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By Robert Rapier on Aug 17, 2006 with no responses

Why GM Killed the Electric Car?

I am a big fan of electrifying our transportation grid, but I recognize that we still need to do a bit better on battery storage technology before electric cars can be expected to make serious inroads as the transportation mode of choice. I have not yet seen “Who Killed the Electric Car?”, but a lot of the second-hand information I have seen seems to indicate that the program was killed without much justification. I wish the program hadn’t been canceled, but I wondered if there wasn’t a bit more to the story.

Well, today a few more pieces fell into place. Someone at The Oil Drum linked to a post in Google Groups that gave an explanation for why the electric car went by the wayside, from someone pretty close to the project:

Some facts about the EV1, the research and development of which was produced by _my_ division of GM, Hughes Electronics:

General Motors lost two billion dollars on the project, and lost money on every single EV1 produced. The leases didn’t even cover the costs of servicing them.

The range of 130 miles is bogus. None of them ever achieved that under normal driving conditions. Running the air conditioning or heater could halve that range. Even running the headlights reduced it by 10%.

Minimum recharge time was two hours using special charging stations that except for fleet use didn’t exist. The effective recharge time, using the equipment that could be installed in a lessee’s garage, was eight hours. Home electrical systems simply couldn’t handle the necessary current draw for “fast” charging.

NiMH batteries that had lasted up to three years in testing were failing after six months in service. There was no way to keep them from overheating without doubling the size of the battery pack. Lead-acid batteries were superior to NiMH in actual daily use.

Battery replacement was a task performed by skilled technicians taking the sorts of precautions that electricians do when working on live circuits, because that’s what they were doing — working on live circuits. You cannot turn batteries “off.” This is the reason the vehicles were leased, rather than sold. As long as the terms of the lease prohibited maintenance by other than a Hughes technician, GM’s liability in the event of a screw-up was much reduced. Technicians can encounter high voltages in hybrid vehicles. In the EV1, there were _really_ high voltages present.

Lessees were complaining that their electric bills had increased to the point that they’d rather be using gasoline.

One of the guys I worked with transferred to the EV1 program after what was by then a division of Raytheon lost the C-130 ATS contract. He’s now back working for us. He has some interesting stories, none of them good, though he did like the company-subsidized apartment in Malibu. He said the car was a dream to drive, if you didn’t mind being stranded between Bakersfield and Barstow on a hot July afternoon when a battery blew up from the combined heat of the day and the current draw.

Source: Why GM Killed the Electric Car

I have to admit that this explanation makes a bit more sense than some of the conspiracy theories I have been hearing. Maybe GM rolled out the electric car before it as ready for primetime, but I still believe that it will be ultimately more feasible for us to derive the bulk of our transport from electric vehicles than from biofuels.

Update

Gristmill also reported on this a couple of months ago:

Ex-GM employee responds on electric car

There are a number of comments following the essay that are worth reading.