The EV1 was the first modern production electric vehicle from a major automaker and also the first purpose-built electric car ever produced. It was designed and built by General Motors (GM) in the United States.
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.
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 air pollution problem. 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 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.
Introduced in 1996, The EV1 electric cars were available in California and Arizona in a limited (3 year/30,000 mile) “lease only” agreement. This was due to the fact that the EV1 and its leasee were to be participants in a “real-world” engineering evaluation created by General Motors Advanced Technology Vehicles group, as well as market analysis and study into the feasibility of producing and marketing a commuter electric vehicle in select U.S. markets.
GM never offered the EV1 for public sale. It was only available to consumers under a lease program that had a “no purchase” clause disallowing the vehicle’s re-purchase at the conclusion of the lease. 660 Generation One EV1s were produced for the 1997 model year, using lead acid batteries.
EV1’s were marketed at first only in Los Angeles, CA and Phoenix/Tucson, AZ. Within a year, San Francisco and Sacramento CA soon followed.
In December 1999, GM released approximately 200 new Generation Two 1999 EV1s with a new nickel metal hydride (NiMH) battery. Over the next 8 months, the remaining 257 Generation Two EV1s were released to certain selected lessees.
In mid 2000, GM closed the EV1 plant without notice or detailed explanation. A total of 457 Generation Two EV1s were produced, however the optional ’99-model equipped with NiMH batteries was apparently never offered in Arizona because, at that early stage of their development, they performed very poorly in hot weather.
A limited number of EV1s were apparently made available through a Southern Company employee lease program in Georgia. In accordance to the lease agreement the EV1 could only be serviced at designated Saturn retailers. The EV1 was discontinued after 1999 and subsequently removed from the roads in 2003 by General Motors – and completely destroyed (except for a few educational and museum cars). The car’s discontinuation was and remains a controversial topic.
The EV1 driving and ownership experience was unlike a conventional gasoline (petrol) or diesel vehicle. The EV1 had the lowest aerodynamic drag coefficient of any production vehicle in history. As a result, at highway speeds audible noise was significantly less than that of other automobiles.
At lower speeds, and at stoplights, there was no noise at all, save for a slight whine from the single-speed gear reduction unit. With its smooth shape and rear fender skirts it had a very distinctive appearance. Vehicle operating information instrumentation was displayed by digital readouts spanning a thin curved strip just under the windshield and well above the dashboard.
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 80 mph (130 km/h), but true top speed exceeded 100 mph (166 km/h). A modified EV1 prototype set a land speed record for production electric vehicles of 183 mph (295 km/h) in 1994.
The EV1 had a range of 75 to 150 miles (120 to 240 km) per charge with nickel-metal hydride batteries. Full charge could be achieved in 4 to 5 hours. GM offered a convenience charger (120 VAC) that could be used with any standard North American receptacle. The EV1 was the only car produced which met all ZEV performance goals of the United States Department of Energy.
According to GM Chairman and CEO Rick Wagoner, his worst decision of his tenure at GM was “axing the EV1 electric-car program and not putting the right resources into hybrids.” CEO Wagoner repeated this assertion during an NPR interview with Michelle Norris after the December 2008 Senate hearings on the US Auto Industry bailout request.
CEO Wagoner on left
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.'”