all the Department of Transportation requirements.
The EV1 even gives us one more big clue that it was a test program never intended to become a production vehicle: GM never even gave it a brand name! At the time, GM marketed all its cars under its brands: then Chevrolet, Cadillac, Oldsmobile, Pontiac, Buick, and Saturn. That great big service manual for the EV1 said Saturn on it, but the car itself never wore that, or any other, brand name. Kind of a clue that it was not intended to be part of any brand.
And so, at the end of their test, GM was — like Chrysler — in the position of having to apply their rubric and make a decision. As the EV1s were being crushed, Toyota's Prius and Honda's Insight gas hybrids were both successfully plying the roads. It would have required lithium-polymer batteries to make an all-electric car competitive with those, and in 2002, those weren't ready for the market. So instead, GM elected to follow Toyota and Honda's lead. They went into development on a gas hybrid, and in 2007, five years after the EV1s were crushed, GM rolled out the prototype for the Chevy Volt. Four years later in 2011, the Volt went on sale in dealerships.
But the Volt wasn't the only thing GM did after the EV1 test program. Much of the same team went to work researching fuel cell electric vehicles. They developed the Allison hybrid-electric buses. The work on the EV1 also ultimately produced GM's two-mode hybrid technology, found in their large SUVs, which combined two electric motors, three planetary gear sets, four multiplate clutches, and two hydraulic pumps to win Motor Trend's Technology of the Year award for 2007.
If you watched the movie Who Killed the Electric Car? and became persuaded that a shadowy conspiracy must have wrought its awful work to suppress the glorious EV1, notice that the movie came out in 2006. It was produced in those quiet years between 2002, when GM took the lessons from the EV1 and turned to hybrid vehicle development, and 2007 when those hybrids first appeared. The filmmakers can perhaps be forgiven for not being aware of what the EV1 engineers were still working on. They could have asked, but hey, then you wouldn't have a Hollywood shockumentary.
So the short answer to who killed the EV1? Nobody. It was never killed by any person or entity, malevolent, conspiratorial, or otherwise; because it was never intended to be given life as a production vehicle. It was a test program, designed to be educational for General Motors. They invested more than a billion dollars in developing a zero-emission vehicle, which put them on a trajectory to take the stepping stone of low-emission hybrids that got them to today's zero-emission all-electric cars. You can thank them for that, or you can critique their adversarial relationship with CARB, it's up to you. The EV1 program was not a failure; it was just how we do things in the science of invention. There was nothing shadowy or underhanded about it that required the exotic explanation of a conspiracy.
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