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Photo ID G 806

October 2002

1997 General Motors EV1
Automobiles powered by electricity have been around almost as long as there have been automobiles. In fact, in 1900, battery-powered electric cars outsold cars with gasoline-fueled internal combustion engines. But there is far more energy in a pound of gasoline than in a pound of storage batteries, meaning that gasoline-powered cars could travel farther on a tank than electric cars could on a single charge. Largely because of this, electric cars had virtually disappeared from the market by the late 1920s. By the end of the 20th century concerns about air pollution and imported oil caused people to look once again at alternatives to the internal combustion engine.

1997 General Motors EV1-- MORE

In 1997 General Motors introduced the EV1, probably the best electric car ever produced. The car was in part a response to California laws requiring the sale of a certain percentage of vehicles that emitted no pollutants. General Motors went to great lengths to overcome the limited range offered by storage batteries.
  • Weight was kept to a minimum. EV1’s chassis, wheels, and suspension parts are aluminum. Without batteries the car weighs just 1775 pounds. The lead-acid batteries nearly double the weight, adding 1175 pounds.
  • The EV1’s tires are inflated to 50 psi, 12-15 psi more than the typical gasoline powered car. The higher pressure lowers rolling resistance, helping to extend range. The tires are specially designed to seal themselves when punctured. This allowed engineers to do away with the dead weight of a spare tire.
  • A surprising amount of energy is required simply to push a car through the air. Putting the EV1’s rear wheels 8.9 inches closer together than the front wheels produced a teardrop shape that minimized wind resistance. Eliminating the outside radio antenna added a mile to the car’s range. The result was a car that was 34% more aerodynamic than the 1997 Corvette.
  • High-performance lead-acid batteries were developed especially for the EV1. In 1998 advanced nickel metal hydride batteries were introduced that offered both longer range and longer battery life.

All the hard work paid off in outstanding (for an electric car) performance. General Motors claimed a range of 55 to 95 miles, depending on driving style and conditions. The EPA certified the range at 79 miles for a typical combination of city and highway driving, and real-world experience by users and road testers produced similar results. An EV1 zips from zero to sixty miles per hour in about eight seconds. Its top speed is regulated at 80 miles per hour, but it is capable of nearly 90 miles per hour. General Motors estimated the range for cars with nickel metal hydride batteries at 75 to 130 miles.

None of this new technology came cheaply. EV1s were available only in California and Arizona, and only by lease. Monthly lease payments in Arizona were $549. In California they were $399 because California offered a government subsidy. Even at those prices General Motors was losing money on every car. In 2001 GM announced that they would no longer build EV1s and would recall all the cars as their leases expired. The corporation is currently exploring gasoline-electric hybrids and fuel cells, as possible solutions to the problem of producing low or zero emissions vehicles.

  General Motors compiled the following profile of EV1 drivers:
Average household income $200,000/year
Average Age 52 years
Male 83%
Female 17%
Married 79%
  College grad/post graduate 76%
Employed Full time 70%
Retired 30%
Employed in  
  Electronics/computer industry 24%
  Entertainment/movie business 13%
  Service industry 13%
  Other 50%

The EV1 attracted drivers who liked the idea of minimizing tailpipe emissions and petroleum consumption, and who were willing to put up with the limitations of range and limited access to charging stations. They are an enthusiastic group who loudly protested General Motors’ decision to end the EV1 experiment. On at least two internet sites (PetitionOnline and The Petition Site) they have posted petitions asking GM to resume its electric vehicle program.

Want to learn more?

There are many websites devoted to the EV1 and electric cars. Two good ones are:
www.gmev.com - General Motors’ own site for the EV1
ev1-club.power.net - Site of the EV1 Owners Club

Good books on the EV1 and electric cars in general include:
The Car that Could: The inside story of GM’s revolutionary electric vehicle, Michael Shnayerson, 1996
The Electric Vehicle and the Burden of History, David A. Kirsch, 2000
Forward Drive: The race to build “clean” cars for the future, Jim Motavalli, 2000
Taking Charge: the electric automobile in America, Michael Brian Schiffer, 1994


print version

--Bob Casey, Curator of Transportation

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