Who Keeps Killing the Electric Car?

The History of the Electric Car

I recently discussed why high gas prices can be good for your finances by altering your purchasing behaviors. I also pointed out what happens when regulatory agencies get involved to help set standards in the marketplace and alluded to what General Motors was able to achieve under one of these circumstances.

It’s time to tell that story. This story will inspire feelings of intrigue, shock, anger, and hope. It’s the story of the EV1 electric car made by General Motors in response to the 1990 ZEV (zero emission vehicle) mandate from the California Air Resources Board (CARB). This story was brought to the mainstream through the movie, Who Killed the Electric Car? If you haven’t seen the movie, I highly recommend it. Let’s first dig a little deeper into the beginning origins of the electric vehicle.

The History of Electric Vehicles: Not the First Go Round

You may find this fact hard to believe, but as late as the mid 1910’s, electric car sales outnumbered gas powered vehicles. Detroit Electric, Baker Electric, and Columbia Electric all produced fully electric vehicles throughout the 1920’s. Check out this photo of Thomas Edison with an electric car in 1913. It’s true, electric vehicles are a 100+ year old technology.

Jumping ahead to the 1960’s, electric vehicles in the form of hybrids started to sniff the light of day once again. GM produced the Stir-lec1, an experimental prototype conversion of an Opel vehicle. It was equipped with a Stirling engine and an electric drive train, what we now call a series hybrid. It was able to get 84 miles to the gallon with minimal emissions. Other manufacturers, including Chrysler, were creating electric vehicles of their own. However, none of these vehicles were made available to consumers.

history of electric car

Predecessors to the EV1


Sunraycer Electric Car

In 1987 GM became interested in creating a solar powered car to compete in the Australian Solar Challenge, now called the World Solar Challenge, based on a request to do so from GM’s Australian division. GM hired engineers from AeroVironment to help build the car within 10 months time, along with help from Hughes Aircraft. The car was dubbed Sunraycer. Sunraycer ended up winning the 1,867 mile race with an average speed of 41.6 mph, twice that of the second place finisher. The following year, the vehicle was able to reach a top speed of over 75 mph.

Sunraycer electric car

GM Impact Electric Car

The public relations success of Sunraycer led to GM creating an electric vehicle prototype, once again with the help of AeroVironment. The vehicle, named the GM Impact, was introduced at the 1990 Los Angeles Auto Show. It was kind of a fun play-time project built in the tailwinds of the Sunraycer’s PR success. Little did GM know, ironically, that they were wetting the appetites for regulatory agencies to demand production of this type of vehicle.

GM Impact

The California Air Resources Board (CARB) ZEV Mandate

The GM Impact prototype prompted the California Air Resources Board (CARB) to create a ZEV mandate to help clean up California’s smog problem. The mandate called for 2% of all new vehicles sold in California in 1998 to have zero emissions, with an increase to 10% by the year 2003. This is where it gets interesting. In response to the mandate, GM set out to mass produce an electric vehicle based on the GM Impact, to be called the EV1.

GM wasn’t required to create this vehicle, however, it knew that should this mandate stand (or worse yet, become a national trend) they would need to put a vehicle on the market to fill the niche and get vehicle sales. All other major auto manufacturers began to create their own zero emission vehicles for fear that they might be left out. 660 EV1’s were released to lessee’s in 1997.

The GM EV1 is Released

The EV1 lessee’s quickly fell in love with their vehicles. The car could go from 0 to 60 mph in 8 seconds. The car’s top speed was electronically limited to 80 mph, but a modified version was able to reach 183 mph in 1994. The EV1 was extremely quiet, had little required maintenance including no oil changes or brake jobs, had zero emissions, and drove incredibly smooth. The EV1 could get up to 150 miles on a single charge from the NiMH batteries on which GM owned the patent for and could recharge up to 80% within just 2 to 3 hours. All available EV1’s were leased out, with a long waiting list eager to get their own vehicle and a hardcore fan base that was passionately connected to their vehicles more than any other GM produced vehicle in memory.

CARB Starts to Change its Tune

Leadership positions at CARB begin to change hand as lawsuits from automakers, oil companies, and the Bush administration are levied on CARB for the ZEV mandate. CARB completely revises the ZEV mandate, instead allowing hybrids to now count towards the required goals and suddenly switches to focusing on the promise from automakers to focus on researching fuel cell technology.

The EV1 is Reclaimed

Siting a lack of demand for the EV1, GM halts the EV1 program. All vehicles are reclaimed (all leases were 3 years with no renewal or purchase options). Lease holders mount protests and offer to pay the remaining value of the vehicles to no avail. All vehicles, with the exception of a few which were disabled and given to museums or universities, are taken to a remote location in the desert to be completely destroyed. GM tries to kill future electric vehicle projects by selling it’s NiMH battery patent to Chevron (to be shelved). Even the last working vehicle, on display at the Smithsonian, is removed one week prior to the release of Who Killed the Electric Car? Curiously, GM happens to be a major donor to the Smithsonian.

Who Killed the Electric Vehicle? The Culprits

The movie sites a number of culprits for the death of the electric car including:

  • Automakers: Decided that electric vehicles didn’t have the profit margins of SUV’s. Let’s face it, the technology is developed and ready. Additionally, realized that in selling vehicles that required minimal maintenance they were drastically cutting down their lifetime vehicle revenue. This movie highlights GM’s failures, however, all automakers have similar reasons for not putting a viable electric vehicle on the market.
  • Oil Companies: Do we even need to cover why they may be guilty?
  • Consumers: Unwilling to try new technologies. Do you think this would hold true with today’s gasoline costs?
  • Government: Actually tried to sue CARB for creating a mandate that would help limit pollution. Let’s not forget that GW, Condoleeza Rice, Dick Cheney, and Andrew Card were all executives or board members of either oil or auto companies at one point in their careers.
  • CARB: Gave leadership to Alan Lloyd, who was also director of the fuel cell institute, creating a huge conflict of interest to stick with electric vehicles (they made the switch to focusing on fuel cell and extended deadlines). Then they bent to the pressures by government and auto and oil companies to repeal the mandate.
  • Batteries: Weren’t able to meet the needs of consumers.


  1. It’s not always big business’s fault: The movie labels all of the culprits as ‘guilty’, with the exception of batteries. I would tend to agree with this conclusion, but would tend to put the biggest blame on government and consumers. Why? Both the automakers and oil companies have an obligation to their shareholders to be profitable. Some companies follow moral and ethical values as well, however, ethical business practices are not mandatory unless specifically required by the law. Saving the environment and the world is not going to be a major goal of a company in a competitive marketplace unless they can increase their profitability in doing so. The only thing you can blame GM for is not having the vision to notice all the signs pointing towards this day coming and being an early mover in this market. Instead, they mortgaged away their position as a market leader to cling to the past.
  2. Vote for politicians who aren’t bought and sold: Why blame government? They set the rules, the laws, the standards. They have the knowledge and the research that the general public does not and have a responsibility to act on it. They also have a responsibility to not be influenced by private interests such as oil and auto companies. Additionally, they have a moral responsibility to not only attempt to be competitive in environmental stewardship with the rest of the world (they are not), but to also be a role model and set the standard. Get involved in both local and national politics.
  3. Blame yourself: Why blame consumers? We can control our driving consumption habits, we just choose not to when prices are cheap. The automakers will create vehicles that the market demands. If gas prices are high enough where you can’t afford to drive a gas powered vehicle you are going to begin taking public transportation, ride a bike, carpool, or even walk to work. Selling a low margin vehicle is a better option than selling no vehicles at all. Until now, the majority of consumers have not been driven by the moral principle of saving the planet, we have been motivated by the cheapest means and convenience. Also blame yourself if you voted (and re-voted) for an administration that would intentionally create lawsuits to prevent mandates that promote the production of zero emission vehicles.
  4. Change is happening right now: It’s simply not ‘cool’ to own a SUV or big truck anymore. Car dealerships won’t take them back, and paying triple digits at the gas station is never fun. Consumer behaviors are starting to change. Tesla Motors has released a 100% electric vehicle, the Tesla Roadster, that is able to get 220 miles per charge. They won’t be the only one’s. Within 2 years, I predict at least 3 major manufacturers will put electric vehicles on the market. Will they keep producing them if gas prices go lower over an extended period? That remains to be seen.

Electric Car Discussion

1. Would you purchase an electric vehicle if you knew it would ultimately cost you more to drive it per mile than the same gas powered car?

2. Who do you blame for not having the option to drive an electric vehicle?

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