Home - Misc.: GM spin rebuttal
[The above photo is from the EV1 Club website, reproduced with permission.]
In the late 1990s, six major automakers made and leased (and in a very few cases, sold) freeway-capable battery-electric vehicles (EVs) for the first time in sixty or seventy years. Within several years, all six had quit making them, and as vehicles came off their leases they were taken off the road. A few went to museums, a few were gutted and donated to college engineering departments, and a few were kept in-house for fuel-cell research, but most ended up like the General Motors EV1s that were crushed in the desert in the photo above. The story is told in a 2006 documentary called "Who Killed the Electric Car?"; since the director had leased and lost an EV1, and since that was easily the best-loved model among the brief flowering of EVs at the end of the 20th century, the movie focused on the fate of that car.
GM apparently felt the need to counter the negative publicity from the movie; their online response was in a blog post titled "Who Ignored the Facts About the Electric Car?" The address of the former EV1 website, gmev.com, was redirected to display that post; GM also took out a full-page ad in late June 2006 in several newspapers (a transcription is here) that had at the bottom another URL (onlygm.com/electric) that also pointed to the post. [Note added 20 January 2007: shortly after the Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid concept car was shown at the 2007 Detroit Auto Show, gmev.com was redirected to point to the Volt webpage, and the static (no comments) version of the blog post was taken down; however, you can still find most of the blog post, with comments, in another location on GM's FYI blog. Also, I saved a PDF copy of the original, though unfortunately with "printer friendly" formatting. There's a "Know the Facts" sidebar that isn't in the version currently online.] In addition, for at least a few months after the newspaper ad came out, GM purchased Google "AdWords" (I understand they did so on Yahoo! as well), so that a Google search for "electric car" or other related terms, including the names of several people interviewed in the movie, would return a link to this blog post at the top of the "sponsored links" sections of the results page.
The post consists of a defense of GM's current alternative-fuel and hybrid programs, followed by a rehash of their long-standing "spin" claiming that they tried to make the EV1 a market success, but there was simply no demand--spin that they began disseminating even while they were still making the car. The purpose of this webpage is to give a detailed account of the way GM has misrepresented the facts to deflect criticism. I'd like to thank my correspondents on the EV1, RAV4-EV, and S10-EV mailing lists who provided me with much information about the EV1 beyond what I could know as an interested outsider, especially those who contacted me with specific insight about issues I raise here.
The newspaper ad talked about the "legacy" of the EV1, discussing hybrid and alternative-fuel vehicles that GM introduced after the EV1; the blog post expanded on this somewhat. GM complains that, in the movie, "fuel cell technology was cast as a pie-in-the-sky technology," and at least one reviewer of the movie derided it for appearing to insist that EVs are the "one true path," ignoring fuel-cell vehicles and hybrids. But we EV advocates didn't pick this fight! In fact, when I wrote about my test drive of a Honda Insight hybrid in 2000, I said that despite being an EV enthusiast, I still thought that we shouldn't "let the best be the enemy of the good" by bad-mouthing hybrids just because they weren't battery-electrics. However, at the time I didn't realize that the "good" was going to become the enemy of the "best"! And that is what happened: after the most recent revision of California's Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) mandate, automakers that previously would have been required to produce a significant number of vehicles with no tailpipe emissions (which in practice meant battery-electric vehicles) could instead meet their quotas by making a larger number of comparatively clean gasoline vehicles (so-called "Partial ZEVs," or PZEVs), including hybrids, plus a small number of fuel-cell prototypes. At this point, all major automakers abandoned their electric vehicles (except for DaimlerChrysler, which still makes the GEM Car, a "neighborhood electric vehicle" limited to streets with speed limits of 35 MPH or less).
Worse, most of the automakers have done their best to convince the public and policymakers that "we have hybrids now, and we'll have fuel cells in the future, so who needs those icky, inconvenient alternative fuels like electricity or natural gas?" For example, Toyota trumpeted the claim that their Prius was "90% cleaner than ordinary cars"; the clear implication is that this is such a great improvement that whatever additional pollution reductions you'd get from alternative fuels wouldn't be worth the trouble. However, they omitted some important details; the actual statistic is that a vehicle (hybrid or otherwise) meeting the same tailpipe emission standard as the Prius will be 90% cleaner than an average 2002 vehicle, when new. This is an important omission because any gasoline vehicle (hybrid or otherwise) will get dirtier over time, and thus the advantage over that average vehicle declines to around 50% over the vehicles' respective lifetimes. (The advantages are even less for more recent model years, since by law the "average vehicle" includes more vehicles that meet cleaner emission standards to begin with; I recently saw a Camry hybrid ad that quoted 80% instead of 90%.) But, as I explain on my FAQ page, a battery EV charged from the present California power mix will be an honest 95% cleaner than even the cleanest gasoline vehicles, like the Prius, over their lifetimes; and the EV will get cleaner over time, not dirtier, as generating plants get cleaner or switch to renewable power sources. Clearly, then, the EV would be a significant improvement. Ford committed an even more egregious misuse of statistics: in publicity for their Escape hybrid (and, recently, the related Mazda Tribute hybrid), they claimed it would be "99.4% cleaner than unregulated vehicles." This is probably true, but useless, since "unregulated vehicles" haven't been sold new in forty years! But the average car shopper is going to see that claim and think "Gee, 99.4% cleaner than those non-hybrid cars on dealer lots." And again, combining that with promises that "hydrogen is the endgame" for ending vehicular pollution (sometime in the nebulous future), electric or natural-gas vehicles today are implied to be an unnecessary distraction.
The above was a discussion of the background against which the film (and EV enthusiasts generally) evaluated hybrids and fuel-cell vehicles from any automaker. I'd like to turn now, more specifically, to GM's assertions that their commitment to environmental vehicles should not be called into question because of their abandonment of the EV1.
Both the newspaper ad and the blog post boast of GM's lineup of hybrids. However, the company joined the hybrid bandwagon only late and reluctantly. In 2004, vice chairman Bob Lutz was dismissing hybrids as an "interesting curiosity"; lately GM brass have been acknowledging that they need to build hybrids for purposes of corporate image, though they don't expect to make money on them. In 2005 Lutz said that "from a strict business proposition, this is not where we would make an investment ... but what we forgot in the equation was the emotional aspect of it," and in the June 2006 issue of Motor Trend CEO Rick Wagoner said that the decision he most regretted was "axing the EV1 electric-car program and not putting the right resources into hybrids. It didn't affect profitability, but it did affect image." (Toyota must be going broke, selling all those Priuses and Camrys!) So their praise of hybrids here rings more than a little hollow.
In addition, there's less for others to praise about the environmental qualities of GM's hybrids so far than they'd like us to believe. They refer to the first hybrid pickup; this is a micro hybrid, sometimes derisively called a "hollow hybrid," that only gets about 10% better fuel economy than the standard version. It's true, as stated in the blog post, that the new Saturn Vue Green Line hybrid has the highest highway fuel economy of any SUV; at 32 MPG (EPA estimate) it edges the Ford Escape hybrid by all of one MPG. Both vehicles' highway fuel economy is about 20% better than the regular 4-cylinder automatic-transmission versions of the same vehicles; however, since the Saturn is a mild hybrid, its city fuel economy is only about the same 20% better than that of the standard version, but the full hybrid Ford has a city fuel economy a whopping 50% better than the standard version! This pattern of careful selection of statistics, which are then quoted without context, is something we will see repeatedly as we analyze the GM blog post. (The dual-mode hybrid drivetrain they will introduce in the future sounds more promising, but I haven't seen any test results yet.)
There are many reasons to regard environmental claims for fuel-cell vehicles (FCVs) with skepticism; the problems boil down to the inefficiency of making, transporting, and storing hydrogen, though FCVs themselves can be quite efficient at using the hydrogen. Because of this, you can go almost as far in a standard natural-gas vehicle (NGV) by burning a given amount of natural gas as you can go in a FCV running on the amount of hydrogen that could be made from that natural gas via "re-forming"--and the NGV would be a lot cheaper! If the NGV was a hybrid, it would go farther than the FCV. And if the hydrogen is made via electrolysis of water, you could go three or four times as far by putting the same amount of electricity into the battery of an EV or a plug-in hybrid as you could in the FCV!
However, even making the assumption that the inefficiency of hydrogen generation can be overcome (say, by harnessing certain bacteria that excrete hydrogen under some circumstances, in order to make the hydrogen from waste biomass), the difficulty of creating a market for hydrogen vehicles is such that we cannot take seriously the promises of any automaker (except perhaps Honda) that they will scale that mountain, given that they turned tail and ran from the comparatively simple task of creating a market for natural-gas vehicles. Rather than extend this already-long webpage by spelling out the argument, I'll refer to another page on this website where I do so in detail. In brief, then, I'll believe automakers' hydrogen promises when I see products available for sale, not just for lease (i.e., three years from the crusher if they decide it's too difficult), and for five-digit prices rather than high sixes or low sevens as at present.
Likewise, there are good reasons to question the usefulness of ethanol in displacing substantial amounts of gasoline. The argument over whether it takes more energy to make a quantity of ethanol than can be recovered by burning it seems to be moving toward resolution in favor of ethanol; however, even assuming such a "positive energy balance" for ethanol, there remain questions of just how much food production would have to be diverted to ethanol fuel production to make a dent in gasoline consumption, and even if the ethanol is made from non-food sources (corn husks instead of corn squeezin's) there remain serious land-use issues because such a vast growing area would be required to replace any substantial fraction of transportation petroleum use.
However, even granting that ethanol is a good idea in its own right, the way GM (and other automakers) introduced vehicles to use the fuel raises doubts about their sincerity. Every production vehicle that can run on ethanol in this country is an E85 flex-fuel vehicle; that is, it can run on any mixture of gasoline and ethanol from 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline up to 100% gasoline. In fact, studies show that most of these vehicles run on 100% gasoline nearly all of the time, even in areas where you can find E85; and if you live in, say, Los Angeles you'd have to drive to San Diego to get this fuel, and up until a couple of years ago you'd have had to go to Denver or Boise! But automakers who build E85-capable vehicles get to take a credit toward their Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) requirements for those vehicles, in an amount based on the assumption that they'll be filled with E85 some substantial fraction of the time. Since the automakers get these credits, they can build more vehicles that have lower fuel economy without blowing their CAFE ceiling; but since the assumption that their E85-capable vehicles actually use ethanol is, for the most part, false, this means that having flex-fuel vehicles (that don't use ethanol) actually increases petroleum consumption!
Looking at a list of the flex-fuel vehicles that have been made, we see that GM introduced their first ones in the 2000 model year. Recently they began actually promoting the flex-fuel capability of some of their vehicles, at www.livegreengoyellow.com, instead of just silently including it in a few models (most owners aren't even aware that their vehicles can use ethanol) and collecting these CAFE credits. One justification for the issuance of credits even if the vehicles don't use ethanol at present is that, over the lifetime of the vehicles, E85 will become more widely available and will be used more. However, I have seen a calculation that shows that, if automakers stopped making E85 vehicles tomorrow, the number already on the roads is enough to use the entire output of the ethanol refineries not only already built but currently being planned! And that's assuming there are no other uses for the output of those refineries except as fuel. If this calculation is anywhere near correct, then ramping up production of flex-fuel vehicles is just "running up the score," without any further petroleum-reduction benefit, at least unless the land-use issues I mentioned above get resolved. It is difficult to believe that automakers' newfound enthusiasm for ethanol would last if the CAFE credit disappeared, and environmentally speaking it would probably be a good thing if it did.
So far I've argued against GM's assertions that their current and future environmental vehicle portfolio is good enough that their abandonment of electric (and natural-gas) vehicles is nothing to mourn. What about the reasons they've given to explain why they abandoned and crushed the EV1? These reasons center around the claim that GM made a valiant effort to build the market for it, but that there just wasn't any substantial demand to be found. The blog posting asserts several facts in support of this; however, these facts are stripped of context, so that the implications GM draws from them are seriously misleading. In general, they misrepresent the results of their abandonment of the EV1 as reasons for that abandonment, in essence "blaming the victim"!
The blog post refers to a number of statistics, purporting to show a lack of demand for the EV1. The "biggie" is that only 800 vehicles were leased during a four-year period (late 1996 to late 2000); if that's all the lessees GM could find, then clearly that's inadequate demand to build a market, as they claim. However, that four-year period only includes two actual model-years of vehicles, 1997 and 1999; between these was a long period of zero availability, after the 1997s were gone and before the 1999s were finally released (near the end of calendar 1999 due to some engineering tweaks, a year after every other 1999 model!). Moreover, every new vehicle that was made available for lease was leased; that is, the fact that only that many EV1s were leased was a result of GM's decision not to make any more to meet additional demand, but it is (and long has been) misrepresented as a reason that they decided not to make any more. Actually, there were about 1100 EV1s made; the other 300 included in-house demonstrators and testbeds, test-drive cars for EV1 specialists, and a substantial number that went to utility-company lease programs in Florida and Georgia, so the figure of 800 includes only "regular" leases in California and Arizona. But some commentators have taken the difference between 1100 and the quoted four-year total of 800 to mean that 300 EV1s sat on lots going begging! Nothing could be further from the truth, but GM is clearly encouraging that impression.
In addition, the writer of the blog post has been quoted elsewhere as saying that the EV1 production lines never ran above 8% of capacity, again implying that they could have ramped up production if there had been more demand. Of course, this is also consistent with the conclusion that they could have ramped up production if there had been the will to meet unmet demand; the fact that GM didn't have those supposed 300 "leftovers" sitting on the lot looking for lessees argues that the latter is a more accurate statement. And this statistic, baldly stated, appears to imply that GM expected to lease (and thus intended to lease) twelve times as many cars as they did, having designed the production lines for that capacity; however, the production line was designed to build EV1s in batches of 500 or so, and then to be disassembled and put in storage until a decision was made to build another 500. (There was a GM/UAW display on this at either an auto show or an EV1 event that I attended in 1996 or 1997; sorry, I don't have photos to jog my memory for the details.) Thus, the low "duty cycle" of the production lines simply means they ran exactly as designed; it says nothing about whether GM leased as many cars as they could (GM's implication), or only as many as they were willing to build.
So could GM have leased (never mind sold, if they'd offered that option) more vehicles if they'd wanted? Another statistic quoted says that, of 5000 people on a waiting list, only 50 people were willing to follow through to a lease, implying that interest in the car was "a mile wide but an inch deep." However, this is another misleading, stripped-of-context statistic. In fact, on the face of it, it appears to be inconsistent with the assertion that (around) 800 EV1s were leased, and the fact that every new EV1 made available for lease was leased; or did GM calibrate its production level so precisely as to saturate the market of the thousand or so most fanatical "greens" in California and Arizona, leaving nobody else but the "one percenters"? Regardless, I have heard from a number of people who were on the waiting lists maintained by various dedicated EV1 specialists (GM itself didn't want to start up a waiting list, so the specialists took it upon themselves to do so), but who were never offered an opportunity to lease. So just how many of those 5000 people were contacted before those 50 leases were signed? And just how many vehicles were available during the period when those people were contacted? Taking this to an absurd extreme, GM's statement is consistent with there being 50 extra EV1s available, which were snapped up by the first 50 people on the waiting list! I don't assert that, but I've heard from enough people to know that GM didn't exhaust their waiting list before they exhausted their supply of new vehicles. Moreover, people who were contacted tell stories, in some cases, of being allowed only a very brief window of time within which to say yes or no; given that these people would likely have acquired other cars while waiting, sometimes for years, for an EV1, cars that would have to be sold or traded in, I'd say that a demand for a snap decision was inconsiderate enough that it is difficult to believe that a company trying hard to move product would resort to it. Rather, it sounds like a company with the attitude that "if you don't take it, someone else will," i.e., one with a product for which demand exceeds supply.
However, from my own experience, I suspect that GM's misuse of this statistic is even worse than the above, because I was one of the 4950 (or whatever fraction) who were contacted but who didn't sign a lease when given the opportunity. The missing context here is that this was after the four-plus-year period during which new EV1s were available, and after it became clear that GM was not going to build any more EV1s and was not going to allow people to keep renewing their leases (let alone buy them out). I was offered the opportunity (sample letter here, since I can't find my copy) to assume the last year or so of someone's cancelled lease, after which I would have to return the car (to be crushed, as we later found out). Setting aside my aversion to leasing instead of buying, which is why I didn't have my checkbook in my hand when I first went to see the EV1s at my local Saturn dealership in December 1996, I was tempted to accept in order to "live the dream," if only for a year, and my loving wife would have let me. However, we would also have had to pay one or two thousand dollars, or more, to have the car's special charger installed in our garage, and I just wasn't willing to spend that much of our family money for a year of fun. Of course, people who did lease the car had to spend the same money; but during the early days when we thought GM was in the market to stay, lessees would have figured that they could use the charger for many years, whether with an EV1 with its lease renewed (or bought out, if GM ever offered that option), and/or with an EV2 and an EV3 in the future. Given my experience, I think that the dismal lease rate quoted was during the twilight of the EV1, as others made the same decision as I did. If I'm correct that this is the period for which GM quotes this statistic (while implying otherwise), then GM is once again misrepresenting a result of their decision to cancel the EV1 as a reason for the decision.
So it's pretty clear that the statistics GM quotes to prove that there was not enough demand to build a market in fact prove nothing of the sort. But, taking this a step further, most EV advocates would say that the demand that existed for the EV1 was largely in spite of, not because of, GM's level of effort to develop it. That is, not only was there demand out there that GM (and other makers of EVs in the late 20th century) refused to meet, but there could have been substantially more demand if they had actually attempted to cultivate it. This is not just a matter of our looking for another reason to be ticked off at GM; rather, the question has implications for whether anyone, even "pure play" EV companies such as are springing up a decade after the EV1 was born (who have every reason to develop demand, for their own survival), will be able to make EVs commercially viable.
GM boasts of their "award-winning advertising." The first TV commercial for the EV1, called "Appliances," was nominated for an Emmy in 1997, and won a Clio Silver award that year. (I haven't been able to find a direct link to a good version of the ad online, but you can go to the ad agency's website, click on "Agency Background," and then click on "EV1" under the heading "Classic Riney.") But one ad does not a campaign make! Others have taken shots at some of the subsequent advertising material; for example, there was the curious omission of information as to where you'd find the car (Saturn dealers in certain states), and the fact that many ads either didn't show the car at all or showed it in a blurry, distant shot. One particular series of ads has been characterized as having a "scary, post-nuclear" feel! But then, some folks didn't like "Appliances," which I love. (I still shed a tear when I see it; I guess I'm a sucker for that minor/major key shift in the music...) So that may be a matter of taste; but what is not merely a matter of taste is the choice GM made as to how to present the selling points of the EV1. Every ad I saw boiled down to "Gee, what a cool green toy"; the message "Gee, what a practical means of getting around every day" was never broadcast.
Many people who reviewed "Who Killed the Electric Car?", including those who wrote negative reviews, commented on the "passion" of EV1 lessees; unless you figure that GM managed to reach only the thousand most fanatical "greens" in areas where the EV1 was leased, the conclusion (borne out by my observations) must be that a surprisingly large fraction of those who leased the car ended up becoming strong advocates. Many of us had been waiting for years for a car like this, of course, and were predisposed to love it; but I've heard from quite a few people who leased the car in the expectation that they could do maybe 50% of their driving in it, and who instead found that it could handle upwards of 90%, and that it was cheaper to run and more convenient than a gasoline vehicle (plug in after work for a full "tank" in the morning, rather than having to stop at a gas station during rush hour). Not to mention that it was a blast to drive, able to beat a Mazda Miata or BMW Z3 in a drag race! The real-world experience of these people would have been a great resource to draw on in persuading people who are used to thinking in terms of 300-400 miles per visit (every week or so) to the gas station, rather than 80-160 miles per nightly recharge; but GM steadfastly refused to do this, with the exception of a small EV1 People section that was on the website for awhile. One EV1 lessee got so frustrated by this that he spent ten or twenty grand of his own money (of which he's got a lot more than I do...) to produce and air radio ads for the EV1, without cooperation (or permission) from GM!
Spin from automakers, oil companies, and their apologists to the effect that EVs aren't practical is the starting point at which potential customers must be met; emotional advertising about how cool and different the car is, while exciting to people who already have some idea of what EVs are really like to drive, practically guarantees that the market won't expand beyond them. Ed Begley Jr., one of the celebrities among the lessees, famously said that "the electric vehicle is not for everybody; it can only meet the needs of 90 percent of the population." If that statement is anywhere near correct (like at least a factor of ten...), then there's plenty of market space out there, if and only if people who aren't already predisposed to count themselves among the 90% can be persuaded that they are in fact among that number. GM's advertising never tried; and the last nail in the coffin is that what advertising they did was so sparse that EV1 lessees invariably found plenty of people who had no idea that such a vehicle was available. GM (and other automakers) could have used the "passion" of their EV customers in something like, say, Apple's "Switchers" campaign to turn this around, instead of letting that passion later be channeled into websites like dontcrush.com, jumpstartford.com, and saveev1.org.
But, GM says, the proof of our sincerity is that we spent a billion dollars on the EV1; surely we wouldn't have put that much money into something we weren't committed to. Let me tell you, I'd really like to know where that billion dollars went (and at various times they've quoted other figures, including some a lot smaller, so the numbers don't seem to be all that hard). As noted above, the money sure didn't go into advertising, and the basic design of the EV1's prototype, the Impact, was outsourced to AeroVironment, who I doubt were paid eight figures, let alone nine or ten. Even assuming that GM isn't counting, say, money spent lobbying against California's ZEV mandate in that total (after all, that was EV1-related, right?), though, remember how large auto companies are. I read somewhere that Ford spent twice this amount (in 1980s dollars!) to develop the Taurus, a perfectly conventional vehicle technologically, and that GM would spend a billion dollars on a redesign of an existing model. Besides, a billion dollars is not an unreasonable amount to expect a huge industrial company to spend meeting a major regulatory requirement (the ZEV mandate), even as they lobby to water it down; and if putting their best effort into the project undermines those lobbying efforts (by demonstrating that there is demand, even as their lobbyists claim there isn't, say--a point made in the movie), then spending that much solely as insurance--to be ready with a product in case the lobbying doesn't succeed--is again not an unreasonable expectation.
But remember that GM introduced the Impact, and promised that they were going to bring it into production, before the ZEV mandate was put into place. I've even read the assertion that GM asked for a ZEV mandate to guarantee them a market for this innovative product, especially since they had a head start on every other automaker! What happened between the 1990 introduction of the Impact and 2000, when it became clear that the 1999 EV1s were going to be the last? GM would have you believe that they tried to build the market but realized that it wasn't going to work, but I hope the above discussion disproves this; rather, I think it had more to do with institutional inertia after the loss of internal "champions" (e.g., Roger Smith departed as chairman not long after making that promise to produce an electric car). In the 1990s, GM was doing pretty well selling ever-larger SUVs; when you're at the top of the status quo, change is not your friend. I don't think GM has gotten over this yet, even as its market share continues to drop in the 21st century; GM still doesn't want to suggest to its customers that they "think different." For example, in a CNN report about the possibility that GM might make plug-in hybrids (even though they'd expect to lose even more money on them than on regular hybrids, right? [Note added 20 January 2007: we'll see if they actually produce the Volt...]), a GM exec is quoted as saying fearfully that "a plug-in hybrid is going to require a change in consumers' daily routine." That is, it will if they want to run cleaner, cheaper, and more conveniently; if they don't remember to take five seconds to plug the vehicle in at night, it will drive just like an ordinary hybrid, i.e., just like an ordinary gasoline car (gas-station stops during rush hour and all). And even that scares GM! Then there is this quote from an interview with current GM CEO Rick Wagoner, from a Discovery Channel special called "Addicted to Oil" by Thomas Friedman (who is no friend of GM, to say the least, but I saw no evidence that he "Photoshopped" the quote):
We build what the market wants. We try to forecast what the market is going to want, but what we have not been successful and I suspect we never will be is building a car and telling people "you buy this car."
Well, yeah, if the tone of "you buy this car" is the same as the tone of "you eat your broccoli!" then no, that's not going to move much product. But telling people "you should buy this car, because it's a good idea for the following reasons" (including "it's cool," of course) is the very definition of advertising; it sounds like he could save his company a lot of money by ditching his marketing division. (Or did customers start buying large SUVs in droves over the last decade not because of marketing, but because they all acquired yachts that needed to be towed?) The quote seems to be a wholesale renunciation of innovation and leadership, unless you count it as "leadership" to figure out where the crowd is going anyway and then get out in front of it, like a poll-driven politician.
In this kind of corporate environment, "me-too" hybrids, vague promises of a hydrogen messiah someday, and ethanol vehicles that are likely never to burn anything but gasoline are a lot more attractive than a game-changer like electric vehicles. The EV1 has a legacy, all right, but it belongs to AC Propulsion, Wrightspeed, Tesla, EDrive, and other EV startups; GM spent the 1990s betting the company on the past, and sent the future to the crusher. I wish it were otherwise; between us my wife and I have owned three Saturns (including the Relay minivan we recently bought from Alfie Garcia, who was "my" EV1 Specialist at Saturn of Torrance back in the day), a Pontiac, and two Chevrolets (and one Dodge). But with present management attitudes, as depicted in the blog post I've been dissecting here, I can't hold out much hope.
As a postscript, I thought I'd mention (and dispose of) some other claimed reasons that I've heard lately, usually from people writing negative reviews of the movie, as to why GM ended the EV1 program, or as to why they crushed the vehicles once the program ended instead of leaving them in customers' hands.
Lately I've seen in a number of places the assertion that, stripped of government subsidies, the EV1s cost $900,000 each to build, which obviously would not be remotely sustainable for GM since they were leased with monthly payments more appropriate for a $30,000 to $40,000 car (as noted, they were never actually sold). However, as far as I can tell, this is simply the result of dividing GM's stated $1 billion dollar investment by 1100 EV1s built! That may be an appropriate accounting if GM only ever intended to build 1100 EV1s, so that they'd have had to recover the development costs over that small number of cars; however, if they had actually tried to meet demand, and then cultivate and meet further demand, as I argued above they would have had sold more vehicles over which to recover their development costs (not to mention that some developments were spun out to other products, like the electrohydraulic power steering to the Saturn Vue, and so shouldn't be charged totally to the EV1).
But the way the number is usually presented, the implication is that this was the incremental cost, the amount it would cost to build the 1101st car after the development money had already been spent! Even under the screwy accounting of $1 billion / 1100 cars, that's just plain wrong, unless GM's actual development costs were zero and it was all production costs, which hardly seems likely. (By contrast, I understand that the incremental cost to build a fuel-cell vehicle at present is actually something like a million dollars...) I don't know what the actual incremental cost was; however, I will note that Tesla is selling their first 100 vehicles, with more-advanced drivetrains and batteries by far than the EV1 (and truly insane performance), for $100,000 each--and this includes not only the cost to build each one, but some part of recovery of the development costs and a "contribution" toward future development of cars more suited to the mass market! As long ago as 1994, I read in Business Week (not Electrifying Times, not Mother Jones, but Business Week) that Chrysler figured they could build EVs for the same production cost as gasoline vehicles, except for the batteries (which could be as little as a few thousand dollars for the lead-acid packs they were looking at back then), if volumes reached as little as 100,000 a year. So whatever GM's incremental cost to build that 1101st EV1 would have been, the cost for the 10,001st or 100,001st EV1 (or EV2, EV3, ...) would have been a lot less, and if it was high (though not close to a million bucks!), that was not a reason to cancel the EV1, but a result of the low volumes GM was willing to build.
At least once, I've read that GM cancelled the EV1 program because many dissatisfied EV1 customers were terminating their leases early. As I noted above, vehicles that came back to GM with time left on their leases were offered to a waiting list; and (during the period before what I've called the "twilight" of the EV1, the time when it became clear that the program was a walking dead man) there were never enough of them available to satisfy that list. As for the reasons leases were cancelled, some people were forced to give up their leases when they moved out of the limited area where GM was offering the EV1s; I've also heard from several people who, after it became clear that GM was going to end the EV1 program, gave up their leases in order to get electric vehicles that they would be able to keep, like the Toyota RAV4-EV (which was briefly offered for sale) or the TH!NK City (which never was). These were "dissatisfied EV1 customers," but not in the sense that GM apologists mean!
One claim that I've heard several times is that the EV1 had received limited-time waivers of some Federal safety standards, with the proviso that after that time the vehicles would be taken off the roads. Perhaps the people making that assertion are confusing the EV1 with the TH!NK City, a small EV from Norway that (so I understand) did have some such restrictions. On the (archived) webpage about EV1 safety, however, GM stated that "the EV1 meets all government safety requirements, and then some."
It's worth noting that the expense of getting a vehicle certified to meet safety standards (especially crash testing of several brand new cars) is one of the biggest barriers to entry stacked against small companies trying to enter the automobile market. A lot of recent startups have avoided having to conduct full highway-vehicle safety tests, in various ways: Commuter Cars is offering their first model as a (mostly-built) kit car, though they hope to have fully-certified models in the future. GEM Cars and other "neighborhood EVs" are restricted to top speeds of 25 MPH, and are legal only on streets with 35 MPH speed limits or less. Several vehicles, including the Myers Motors NmG, the ZAP Xebra, and the (natural-gas powered) Eco-Fueler American Roadster have only three wheels, so they only have to meet motorcycle standards. Tesla is to be commended for specifying full safety-standard certification for highway use for their very first model, though it's probably easier to amortize the cost for this high-end car (a $100,000 electric roadster that can beat anything else on the road except a million-dollar, 1001-horsepower Bugatti!).
Another excuse was that automakers are legally required to keep a long-term supply (ten or fifteen years) of spare parts for cars they have on the road, and it would have been too expensive to do this for the low-volume EV1. There is, in fact, no such law; automakers are not "on the hook" for spare parts past the warranty period of a vehicle, and even then, I understand, they only have to produce enough parts up front to meet the estimated future need (based on "mean time between failures" analysis), and thus they don't need to maintain the capability to make more parts. (The blog post makes a similar statement, noting that because of low volumes, parts suppliers weren't continuing to make spares, but again that says nothing about whether the low volume was because of low consumer demand or because of low GM commitment.) So GM wouldn't have been obliged to maintain a spare parts manufacturing capability even if they had left the EV1s on the road.
GM has also taken a different tack on this question in other places, saying that they couldn't in good conscience allow vehicles to remain on the road for which they couldn't be certain that spare parts would be available. While their solicitude is touching, it's interesting that the EV1 is the only vehicle I've ever heard this argument made for (or against?). It certainly doesn't stop them from allowing customers to keep other small-production models that they no longer make! In fact, GM actually sold a few dozen electric S-10 pickups (and leased, then reclaimed and crushed, hundreds more); Ford sold a comparable number of electric Ranger pickups, and Toyota sold a few hundred RAV4-EVs. (Yes, these were conversions of existing platforms, rather than ground-up EVs like the EV1; but there were enough unique parts--e.g., the gasoline S-10 is rear-wheel drive, the electric S-10 is front-wheel drive with the same powertrain as the EV1--that there is still plenty of room to make that argument, if they'd wanted to.) But for the EV1, GM was not willing to let customers keep the vehicles, even when they offered to sign whatever waivers GM might require to release GM of any liability for unavailable spare parts. Bottom line, if the EV1 was good enough to put on the road in the first place, it should have been good enough to leave on the road in the hands of consumers who knew they'd have trouble finding spare parts if they needed them, or qualified mechanics, if those consumers wanted to keep them; and the EV1 was plenty good enough.
One final note, just to be honest: I have avoided referring to Dave Barthmuss, the author of the blog post I've been dissecting, as much as possible, so that it will be clear that I am attacking the ideas expressed, not the writer; but in fact I've had a couple of run-ins with him before. We had dueling quotes in my local newspaper at the time when GM was crushing the EV1s; then, in Fall of 2004, he basically made a fool of me in public at a meeting of the Public Education Topic Team of the California Hydrogen Highway project. I wanted to raise some of the questions I referred to above about why we should trust automakers' hydrogen promises when all of them except Honda have abandoned natural-gas vehicles, but I also mentioned in passing the crushing of the EV1s; he seized on a couple of details of what I'd said and blew them up into straw men (I didn't claim GM crushed all the EV1s--I knew some had gone to museums--and I didn't accuse GM of cutting off lessees prematurely--I carefully used the word "terminated" rather than "cancelled" to avoid that accusation) that he then attacked, leaving my main question totally unanswered. I was "playing through the pain" with the worst cold I'd had in a decade, and I was just too fuzzed to call him on it (plus, I'm a crummy public speaker). So I think that I have good reason to slice into his blog posting, without dragging in any personal rancor I might feel toward him, but I wanted to mention this so the reader can judge for himself or herself. I have to admit, though, I did catch myself wondering how much it would cost to buy a Google sponsored link for "Dave Barthmuss" and point it to this webpage...
All content copyright 1998-2017 by Mark Looper, except as noted.
new 24 September 2006, revised 20 January 2007