Electrifying Times Book Review

"The Car That Could:
The Inside Story of GM's Revolutionary EV"
by Michael Shnayerson.


1997 Bob Wing
This review first appeared in the Jan 1997 EV News.
                        
The San Francisco Chronicle on November 14, 1996 reported from Detroit that General Motors Corp. launches what it predicts will be a new age for the electric automobile today when the first production EV1 coupe rolls off the assembly line. Assoc Press.  The full column of the AP release was carried by many other daily papers. Last week the local press reported that George Schultz, ex-Secretary of State drives and EV1 from his home to his office at Stanford University, it must be one of the 50 pre-production models.

Calstart News reported---A reporter from the United Auto Workers' Solidarity magazine said 84  EV1's had already rolled off the lines in May when he visited, but GM won't say how many have been built.  The Detroit Free Press reports at least 25 will be delivered to Saturn retailers in So. CA and Arizona for Dec. 5 delivery to customers.  More than 250 customers - - of 1000 who have expressed interest in leasing one - -  are ready waiting.  The first cars arrive in California Nov. 8.

'The Car That Could' gives in 298 pages the inside story of the people, teams, successes and problems, secrecy and bluffing to successfully mislead Ford and Chrysler. The book is based on over 275 interviews from mid-1992 which describes projects, the culture and history of GM. The author was not paid by GM and the contract only permitted GM to limit any confidential information and correct any technical errors. The more technical details are in footnotes on the pertinent pages. There is a useful bibliography, source notes by chapter and a 15 page index.

One has to admire the top officers of GM that permitted this access of an outsider to this fascinating history.

The Impact was first introduced publicly by Roger Smith, Chairman of GM, at the Los Angeles Auto Show in 1990. Later due to a financial crisis at GM the project funding was cut way back restarted 18 months later.  Most of the original staff had gone to other divisions and were not available to return with their knowledge. Regrowing pains are described in detail in a separate chapter.

The following selected examples will I hope provoke your interest to get the book and read the full story as presented.  I found it difficult to put down until I had finished reading:

'The car's mass... ..had swelled considerably above its old production target of 1,320 kilograms. Batteries accounted for nearly a third of the excess. There weren't more of them. The same batteries had simply expanded, like loaves of bread, as a result of a campaign on Jon Bereisa's part to establish a standard EV battery size among the world's major carmakers. Having a standard made sense---it would broaden the market for all battery markets---but to gain a consensus, Bereisa had had to acquiesce to the Japanese carmakers' insistence on a larger battery size. That meant every one of the twenty-seven batteries on an Impact would weigh more. The extra weight strained the car's tires and suspension; it hurt the car's range, almost negating the larger batteries' extra energy. The team could throw away two batteries; the car would have the same energy with twenty-five fatter batteries as it had with twenty-seven smaller ones. But when the Japanese got to market with cars designed to accommodate twenty-seven larger modules, their cars would have more energy and range.

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The propulsion system had the most makeshift fixes. Over the winter and spring, Hughes's inverters for the fifty-car fleet had arrived one by one as if deliberately packaged to drive the GM engineers mad. It was deja vu all over again: back and forth they went, from California to Michigan, afflicted by endless glitches--connectors incorrectly soldered, wires attached to the wrong capacitors--as well as recurring electromagnetic
interference.

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DiPietro .... went to Wilmington, Massachusetts, to study James Worden's Solectria, the nascent industry's other most active converter. Fellow MIT graduates, close in age and coolly confident, DiPietro and Worden recognized each other as kindred spirits. DiPietro came away persuaded that Worden and his small team of mostly MIT grads were as different from U.S. Electricar as Massachusetts from California. They developed their own hardware, they didn't oversell it, and they shunned growth through debt-fueled acquisition. Still, quality and safety issues would be difficult for them, too. Worden might be a modern-day Henry Ford, but for better or worse, the modern world, with its wilderness of regulations, established carmakers, avid litigious customers, was a hard place in which to be an automotive entrepreneur.

DiPietro felt sure now, too, that the oft-repeated metaphor was wrong. EVs might be stuffed with electronics, but they weren't the computers of the nineties. It was very simple, actually. A bug in a computer meant you were annoyed. A bug in the brake system of an EV could mean you were dead.

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Ever since the March memo of understanding that outlined GM-Ovonic, Stan Ovshinsky seemed to have gone out of his way to irk his new partner, promoting his battery with no regard for GM's delicate position. Whether his zeal was heartfelt, or the calculated pitch of a master salesman, mattered little to GM's top executives. To John Williams, the USABC. chief, it mattered not at all.

The last of Williams's patience ran out with the news that Ovshinsky had let James Worden race with an Ovonic pack again, this time in the American Tout de Sol. An overland race of several days' measured distances conducted over a different northeast route every spring, the Tour de Sol, like the Phoenix 500, now drew much local and national press. Along the latest course, from the World Financial Center in Manhattan to the Franklin Institute of Science in Philadelphia, Worden grabbed the headlines by driving 214.2 miles at roughly 60 miles per hour on a single charge. Ovshinsky knew how misleading the record was, Williams felt---how far from proven the Ovonic battery was as a producible, commercially viable EV power source. So, he felt, did Stempel. When GM's top management turned to Williams for his opinion of the GM-Ovonic deal on the eve of deciding whether to ratify it, Williams felt bound to respond with blunt candor.'

In a memo, Williams ticked off the recent improprieties: the battery packs given to Worden and CARB while the USABCs order went unfilled; the overstating of the battery's capabilities; the refusal of Ovonic to seek the USABC's permission for public statements about its EV batteries as required by its USABC contract. Overall, Williams wrote, Ovonic had acted in a 'manipulative and duplicitous' manner.

Stempel, Williams felt, could not be excused from blame. The ex- chairman, according to Williams, had been too bullish in describing the battery technology to the press. If GM went ahead with GM-Ovonic, it could expect more over promising and under delivering, unless strict, enforceable guidelines were imposed.

At the same time, Williams admitted, Ovonic did have the best chance of achieving the USABC's mid-term goals. Investing in it was, he felt, a one-in-five gamble of $25 million. But with every other gamble, the odds were longer still.

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With the demise of sodium sulfur, John Wallace (of Ford) had thought he could count, at least, on having U.S. Electricar do pickup truck conversions. The little California start-up was booming, Over the previous year, it had established joint ventures in Hawaii, Malaysia and Thailand. It had taken lots of its new partners' money; its payroll had expanded from thirty-five employees to more than 300. But it had grown too fast. To fill its orders-mostly from utilities-it had shipped out hurried, shoddy conversions that proved unreliable at best, As word spread, orders dropped.

In March 1995, the company announced huge quarterly losses and acknowledged it might soon go out of business. The greater shock, for Electricar's joint venture partners, was learning that CEO Ted Morgan and two senior officers, while issuing bullish growth predictions, had begun quietly selling their stock in November after the Republican election victories cast what Morgan admitted was "a significant chilling effect" on efforts to raise capital.'

Random House 1996,  US$25 or see it in your public library.

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While talking to Alan Cocconi at NAEVI '96 in San Diego I commented how interesting the Car that Could was in reading about AeroEnvironment and AC Prop.

Alan said it was fine as far as it went but...

'One very important point that the author did not include in the history of the EV Impact and later EV-1 was the fact that that project really began with a fast head start when GM accepted the unsolicited proposal that Paul MacCready and Alan Cocconi of AeroEnvironment submitted to GM top management.  Ford and Chrysler would be a lot further along the high technology EV a if they had such a   start from this type of organization or even have looked to small EV conversion companies and individuals who know from hands-on experience what works and what doesn't without spending
$1000,000s. I don't know who wrote this me or someone else.

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Shortly thereafter I received the following letter from Howard G. Wilson, retired VP at Hughes. This was published with his permission as a Letter to the Editor in the March 1997 EV News page 16.

Dear Bob Wing,

I enjoyed reading your book review of the "The Car That Could" in the January issue of EV News. There are a couple of comments I would like to make. In the last paragraph of the review, you say the book doesn't make the point that GM got a fast start in the EV business by accepting an unsolicited proposal for what became the Impact. As a matter of fact is does on pages 18-21. In the spring of 1988, Alex Brooks, who had been the project leader for Sunraycer, came to me with the suggestion that we propose the design and construction of an engineering model of an electric commuter car using lead acid batteries. It would be a car that would achieve a hundred mile range by employing the disciplined approach to energy efficiency that had been so successful with Sunraycer.

With input from several Aerovironment people on specific technical areas, Alec and I wrote a proposal to GM requesting support for a year's effort to accomplish the construction of an engineering demonstration vehicle. The original intent was not to create a show car, but to prove to ourselves and to GM engineers and management that the specifications for range and acceleration could b e achieved. To make is a fair demonstration, the car would be equipped with air conditioning and heating, an entertainment system, appropriate trunk space and a spare tire. Although, for practical reasons, we had to use fiberglass for the body instead of aluminum, which we thought then would be the material for a production version of the car, the fiberglass was made thicker than necessary to match the weight of the can with and aluminum body. Alec and I were encouraged by our initial presentations to Don Atty., Bob Stemming, and Don Runic, and we also briefed the GM Science Advisory Committee. With support of all of these people, the proposal was approved and the first steps toward the EV1 began.

As a foot note, I might add that recently Alec and I have taken delivery of EV1s, and in a few months we will have a realistic measure of how it is to live with an electric car.

Best regards, (signed) Howard G. Wilson

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I, Bob Wing had my first drive the GM Impact at EVS-12 in 1994 at Anaheim, Calif. The first day the Impact was driven on the city streets near Disneyland. When I had my ride and drive the GM insurance people limited us to the Disneyland Hotel roped off section of the hotel parking lot.

A young technician from Michigan was my instructor. I asked how much had been invested in each Impact, $500.000. he said. I then asked for the specs. He said those were confidential. So when I got home I dropped off a post card to Harold G. Wilson and asked if he could send me the information. A few weeks later Howard wrote back that he had been in Australia addressing a group of electric utility people on the development of the Impact. He sent me a copy of the talk he had presented to the group so that I had some of the technical details. It has taken me years to learn if you need info, start at the top. Today, only the CEOs seem to have a secretary who then can direct your request to the proper party for action.