GM built an EV that predated Tesla, then walked away

Posted on February 07, 2020 by Charles Morris

Considering how the major automakers are struggling to develop their own commercially viable EVs, and catch up with Tesla, it’s ironic that several of these brands did produce EVs back in the 1990s, but cancelled those models, leaving the field wide open for the California upstart.

Above: A look inside GM's EV1 (Image: Hagerty via GM)

In the early 90s, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) mandated that automakers selling cars in the state produce a certain number of zero-emissions vehicles (ZEVs). Each of the largest companies produced an EV: the Chrysler TEVan, Ford Ranger EV pickup truck, GM EV1 and S10 EV pickup, Honda EV Plus hatchback, Nissan Altra EV and Toyota RAV4 EV. At the same time however, industry lobbyists made a push to get rid of CARB’s ZEV mandate, which was ultimately successful.

As soon as the government requirement was eliminated, all of the majors killed their EV programs, and most of them rounded up and destroyed the actual cars. Of the EVs produced during that time, only Toyota’s RAV4 EV remains on the road - a few are still in service (years later, the company launched a second generation, this time with battery packs from Tesla, but this also proved short-lived).

GM’s behavior was especially notorious - it collected every single one of the 1,117 EV1s, which had been leased, not sold, and crushed almost all of them. A few were donated to museums, but only after GM had disabled their powertrains - one is on display at EPCOT at Walt Disney World in Florida, while the Smithsonian owns one that was long believed to be the only working specimen. This was cast into doubt in 2019 when an apparently intact EV1 was discovered abandoned in an Atlanta parking garage.

The sad tale of the EV1’s martyrdom was documented in the 2006 film Who Killed the Electric Car? The killers identified by filmmakers Jessie Deeter and Chris Paine included the automakers, the oil lobbyists, the government, and consumers themselves, who, apart from a faithful few, some of whom were moved to tears when GM took away their EV1s, showed little interest in EVs and soon flocked to gas-guzzling SUVs.

Above: The sad demise of GM's EV1 (YouTube: Justin Beale)

As fate would have it, just a few weeks after GM rounded up and smashed the EV1s, Elon Musk met a young engineer named JB Straubel, who told him about a prototype electric car that a company called AC Propulsion had built. AC Propulsion was founded in 1992 by Alan Cocconi and Wally Rippel, two of the designers of the GM Impact, the forerunner of the EV1. Together with Tom Gage and Paul Carosa, the engineers built an electric roadster called the tzero, based on a sporty kit car called the Sportech.

In 2002, Tom Gage met Martin Eberhard, and the rest is history. Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning founded Tesla and licensed AC Propulsion’s powertrain technology to build the Roadster. Just how much of this tech they ended up using is a matter of dispute. In an interview for my history of Tesla, Marc Tarpenning told me that the Tesla team moved on from AC Propulsion’s motor pretty early in the game. “We redesigned it a year before we were in production,” he said. The AC Propulsion guys, who didn’t get to ride the Tesla rocket to fame and fortune, remember things a little differently. “If you look at the Roadster motor and the power modules, it’s essentially our technology there,” Paul Carosa told me. “To this day, there’s still a fair amount of our DNA in the Tesla design, which is not to say they haven’t made huge progress and improvements,” Tom Gage said.

Did GM’s EV1 somehow serve as an inspiration for Tesla? On a technical level, maybe a tiny bit - Cocconi and Rippel did work on electric powertrains at GM, so it’s possible that some elements made it from the Impact to the EV1 to the tzero to the Roadster. Also, in 2002 GM displayed a concept car called the AUTOnomy, which featured what we now call a “skateboard” platform.

However, GM’s greatest influence on the young Tesla was, in a sense, a negative one. When they ended their EV programs, GM and the other automakers made it clear that they regarded electricity as a closed chapter - they wouldn’t be producing electric cars any time in the foreseeable future. The Tesla team saw this fact as an opportunity, and they used it as a selling point when they pitched their startup company to venture capitalists. “One of the questions we were asked in our pitches was, ‘How could you possibly think that you could have a competitive advantage against GM?’” Marc Tarpenning told me. “The auto companies had all said that there was no future in electric cars and they had no interest in it. It wasn’t like we were out there doing battle with Ford on a daily basis because they weren’t in the game. They had specifically said they were never going to be in the game. And that was one of the things that we would pitch in our business plan. We have some number of years where we have the field to ourselves.”

Above: Another look at the EV1 (Flickr: RightBrainPhotography)

At the time, Tarpenning and his partners believed that, once they demonstrated a commercially viable EV with the Roadster, the incumbent automakers would come knocking, to buy Tesla or license its technology. When he spoke to me a decade later, he was still shocked that they never really did (Toyota and Daimler each produced a short-lived, low-volume EV using Tesla batteries, but soon ended the partnerships). “The big car companies are still screwing around with nothing,” Tarpenning said in 2013. “They are still lamely trying to figure out what to do.” (Some would say the same assessment is more or less valid in 2020.)

As Don Sherman writes in a recent recap of the EV1 story (published by insurance provider Hagerty), looking back at the EV1’s technology provides a good illustration of how far EVs have come in 20 years.  Good points included a welded-and-bonded aluminum chassis, and lightweight composite plastic body panels that were shaped to minimize the vehicle’s drag coefficient and frontal area (BMW later made extensive use of carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic in the i3). The main drawback was of course the vehicle’s lead-acid battery pack, which weighed 1,175 pounds, had a capacity of only 17 kWh, and delivered a range of under 100 miles.

In 1999, a second-generation EV1 introduced the far superior NiMH battery technology - the newer pack had a capacity of 26 kWh and enabled a range of 160 miles. What would have happened if GM had stuck with the EV1 and continued making incremental improvements? We shall never know. In 2003, the company terminated the program with extreme prejudice, and got out of the EV game, opening up a window of opportunity that a group of highly ambitious entrepreneurs exploited to the fullest.

Ironically, if you love your Tesla, and are glad you’re not driving a GM EV, you can thank Rick Wagoner and the rest of GM’s 2003 executive team, not only for building the EV1, but for killing it when they did.

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Written by: Charles Morris

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Posted in Electric Vehicles, EV1, GM, Marc Tarpenning, Tesla, tesla news, tesla roadster, TSLA


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