As we prepare to receive Chevy's upcoming Volt plug-in electric car, some may recall the short life of the EV1, General Motors' first publicly available electric vehicle. Before Toyota's Prius inherited the "tree-hugger" stereotype, there was the homely EV1, a purely electric vehicle, designed to cut emissions, yet drive like a normal car. Tens of thousands of potential buyers fell in love with the idea from the start, but only a small volume was produced, almost all of which was eventually destroyed. So what happened? Can the Volt outlive it's ancestor? There still remains a certain amount of mystery and controversy over the story of the EV1. Whether it was politics, economics, or both that killed the EV1, the quite little machine left its mark on the automotive industry, and may, in part, live on through the Volt.
The roots of the EV1 point back to the 1987 World Solar Challenge, a solar vehicle race across Australia. Partnering with GM, AeroVironment and AC Propulsion developed the Impact concept car. The impact was introduced to the public in 1990, at the Los Angeles Auto Show. The California government began to push automakers to produce electric vehicles, mandating a certain percentage of their fleets should be purely electric. A total of 50 Impact cars were built and loaned to volunteer drivers who would be required to comment on their experiences with the vehicles. An overwhelming abundance of volunteers voiced their desires to participate immediately, although GM called the experiment a failure. The EV1 was born from the Impact in 1996, and became an official member of the GM family. The cars were leased to select California and Arizona residents. Production continued until 2002, when a total of 1,117 had been built. Leases were terminated and GM eventually reclaimed all remaining EV1s.
The EV1 program was canceled due to lack of consumer interest, according to GM. Many clean air advocates believe (and still believe) that the automaker self-sabotaged the program, to avoid additional emissions regulations in other states. Many of the original lessees petitioned GM to allow them to continue driving their EV1s, even going so far as to send deposits and offer to cover any maintenance out of their own pockets. In the end, most of the cars were destroyed. A few were donated to museums and universities with deactivated drivetrains, never to be allowed on the road again.
The Second Chance
Things have changed, and car companies are under more pressure than ever to develop green solutions. General Motors argued that battery technology was a limiting factor in the success of the EV1, and consumers and critics still share that concern. With a handful of plug-in EVs on their way, we are about to find out if they were right. There is no question about consumer demand. Manufacturers have even begun offering extensive battery warranties to ease the fears of potential buyers. GM is taking another chance with the Volt, and everyone is watching. It may just be everything the EV1 could have been.