Introduced in 1996, The EV1 electric cars were available in California and Arizona as a lease only, as well as through a Southern Company employee lease program in Georgia, and could be serviced at designated Saturn retailers. They were discontinued after 1999 and subsequently removed from the roads in 2003 by General Motors (except for a few). The car's discontinuation was and remains a very controversial topic.
The predecessor of the EV1, the Impact, introduced at the January 1990 Los Angeles Auto Show, led to the Zero Emission Vehicle ("ZEV") mandate that year which was intended to curb California's growing problem with air pollution. Other members of what was then the American Automobile Manufacturers Association, plus Toyota, Nissan and Honda, each also developed a prototype ZEV. The ZEV Mandate originally specified that by 1998, 2% of all new cars sold by the seven major auto manufacturers in the state of California were to meet 'zero emission' standards as defined by the California Air Resources Board and 10% by 2003.
In December 1999, GM released approximately 200 of the new Generation Two 1999 EV1s with the new nickel metal hydride battery. Over the next 8 months, the remaining 257 Generation Two EV1s were released to certain selected lessees which initiated a lengthy waiting list. In mid 2000, GM closed the EV1 plant. A total of 457 Generation Two EV1s were produced and all were eventually leased.
On March 2, 2000, 450 Generation One EV1s were recalled by GM due to a faulty charge port cable that GM determined would lead to heat buildup and even fire. Despite the initial claim of only sixteen "thermal incidents" and no property damage, at least one fire originating at the charge port actually occurred, destroying the car of Ron Brauer and Ruth Bygness as it charged. This did not affect the Generation Two EV1s.
Over the next two years, approximately 200 of the Generation One EV1s were re-issued to their original lessees on revised two-year leases including a new limited-mileage clause. The delays were due to design complications in retrofitting the NiMH battery. Due to the tenuous retrofitting process and limited number of recall replacement parts available, GM offered the waiting Generation One lessees the opportunity to terminate their lease at no charge, or the chance to transfer the lease to one of the few 150 Generation Two EV1s left — ahead of those already on the Generation Two waiting list.
The company hoped that the EV1 would prove their technology and establish a "leadership" position within the electric vehicle market. GM itself did not expect to turn a profit on electric vehicles for perhaps 6 months after bringing the EV1 to market. The end came when GM decided it was cheaper to sue the State of California to roll back clean vehicle regulations than it was to build electric vehicles. GM stated that they spent over US$1 billion developing and marketing the EV1, though a portion of this cost was defrayed by the Clinton Administration's US$1.25 billion Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles (PNGV) project. All manufacturers seeking to produce electric cars for market consumption also benefitted from matching government funds committed to the United States Advanced Battery Consortium. The estimated research and development costs for the EV1 program to production (prior to marketing and sale costs) was pegged by General Motors as "slightly less than US$500 million".
When canceling the program, GM also cited a lack of demand for the two-seater, particularly in light of its limited range and its suitability to "warm weather" states only. During the EV1's development phase, several Northeastern states moved to pass ZEV laws similar to those adopted in California. General Motors, along with many other prospective EV manufacturers, opposed this movement despite the likelihood that such legislation would have vastly increased the market for the vehicle. While this may seem a sinister position to have taken, GM's internal research showed that the EV1's range would be reduced by as much as 50% for use in cold-weather states. This was due chiefly to the effect of ambient temperature on both the batteries and the special low rolling resistance tires.
In 2001, the California Air Resources Board modified the ZEV mandate to allow manufacturers to claim partial ZEV credit for hybrid vehicles. General Motors and DaimlerChrysler then sued the state of California and CARB, alleging that the new ZEV rules violated a federal law barring states from regulating fuel economy. In response, CARB removed the requirement for electric vehicles from the ZEV mandate in 2003, and GM — having produced a product for a mandate and market that no longer existed — cancelled the EV1 program soon after.
All EV1 leases required return of the vehicle at lease end; the last private EV1 lease expired in August 2003, and the last few drivers held a publicised funeral in Los Angeles on July 24, 2003. GM charged former lessees for excess wear and for scratches on the EV1s, and insisted on billing ex-lessees for these charges, even reporting non-payment as a charge-off. Upon lease expiration, many cars were put into storage at a facility in Burbank, California. GM donated around 40 returned EV1s to colleges and universities for engineering students, and to several museums including the Smithsonian Institution. All the donated EV1s are the original 1997 version, disabled by removal of the controller and batteries. By December, 2003 the last 78 EV1s in storage had been transferred to the GM Desert Proving Grounds in Mesa, Arizona for disposal, much to the protest of their former drivers. All EV1s sent to this site were stripped of their tires and batteries, subjected to an 18" crush, and trucked to smelters in California. There are rumors that a dozen were retained at GM's Michigan proving grounds.
Over 100 people offered to purchase the electric cars and waive such liability as they were able under American consumer product laws. GM consistently refused offers to purchase or re-lease any EV1s, stating that they would be subject to ongoing product liability from both the purchasers and any future owners, and that their internal customer support policies would require them to provide service and replacement parts for the EV1s for at least ten years. GM's suppliers stopped making replacement parts because of low demand, making it impossible to repair the vehicles. Of particular concern to the company was the likelihood that each leased car's battery packs would require replacement at 25-35,000 mile intervals, and that the very low volumes involved would necessitate the corporation's subsidy of spare parts to private owners, perhaps on an indefinite basis.
The view of the EV1 as failure is a controversial one in itself. When viewed as an attempt to produce a commercially viable EV product, it was not a success. If one considers the vehicle from GM's perspective, as a technological showpiece—a production electric car that actually could replace a gasoline powered vehicle—the program's outcome is less clear. The EV1 was produced for the consumer market, and many lessees found driving an EV1 to be a favorable experience. On that basis, EV1 would qualify as the most successful electric car ever built.
Some analysts have suggested that it is inappropriate to compare the EV1 with existing gasoline powered commuter cars as the EV1 is, in effect, a completely new product and had no equivalent vehicles to be judged against. Perhaps the largest disappointment to consumers is that, having invested the research time and money to invent the technology required to produce the EV1, GM did not continue development of future EV designs. Effectively, the technological advantage GM built through this program was squandered.
It has recently been theorized by the documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? that the EV1 program was eliminated because it threatened the oil industry and because it required virtually no maintenance and therefore threatened GM's profitability by undermining the replacement parts aftermarket as well as the company's strategy of planned obsolescence. GM responded to the film's claims, before actually having seen the movie, laying out several reasons why the EV1 was not commercially viable at the time.
General Motors used many advanced technologies in developing the EV1. These included:
Most of these technologies were included to improve the overall efficiency of the EV1.
The first generation EV1s used lead-acid batteries in 1996 (as model year 1997) and a second generation batch with nickel metal hydride batteries in 1999. Some of the Gen 1 EV1s were refurbished and upgraded to Panasonic lead-acid batteries.
The Gen 1 cars got 55 to 75 miles (90 to 120 km) per charge with the Delco-manufactured lead-acid batteries, 75 to 100 miles (120-to-160 km) with the Gen 2 Panasonic lead-acid batteries, and 75 to 150 miles (120 to 240 km) per charge with Gen 2 Ovonic nickel-metal hydride batteries. Recharging took as much as eight hours for a full charge (although one could get an 80% charge in two to three hours). The battery pack consisted of 26 of 12 V, 60 Ah lead-acid batteries holding 67.4 MJ (18.7 kWh) of energy or 26 13.2-volt, 77 Ah nickel-metal hydride batteries which held 95.1 MJ (26.4 kWh) of energy.
The EV1 was directly based on a prototype vehicle created by AeroVironment called the GM Impact. The Impact in turn was based on design ideas first tested out in a record-breaking race car called the Sunraycer, a solar-electric vehicle the company created in 1987 specifically to win the World Solar Challenge, a trans-Australia race open to solar powered cars only.
A modified EV1 prototype set a land speed record for production electric vehicles of in 1994.
The EV1 could accelerate from 0–60 mph (0–100 km/h) in the eight-second range and from 0–50 mph (0–80 km/h) in 6.3 seconds. The car's top speed was electronically limited to . At the time the EV1 (with lead acid batteries) was the only electric car produced which met all EV America performance goals of the United States Department of Energy.
The home charger installation (required for "fast recharge") was about 1.5 ft×2 ft×5 ft (0.5 m×0.6 m×1.5 m) with integrated heatsinks and resembled a gasoline pump. Charging was entirely inductive, and accomplished by placing a Magne Charge paddle in the front port of the EV1, although GM also offered a convenience charger (120 VAC) that could be used with any standard North American receptacle to slow charge the battery pack.
The new platform was a four-passenger variant of the EV1, lengthened by 19". This design was based on an internal (GM) program for a more "marketable" EV begun during the proof of concept phase of the EV1's development. During the original EV1 R&D period, focus groups indicated one of the major market limiting factors of the original EV1 was its two seater configuration. GM investigated the possibility of making the EV1 a four seater, but ultimately determined that the increased length and weight of the four seater would reduce vehicle's already limited range to 40-50 miles - placing the first ground up electric car's performance squarely in the pack of aftermarket gas vehicle conversions. Understandably, the company elected to produce the lighter two seater design.
For hybrid and electric vehicles, the battery pack was upgraded to 44 NiMH cells, arranged in "I" formation down the centerline, which could fully recharge in just 2 hours using onboard 220 V induction charger; additional power units were installed in the trunk, thus complementing the 3rd generation 137 hp AC Induction electric motor installed in the hood. Hybrid modifications retained the capability of all-electric ZEV propulsion for up to 40 miles (64.4 km).
The batteries were replaced with two CNG tanks capable of maximum operating pressure of 3000 psi. The tanks could be refueled from a single nozzle in only 4 minutes. In-tank solenoids shut off the fuel during refueling and engine idle, and a pressure relief device safeguarded against excessive temperature and pressure. With the help of a continuously variable transmission, the car accelerated 0 to 60 mph (96.6 km/h) in 11 seconds. The maximum range was 350 to 400 miles, and fuel economy was 60 mpg (in gasoline equivalent) .
The series hybrid prototype had a gas turbine engine APU placed in the trunk. A single-stage, single-shaft, recuperated gas turbine unit with a high-speed permanent-magnet AC generator was provided by Williams International; it weighed 220 lb (99.8 kg), measured 20 inches (50.8 cm) in diameter by 22 inches (55.9 cm) long and was running between 100,000 and 140,000 rpm. The turbine could run on a number of high-octane alternative fuels, from octane-boosted gasoline to compressed natural gas. The APU started automatically when the battery charge dropped below 40% and delivered 40 kW of electrical power, enough to achieve speeds up to 80 mph (128.8 km/h) and to return the car's 44 NiMH cells to a 50% charge level.
A fuel tank capacity of 6.5 gallons (24.6 l) and fuel economy of 60 to 100 mpg (3.9 to 2.4 L/100 km) in hybrid mode, depending on the driving conditions, allowed for a highway range of more than 390 miles (627.6 km). The car accelerated to 0-60 mph (96.6 km/h) in 9 seconds.
There was also a research program that powered the series hybrid Gen2 version from Stirling engine based generator. The program demonstrated the technical feasibility of such drivetrain, but concluded that commercial viability was out of reach at that time.
A similar technology is used in the 2005 Opel Astra Diesel Hybrid concept.
According to the film, many EV1 lessees offered to purchase their vehicles from GM at lease-end for the residual price. For instance, US$1.9 million was offered for the remaining 78 cars in a Burbank storage lot (or $24,359 per car). Apparently GM did not entertain any of these offers. Subsequently, the film depicts nearly all of the EV1s being decommissioned by GM crushed and recycled as scrap metal. These are some of the reasons why many analysts question GM's motives. Several weeks before the debut of the film, the Smithsonian Institution announced that its EV1 display was being permanently removed and the EV1 car put into storage. Although GM is a major financial contributor to the museum, both parties denied that this sponsorship contributed to the removal of the display. According to the museum, the removal of the EV1 from display was a necessary aspect of its renovation. The space where the EV1 stood has been filled by Stanley, the unmanned Volkswagen Touareg SUV which won the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge.
According to interviews in the film "Who Killed the Electric Car", many consumers and government officials questioned General Motors' commitment to the EV1 program. Concerns over inadequate marketing and limited vehicle supply have led some to believe that GM intended the EV1 program to fail. One theory is that GM intended to demonstrate that electric vehicles were not commercially viable with 1990s technology, which would [or did] discourage what was at the time a growing public interest in electric vehicles. GM's stated position was to spend US$500 million to produce a workable electric vehicle that could compete and win "heads up" in the marketplace. The company said that if they could have recouped their investment by selling the vehicles commercially, they certainly would have done so. GM never responded to the lessees offer to pay the residual lease value.
Ardent supporters of electric vehicles have been very vocal about the EV1 program's demise. Of particular interest is the leasing program which formally required the vehicles to be returned to GM at lease expiry. General Motors' stated reason for the lease-only option was that, as the modern era's first ground-up electric vehicle, the EV1 could not be expected to maintain its performance level (or affordability in regard to maintenance) over the long run. GM also had significant concerns over long-term liability issues relating to the vehicle. This was partly due to the relatively short R&D period the car was designed and produced under, and the high percentage of "invented on schedule" technology employed in the car as compared with a standard gasoline powered vehicle. While many lessees and prospective owners have complained about the lease-only availability of the EV1, it is important to note that each leased vehicle was in effect heavily subsidized by General Motors. The car was very popular with its lessees, but it was not known if anyone would have purchased a new electric vehicle at the time had it been offered for sale even at a "break even" price of US$35,000-40,000. A higher production volume would have been required for the production cost to be reduced (see: economy of scale).
The process of obtaining an EV1 was difficult when compared to the purchase of any other commuter car. The vehicle could not be purchased outright. Instead, General Motors offered a closed-end three-year lease, with no renewal or residual purchase option. The EV1 was only available from Saturn dealerships (then less prevalent than they are today), and only in California and Arizona (for technical reasons).
Before reviewing lease options, a potential lessee would be taken through a 'pre-qualification' process in order to learn how the EV1 was different from other vehicles (a similar 'buyer familiarization process' was standard for all Saturn buyers). Following this, prospective lessees would be placed on a waiting list with no scheduled delivery date. After an average wait of between two and six months, the lessee would be allotted a vehicle. Installation of a home charger took one to two weeks and cost an additional US$2500 (on average).
According to GM Chairman and CEO Rick Wagoner, the worst decision of his tenure at GM was "axing the EV1 electric-car program and not putting the right resources into hybrids. It didn’t affect profitability, but it did affect image. According to the March 13, 2007, issue of Newsweek, "GM R&D chief Larry Burns . . . now wishes GM hadn't killed the plug-in hybrid EV1 prototype his engineers had on the road a decade ago: 'If we could turn back the hands of time,' says Burns, 'we could have had the Chevy Volt 10 years earlier.' In 2008, GM is suffering massive deficits, eclipsing the value of the company, in a market with high demand for electric vehicles.
An EV1 is still on display at The Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, in addition to the one in the Petersen Automotive Museum which appeared in the movie, and which had been leased not by Chris Paine, the director, but by Kris Trexler, the two time Emmy Award winning video/film editor, who once drove it across the country.
Regarding the new Volt Vehicle itself, GM is taking a completely different tack from that of the EV1, this time involving environmental stakeholders (specifically those from the EV and PHEV community) much earlier in the process.