Report: With EV1, GM sparked the era of the electric car but didn’t follow through

With Earth Day approaching, it’s worth remembering the first modern dedicated electric car from a major automaker—the General Motors EV1. Industry trade journal Automotive News is publishing a series of articles (some paywalled) on the EV1, looking back on a car that once seemed like a dead end, but may have in fact been a […]

With Earth Day approaching, it’s worth remembering the first modern dedicated electric car from a major automaker—the General Motors EV1.

Industry trade journal Automotive News is publishing a series of articles (some paywalled) on the EV1, looking back on a car that once seemed like a dead end, but may have in fact been a prelude to the current era of modern electric vehicles.

In modern parlance, the EV1 was a dedicated electric car, meaning it wasn’t based on an existing gasoline model. When the EV1 appeared in the early 1990s, several automakers were working on electric versions of existing models to meet the then-new California zero-emission vehicle mandate, but GM went with a clean-sheet design.

1996 General Motors EV1

1996 General Motors EV1

The two-seat EV1 had a range of 60 miles to 80 miles, and initially used a lead-acid battery pack. Engineers also experimented with trailer-mounted generators to extend range, which served as the inspiration for the Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid.

GM leased the EV1 in California and a few other locations between 1998 and 2003. While production volume was never high—only 1,117 were made—customers that managed to get a hold of an EV1 generally gave positive reviews.

Many of the EV1 veterans quoted in the article believe the two-seater could have allowed GM to beat Tesla to the punch. But it was not to be. California changed its zero-emission vehicle laws, allowing GM to withdraw the EV1 without facing penalties. The automaker took back all of the cars from lessees and crushed most of them, a dramatic moment that formed the basis for the documentary “Who Killed The Electric Car?”

Only about 40 cars escaped the crusher, occasionally resurfacing to Internet fanfare, and some of the people involved with the EV1 have remained in the industry working on EVs. 

The resurrection of the electric car only took a few years. The Tesla Roadster launched in 2008—just five years after the last EV1 leases ended. GM, however, decided to go with the Chevy Volt before ultimately changing course toward all-electric cars.

While a lot has changed since the days of the EV1, mass adoption still faces many of the same hurdles. As of last year, 70% of Americans still haven’t even been inside an electric car, according to a J.D. Power survey. That survey cited the same three main barriers to EV purchases—charging infrastructure, range, and purchase price—as a similar survey conducted in 1997, in response to the EV1 launch.

Would things have been different if GM had remained committed to EVs? Would Tesla even exist if it had faced immediate competition from an industry giant? It certainly wouldn’t have hurt if the modern EV era had started a few years earlier.