Unplug the car and let’s go!

John Sutherland

  • The Car that Could: The Inside Story of GM’s Revolutionary Electric Vehicle by Michael Shnayerson
    Random House, 295 pp, $25.00, November 1996, ISBN 0 679 42105 X

Until 1 January 1996, it seemed as if three mighty powers – American science, General Motors and the State of California – would bring about the most momentous change in personal transport since the carriage went horseless. Now, it seems, ‘Ev1’ (Electric Vehicle One, or the ‘electric turkey’ as critics have unkindly called it) may join the De Lorean, cold fusion and Clive Sinclair’s C5 self-propelled sitz-bath in the technology junkyard.

‘Electrics’ – battery-powered automobiles – have a venerable pedigree. The first successful model was exhibited at the World’s Fair in 1892. William Morrison’s dirigible boasted a four-horsepower motor (at a time when four horses meant something), which gave it a maximum speed of 14 mph. It could run for 13 hours between ten-hour charges from a domestic power supply. The future seemed bright. In 1900 electrical vehicles accounted for 38 per cent of all new vehicle sales in America; noisy (and lethal) steam-powered machines accounted for 40 per cent and smelly gasoline-powered automobiles had a minority 22 per cent share of the market. When, in 1901, President McKinley sustained his mortal gunshot wounds, he was wafted silently to hospital in one of the nation’s fleet of electric ambulances.

The early electrics were held to appeal to the woman passenger and driver. They were odourless; push-button-easy to start; smooth and quiet in movement; reliable in their mechanical operation; they did not cough, belch or frighten horses in their 14 mph career down the highway. The gasoline automobile, by contrast, was quintessentially male. Powered by a series of barely-controlled explosions, with a complicated apparatus of oily pistons, cogs and axles, it required, with its crank-handle, the brawn of Hercules to make it start.

The future lay with gasoline. In 1908, Henry Ford’s mass-produced Model T, priced at a level which Ford’s own $5-a-day workers could afford, gave oil-based fuel (of which America was then the world’s main producer) a commercial edge. In 1912, the electric starter and the regenerating battery, which allowed an independent electrical system to be incorporated into the gasoline car, sealed the fate of the wholly electrical vehicle.

History and generations of satisfied (overwhelmingly male) car-owners have given their verdict. But electrics, enhanced by late-century technology, have their attractions. They are zippy (speeds of over 180 mph have been recorded on race tracks); and the direct power source delivers silkily fast acceleration: General Motors’ EV1 achieves zero-to-60 in under eight (noiseless) seconds and could easily exceed 80 mph in the hands of an absent-minded driver. They require relatively little maintenance, beyond charging. As their advertising slogan puts it, ‘You will never again use the words “Fill ’er up” or “Check the oil.” You will simply say: “Unplug the Car and Let’s Go!”’ The electrical motor bypasses the complex, oil-lubricated, toothed-gear transmission systems of the gasoline-propelled car. Above all, electrics are non-polluting. They are also fun to drive. GM, which is currently taking show-car versions of its EV1 around the American South-West, reports that ‘Cool!’ is the most commonly recorded reaction. (Ironically, cooling the new generation of electrics is a major technical problem: Ford’s ‘Ecostar’ prototype, with which it had hoped to beat EV1 to market, burned up when its advanced-technology sodium sulphur batteries spontaneously combusted in 1994.)

Electrics are still suffering from the problems which handicapped them seventy years ago: range and the energy-to-weight ratio of their power pack. For short-haul, multi-stop trips on the milk-round or golf-course, or a test-drive round the block, they are ideal. When you ‘tour’ or ‘motor’ – travel over a hundred miles – electrics are painfully disadvantaged. They need frequent recharging, which takes an hour or more and (in America, with its low voltage standard) requires current-transforming equipment. Fast charges deteriorate batteries which, at best, are only good for a couple of years. In order to get minimally acceptable range, EV1 has to devote 1150 lbs of its 3000 lbs to 26 batteries, arranged in a clumsy T-frame ‘tunnel’ which sticks up by about a foot between the two passengers – who can scarcely squeeze into what internal space is left. As for luggage, forget it.

At current pump prices, US gasoline is cheaper than bottled water. And, relative to the energy it produces, gasoline is light in weight (8 lbs a gallon), economical in space (most drivers wouldn’t even be able to locate their fuel tank, so neatly tucked away is it) and easily loaded. Shnayerson estimates that, pound for pound, gasoline is some 250 times more efficient than the commercially viable battery.

None the less, electrics are making a come-back. Their modern renaissance began not in Detroit but on the college campuses of America. In August 1968, while his wilder fellow-students were burning their draft cards, Wally Rippel, an undergraduate at the California Institute of Technology, challenged his peers at MIT to a cross-continental race. Rippel had been gliding silently round Pasadena in his converted 1958 Volkswagen bus, powered by half a ton of lead-acid batteries, propagandising for electric power as a non-polluting alternative fuel. His was the low-technology, low-cost approach. The MIT students met his challenge with an expensive, commercially subsidised, hightech electrified 1968 Corvair. The two would-be Lindberghs left their respective coasts, forecasting that the race would take five days. Neither of the vehicles came in on time, but the Caltech-Rippel VW was judged by the umpires to have won. The good news was that the whole trip cost not much more than $25 in electricity. The bad news was that Rippel’s bus needed 54 charging stations (one every eighty miles or thereabouts), with an hour-long stop at each. It also had to take on fifty pounds of ice at each stop to keep its massive cargo of batteries from exploding.

The 1968 race caught the attention of thoughtful Southern Californians, particularly those resident in the mountain-circled LA Basin, where smog was so thick you could eat it with a knife and fork, particularly in August. Foul air was a by-product of the region’s complete dependence on automobiles and freeways, after GM had conspired with the state authorities in the Fifties to abolish the old mass-transit electric railway. By 1968 the state had recognised the need to combat smog and set up CARB – the California Air Resources Board – for the purpose.

Over the last thirty years California has led the world in measures to reduce car pollution. CARB has devised strict regulations and, more important, acceptable ways of implementing them, allying itself with Detroit’s big three, Japan’s big four, and the oil lobby. CARB’s initiatives and ordinances have been amazingly successful, not just in California. The Western world has uniformly followed the West Coast in such reforms as lead-free gasoline, catalytic converters and punitively frequent smog tests for older vehicles. Thanks to CARB, California now has the world’s ‘cleanest’ fleet of cars. The new 1997 automobile on the Santa Monica freeway emits only 4 per cent of the tail-pipe pollution of its 1970 predecessor. Bur despite all CARB’s reforms the sheer volume of road traffic and the irreducible filthiness of combustion has overwhelmed even this most progressive of states. You can reduce and scrub an automobile’s emissions, but you cannot entirely eliminate unburned hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide and oxides of nitrogen which, chemically, the process must produce. There are now more cars than people in California, and ownership is growing faster than population. Today, Los Angeles suffers over a hundred days a year on which ozone levels exceed Federal health standards (New York, by comparison, has four).

If this is the future on the Pacific Rim the outlook for the rest of the world is bleak. California is a rich state and its car-owners can afford what is effectively a pollution tax, to keep its air breathable. The prospective car-owning democracies of the 21st century – China, India and Eastern Europe – will take the cheaper, dirtier option. For them, the future is not Los Angeles but Mexico City, whose 3.5 million cars are the cause of ozone levels three times higher than US safety limits, killing children, invalids and old people in their thousands.

The car problem is easily defined: everyone wants the convenience, no one wants congestion and pollution. If there is a non-catastrophic solution, it will be worked out in the laboratory of California’s urban freeways. Electric cars, for all their mechanical disadvantages, may well be that solution. They are inherently ‘clean’ – it is much easier to monitor one power-station than a hundred million exhaust systems; they will reduce American dependence on unreliable Middle Eastern oil; and they can be introduced gradually, using the existing commercial and transport infrastructure – in the relatively painless way that jet airliners took over from propeller-driven planes, made by the same manufacturers and using the same airports and labour force.

The competition to create a state-of-the-art electric car for the next century began in the Eighties with another race. General Motors acquired a Californian aerospace firm, Hughes Aircraft, and was not sure what to do with its new property beyond the vague desire for a glitzy technology transfer. The company was often attacked for its failure to invest in R&D and in 1987, as a stroke of counter-propaganda, sponsored, via its new subsidiary, an entry in a solar-powered vehicle race across Australia. The design of ‘Sunraycer’, the GM-Hughes vehicle, was sub-contracted to the San Gabriel Valley firm, Aero-Vironment, the brainchild of the aerodynamicist Paul MacCready, like Wally Rippel a Caltech alumnus, who specialises in producing vehicles of apparently useless beauty and energy efficiency. One of MacCready’s more famous creations was the pedal-driven ‘Gossamer Condor’, which won the Royal Aeronautical prize for man-powered aircraft in 1979. A couple of years later its offspring ‘Gossamer Albatross’ achieved the first man-powered flight across the British Channel. Asked what good his filmy constructions are, MacCready likes to reply: ‘What good is a newborn baby?’

Hughes supplied the solar panels, a technology which was being developed for Nasa’s race to the Moon. MacCready’s principal challenge in building Sunraycer was to reduce air resistance (drag). He came up with a tear-drop design perfected in Caltech’s wind tunnels, which was to lead directly to the EV1, and the EV1 boasts the same drag co-efficient as the F-16 fighter: no mass-production car has ever cut the air more efficiently.

Twelve of the 24 cars which left Darwin for Adelaide on 1 November 1987 failed to complete the 2000-mile course, and the MacCready-GM Sunraycer won with spectacular ease, at an average speed of 41.6 mph. ‘The attention that a solar car race focuses on doing big jobs with little power,’ MacCready wrote after his victory, ‘expands our insights into, expectations of, and demands for, getting better fuel economy with gasoline and edging battery-powered and hybrid cars toward practicality.’

Sunraycer was also a triumph for Roger Smith, General Motors’ chief executive. Smith badly needed a triumph. The firm was under fire for its corporate unfriendliness. What was good for GM was generally seen as bad for America. In 1989 Michael Moore’s film Roger and Me, recording the cataclysmic effects of GM’s closure of its Flint factory, was a huge box-office success: the one thing everyone now knew about GM was that the corporation – specifically, Roger Smith – had put forty thousand Michigan blue-collar workers on welfare. Nor were the shareholders happy. GM was losing up to $5 billion a year and ceding its market share to Japan, with its eco-friendly, fuel-efficient ‘compacts’.

As he had in 1987, Smith came up with a bold propaganda coup. Following on Sunraycer’s triumph, GM had mocked up a mass-production electrical vehicle, called ‘Impact’ (an unhappy name, as was pointed out: what next – the ‘Ford Whiplash’?). Impact’s MacCready-inspired aerospace lines stole the Los Angeles automobile show in January 1990 and, on ‘Earth Day’ later that year, Smith announced to incredulous journalists at the Washington Press Club that GM would have a viable production model of the electric car ready to roll in three years. CARB took Smith at his word, and issued its 1990 ‘mandate’. The Board decreed that, by 1998, Detroit’s big three and Japan’s big four would have to sell 2 per cent Zero Emission Vehicles (ZEVs) in the state, or face crushing financial sanctions. This meant sixty thousand electric vehicles between 1998 and the turn of the century, not just in showrooms, but on the Californian highways. The proportion would rise to 10 per cent by 2003.

There were shrieks of pain from Detroit against the ‘Russian’ nature of the measure: how could manufacturers make the consumer buy their product? CARB responded by offering subsidies (up to $5000 per vehicle, as it turned out); further tax-breaks and financial sweeteners would follow. Moreover, Californian yuppies – certainly more than 2 per cent of the new-car market – wanted pollution-free vehicles, and would pay a premium for them. CARB’s example was followed by other progressive states, notably Massachusetts and New York.

Having made his three-year promise, Roger Smith resigned. His successor, Robert Stempel, assigned four hundred of GM’s best brains and hundreds of millions of dollars to make the Impact roadworthy and salesworthy by 1998. By 1993 Stempel had also gone, but the firm was testing 30 ‘proof of concept’ cars, and releasing optimistic forecasts. The new vehicle, EV1, would be marketed via GM’s successful Saturn franchise, in four South-Western states, but mainly in California.

As with other automobile reforms, the rest of the developed world would, it was confidently expected, follow California’s suit. It was in this heady period in the early Nineties that Random House contracted Michael Shnayerson, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, to write a book chronicling the genesis of EV1. What they had in mind was something modelled on Tracy Kidder’s runaway bestseller The Soul of a New Machine, the story of the ‘break-through’ VAX mainframe computer. And when The Car that Could was commissioned that was exactly what everyone thought – that EV1 could do it. There were no significant competitors. Chrysler was dragging its heels, happy to buy whatever patented technology its rival came up with. Ford’s ‘Eco-star’, with its sodium sulphur batteries, was running into technical problems. Japan was either biding its time or not showing its hand. Europe had nothing in view apart from a pilot scheme at Peugeot that was languishing for lack of funds.

Things have not turned out as GM, Random House and Shnayerson expected. The car can’t do what was hoped in 1990, nor will Shnayerson have a hit of Kidder proportions. None the less, his narrative of how Sunraycer became Impact became EV1 is, like Kidder’s book and Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, a rousing saga of indomitable American technological know-how and can-do. All the intractable problems involved in the design were solved on time, bar one: batteries – the nemesis of electric-powered vehicles not only in the 20th but, it appears, in the 21st century.

Shnayerson describes how GM, blinded by wishful thinking, let itself be hoodwinked by a maverick inventor, Stanford Ovshinsky, who claimed that his revolutionary ‘Ovonic’ nickel metal hydride batteries could provide EV1’s needed road range. In a carefully stage-managed demonstration in 1994, the Ovonic-powered EV1 managed a 201-mile run. Unfortunately, the achievement could not be replicated on actual roads. Moreover, Ovshinsky’s batteries proved excessively expensive and temperamental. They may still come good, but not soon. GM is vague on the subject but gives customers to understand that Ovonics will be available for ‘EV2’. In the interim, EV1 has to make do with the same lead-acid batteries as Morrison’s 1892 electric car, with the difference that to achieve modern speeds it needs many more of them. So many, in fact, that EV1 is little more than a battery-carrying platform.

Even with its 1150 lbs of lead-acid battery, EV1 can only manage about seventy miles between charges on open roads. The problem is that every device in EV1 drains its primary power supply. Run a heater, windscreen wipers, a radio, in clogged traffic and the driver will be lucky to get thirty miles. Driving EV1 in rush-hour Boston in February would be suicidal. The problems will, no doubt, be solved in a few years’ time with nickel metal hydride batteries (which should give a realistic range of 150 miles) and, in the long term, by ‘fuel cells’ – non-combusting ‘engines’ that generate power through the electrochemical reaction of hydrogen and oxygen. On present expectations these devices will not be commercially available until 2010.

Bowing to the inevitable, CARB relaxed its mandate on 1 January 1996: the 2 per cent ZEVs by 1998 and 10 per cent by 2003 requirements were dumped. The major manufacturers were now required to phase in electric vehicles at their own convenience. The environmental lobby saw CARB’s retraction as a betrayal. The paranoid fringe suspected conspiracy: the electric vehicle campaign was merely a smokescreen under which Detroit and the oil lobby had reconverted the American public to gas-guzzlers in the form of ‘minivans’ and ‘Sport-Utility Vehicles’. Under the same smokescreen, GM had continued its ruthless Roger and Me downsizing programme, yielding historically high profits of nearly $7 billion in 1995. While Californians were oo-ahing at EV1, the firm closed its factory in Van Nuys, laying off 2500 workers.

As it happens, GM, while protecting its commercial self-interest, seems to have acted honourably. It would be nonsense to market the present generation of electric vehicles as the solution to California’s car problem. Instead, EV1 is being presented to the public as a ‘fun car’, a ‘sporty little roadster’ for people ‘who never want to go to a gas station again’. The on-road price is a deterring $33,995, which is anyway irrelevant as you can’t buy EV1: you can lease the vehicle at a relatively modest $399 a month (which includes $50 for charging apparatus). And in order to lease, you must submit yourself to an investigation (to ensure the per-car subsidies are not wasted or abused). EV1s, like adopted babies, will go to good homes.

GM has launched an aggressive demonstration programme in the South-West, taking show cars to private schools, colleges and high-profile firms. You can test-drive EV1 at any Saturn franchise. Thousands of Californians are doing so every month, and almost everyone who tries the car becomes a convert. EV1 is a thing of beauty, both to look at and to handle. ‘Edging towards practicality’, as MacCready recommended, GM is seeding its vehicle among rich and trendy Californians in the expectation that, as with other fashions, the whole world will eventually fall into line.