The strange death of the EV1

Who holds back the electric car?
Who makes Steve Guttenberg a star?
We Do! We Do!

The Stonecutters’ Song, “The Simpsons”

The Washington Post reports that the Smithsonian Museum of American History is removing from display one of the EV1 electric cars which General Motors leased to drivers in California and Arizona in the late 1990s.


This coincides with the release of a movie, “Who Killed the Electric Car?” about the life and death of the EV1. (It’s probably worth seeing even if it does feature Ralph Nader.)

This is all news to me, but General Motors spent $1 billion developing and producing the EV1.

The car evolved from the Impact concept car developed by Paul MacCready’s AeroVironment team. Every one of its 2,000 parts was unique. The engine whirred, rather than roared, but spewed no emissions; there was no gear-shifting; and drivers talk of the car’s torque with awe.

The first wave of cars, including the Smithsonian’s, could travel 52 miles on a charge of four to six hours; the second-generation cars used a nickel metal hydride battery, which increased the range to about 125 miles. Cars were leased, rather than sold, by Saturn dealers, with monthly costs from $350 to more than $500.

While GM claims there were only 800 customers for the EV1, “Electric-car activists contend that GM ignored a waiting list of 5,000 because achieving success with the EV1 threatened to make the rest of GM’s cars look bad.”

What makes it even stranger is that GM not only recalled all the EV1s it produced, it actually destroyed them (except for the museum piece), claiming safety considerations.

And no, I don’t believe in a conspiracy theory involving Big Oil. More likely it was an utter failure of imagination by GM executives– in an era of relatively low-priced oil– that there ever could be a big demand for such a vehicle.

But still…