Twenty years ago this month General Motors released one of the most important vehicles in automotive history. The EV-1 was the first entirely purpose-built electric vehicle of the modern era from a major automotive manufacturer. It helped to revolutionize the public image of EV’s and usher in the current electric revolution we’re enjoying today.
Chasing the Sun
In 1987 GM partnered with AeroVironment to make a vehicle to compete in Australia’s first World Solar Challenge race, which stretched from Darwin to Adelaide. Thanks to the materials and aerodynamics expertise of the AV team, led by project manager Alec Brooks, a purpose-built electric motor from GM, and solar array from Hughes Aircraft, the Sunraycer set a solar land speed World Record during testing.
The Sunraycer then won the Solar Challenge by over two days and maintained an average speed 50% higher than the second place finisher. After such an impressive result the AV team was once again tapped by GM for a revolutionary EV project, the Impact EV concept car.
AeroVironment & GM Team with the Impact
Making An Impact
The GM Impact program’s goal was to create a fun-to-drive electric concept vehicle that was “producible” and practical with the technology available at the time. The Impact was designed to have a drag coefficient less than half that of contemporary cars. Combining incredible aerodynamics with an overall focus on weight and extreme efficiency, and recent advances in power electronics technology, the GM/AV team were able to produce a road going concept vehicle that could drive 100 miles on a charge. No one else at the time was even close to the Impact’s abilities.
The Impact concept car was first shown at the 1990 Los Angeles Auto Show where the technology, capabilities and striking design made a splash. Public desire for the vehicle grew, and three months later, on Earth Day 1990, GM Chairman Roger Smith announced the GM a production program for an EV patterned after the Impact concept car.
Several years into the development of the production car, GM decided to make a small number of Impacts, a vehicle that shared a name and appearance of the original Impact concept car but designed in-house by GM, and lease them out to select people as a limited test run. Flyers asking for volunteers were sent out with electric utility bills in Los Angeles and New York City. The team expected a limited response to the Impact program, but their phones received 10,000 calls in Los Angeles and 14,000 calls in New York City before they shut down the lines.
General Motors made an initial production run of 50 Impacts and delivered them to select people as a real world “beta test.” Drivers needed to have a charger installed in their homes and report back on the reliability, usability and practicality of the vehicle. Even though GM wasn’t initially excited by the vehicle, drivers seemed to be in love with the Impact.
With the positive test responses to the Impact, and the public desire for EVs growing, GM launched regular production of the Impact, renaming it the EV-1, beginning in December 1996 and lasting until 2003 when the program was officially cancelled.
The EV-1 was a technical marvel for the time, and boasted a range of anywhere between 60 and 160 miles, depending on the battery pack installed on the car , and came equipped with a 6.6 kW off-board charger. For comparison, that is double the charging power of many modern EVs on the market today. Lessees also benefitted from the EV-1’s cutting edge design with exciting features like keyless entry and ignition, programmable HVAC, and a CD player.
GM produced 1,117 EV-1s across two generations of development in the time the vehicle was available to lease. Feedback from lessees and the automotive press was nearly universally positive, from the car’s 8-second 0 - 60 mph time, to its quiet ride and excellent handling. Many celebrities were outspoken in their love of the EV-1, from Danny DeVito to Francis Ford Coppola.
The EV-1 is widely regarded as the genesis of the modern wave of hybrid, plug-in and battery electric vehicles on the market today. The team’s ability to push the boundaries in battery technology, power electronics, regenerative braking and aerodynamics showed the way to the potential for increased energy efficiency that we see being realized in large numbers of popular cars on the road today. Not only that, the EV-1 demonstrated that the American public wasn’t just ready for a practical EV, but actively wanted one.
The Future, Now
It feels fitting that the most advanced electric vehicle on the market today, the Chevy Bolt, is beginning its release in the same month that, 20 years before, saw the release of the EV-1. The Chevy Bolt builds on the experience, technical expertise, and legacy of the EV-1 and takes up the torch of the practical and affordable EV.
2017 Chevy Bolt
We take pride in our partnership with GM that has lasted decades, and pushed the industry forward. Here’s to the future!
Both the Sunraycer and EV-1 are in the Smithsonian Museum’s collection “America On the Move.”