the plug on electric car
Manufacturer calls the EV1 unprofitable, but some who loved and
lost the vehicle blame its demise on the company.
By Nick Green
It’s head-snapping, yet whisper-quiet power could take it
from zero to 60 mph in 9 seconds, a performance that left most
gasoline-powered cars an ever-diminishing sight in the sleek
vehicle’s rearview mirror.
It never needed oil, gas or even a key to start it, heralding
a vehicle so maintenance-free many drivers found their worst
problem was remembering to add windshield washer fluid.
And there were no smog-causing emissions belching from its
tail pipe, because it didn’t have one.
It was the EV1, the first electric car built by an American
And by this summer, there likely won’t be a single one left
on American roads.
After introducing the EV1 with much fanfare in 1996, General
Motors has literally pulled the plug, announcing last year it
would require customers to turn in their cars at the expiration
of their three-year lease (the car was never available for
“The bottom line is there was just not a mass market that
evolved in California or frankly anywhere else where we were
offering EV1s that made the EV1 profitable for General
Motors,” said GM spokesman Dave Barthmuss, who manages
California environment and energy issues. “We were able to
only lease 700 EV1s in a four-year time frame and that’s after
spending well in excess of $1 billion developing and building
Gradually, EV1 drivers — a collection of environmentalists,
technology geeks, government officials and people who simply
loved head-turning cars — are reluctantly turning them back
The city of Carson, which leased a pair of vehicles to
illustrate its commitment to environmental leadership and
installed two recharging stations, lost its first EV1 about two
weeks ago and will send the other back in May.
The city of El Segundo will soon lose its EV1 as well.
EV Rental cars, based at the Budget Rent a Car lot at Los
Angeles International Airport, which once had eight EV1s, has
lost two and will see the rest go this summer.
Steve Soboroff, former Los Angeles mayoral candidate and the
environmentally minded president of Playa Vista, remembers
without hesitation the day he was forced to turn in his beloved
EV1 — Dec. 6.
“I had it for six years, I asked them to extend (the
lease), but they wouldn’t,” he said. “To me it was like
losing a dog. I loved that car. I swear to you I got
The reaction was much the same from other EV1 drivers smitten
by their sporty-looking, environmentally conscious mode of
Some started petitions hoping to persuade GM they should be
allowed to retain their cars. Others offered cold hard cash.
It was to no avail.
Citing liability concerns, GM insisted the cars must be
Essentially, the company portrays the EV1 as a noble
experiment that technological advances have made obsolete.
Hybrids — cars that use a conventional gasoline-powered
engine supplemented with an electric battery — are increasing
Smaller electric cars, like the Daimler-Chrysler GEM now in
use at Playa Vista, are also being built, although what are
essentially souped-up golf carts cannot be used on freeways.
And GM believes vehicles that use hydrogen fuel cells are the
wave of the future — although it won’t have them on the road
That doesn’t placate most people who drove the EV1.
They note that not only are there no other comparable
electric vehicles readily available — Torrance-based Toyota
recently stopped selling the electric version of its RAV4 —
but GM doesn’t build hybrids yet. (GM said it will have hybrid
trucks available by year’s end with a dozen hybrid versions of
its most popular models on sale by 2007).
Moreover, GM has sued the state to weaken further its already
diluted mandates that manufacturers must build a certain number
of zero-emission vehicles. Rules like that were the driving
force behind the creation of the EV1 in the first place.
And finally, critics contend, GM deliberately killed the EV1,
making it hard to get one by rigorously screening customers,
turning off potential purchasers by refusing to actually sell
them outright and doing a lousy job of advertising the vehicle.
“We had to scream and beg to get on a waiting list for this
vehicle,” said Barry Waite, the Carson official responsible
for the city receiving its two EV1s.
“Every step of the way they made it hard to get these cars,
made it hard to keep these cars,” he added. “We have a large
cadre of people here who love these cars — we hate to see it
Mark Looper, 38, of Redondo Beach, a space scientist who runs
the Web site www.altfuels.org and rented an EV1 on occasion —
he wanted to buy one, but regarded a lease as a waste of money
— is a scathing critic of GM.
He sees the company’s supposed backing of hydrogen-powered
cars as a method of promising the future to avoid dealing with
“Let’s not let the best be the enemy of the good,” he
said. “(The EV1) has really been a Harry Potter — an
unwanted nephew living with them. It’s been nearly killed a
number of times. A lot of people think they never really gave it
a fair chance in the marketplace — they will tell you they did
and it failed. But it’s a different kind of car, they really
needed to do some actual public education.”
Barthmuss said the car’s inherent drawbacks — such as its
limited range of 140-150 miles — proved a barrier to mass
“What we want to do is put our hybrid technology into
vehicles that do not force commuters to make a trade-off,” he
said. “We really want to demonstrate that General Motors is
very serious about reinventing the automobile and has a viable
business plan to do so.
“The EV1 was a really good experience in some regards
because it really taught us to move to the next level.”
Still, the timing of the EV1s’ withdrawal has some shaking
their heads over what they perceive as a short-sighted business
Gas is heading toward $2 a gallon. War in the Middle East
looms. And the Bush administration appears to be belatedly
acknowledging that global warming is an issue.
General Motors said its EV1s are being donated to
universities and museums, while the remainder will be recycled.
But Louis Weiss, president of the Electric Vehicle
Association of Los Angeles is incensed at the treatment of what
he believes is one of the best electric cars ever built.
“They’re taking all these nice, beautiful cars and
crushing them . . . meaning they’re going to take all the
metal and build SUVs,” he said. “I think they have their
head up their corporate fannies.”
Date:February 18, 2003