The Good Oil: The GM electric car that made everybody mad
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General Motors (GM) is aiming to create a bit of noise (not literally) in the Battery Electric Vehicle (BEV) arena with its new “electric supertruck”, the GMC Hummer EV.
But it’ll be nothing compared with its first headline-grabbing BEV, the GM EV1. The 1996 EV1 now sounds a bit old-tech by modern standards: the first examples had lead-acid batteries and less than 100km range. But the EV1 was the first viable real-world BEV from a volume carmaker. It even predated Toyota’s petrol-electric Prius.
However, the EV1’s fame came not from its groundbreaking BEV status but from GM’s decision to cancel the programme and take back the cars from hugely enthusiastic, high-profile customers.
From the start, the EV1 was only available under lease, with lessors carefully vetted by GM. The agreement specifically excluded the possibility of purchasing the car at the end of the term.
Just 1117 first and second-generation cars were made from 1996-99. In the face of slackening legal requirements for zero-emissions vehicles in California and the high cost/limited sales of the EV1, GM officially discontinued the programme in 2002 and recalled the vehicles, with the intention of crushing them.
And that’s where the EV1 legend really began, because many owners didn’t want to give them up. GM argued the project was a fiscal failure and the cost of maintaining service and repair infrastructure for 15 years (required by law in California) was prohibitive. At least 50 lessees offered to buy their cars and agree to no liability to GM for service or repair; but the company declined.
Many lessees and EVangelists argued GM and the wider car and oil industries wanted to suppress BEV technology, as it posed a threat to profitable petrol-powered cars and the infrastructure built around them.
The controversy was captured in the 2006 documentary Who Killed the Electric Car?
It’s still worth a watch now, as a fascinating time capsule that also profiles an interesting new startup called Tesla (Elon Musk has subsequently said that the cancellation of the EV1 was one of the catalysts for founding Tesla).