Air Date: Week of November 22, 1996
The first electric car by one of Detroit's "Big Three" auto manufacturers will be available in three western states beginning December 5th (1996). The so-called "EV-1" cars will be leased, not sold, to allay consumer fears that the technology is relatively new and unknown. Steve Curwood speaks with author Michael Schnayerson whose recent book titled The Car That Could examines production of the EV-1.
CURWOOD: On December 5th the EV-1 will be available at Saturn dealers in southern California, Arizona, and New Mexico. The EV-1 is the first mass-produced electric car ever made. General Motors, hoping to ease consumer fears around this new technology, is offering the car and its special charging for lease only at about $500 a month. For all that you get to go silently, without emitting pollution, for about 70 miles in warm weather before recharge. And of course you never need to buy gas. It has taken GM about 8 years and hundreds of millions of dollars to move the EV-1 from the drawing boards to the showrooms, a journey that is chronicled by author Michael Schnayerson in his book The Car That Could an inside look at the struggle to invent, produce, and market the EV-1. While the EV-1 isn't the most poetic name, people seem to like it better than the prototype name: the Impact. I asked Mr. Schnayerson: who came up with that one?
SCHNAYERSON: I tried in my report to figure out exactly who would come up with that name, and I couldn't pin it on anyone in particular. But there are a couple of people who are my suspects. Yeah, of course they had this ridiculous idea that it would be called Impact for the impact it would have on the world, little realizing what the double entendre could suggest. In fact that night, Johnny Carson got on the air and said, "My God, what will be next: the Ford Whiplash?" I mean it was, you know, it was the stupidest name ever.
CURWOOD: Did the EV-1 get its start almost by accident? I mean, the chairman of General Motors, he made this boast, right? In 1990 at Earth Day he says "I can build this car," right?
SCHNAYERSON: Much to the shock of his adjutants around him. That's right. And the flukiness of this story is part of its appeal, I think. GM didn't set out in 1988 to produce an electric car. What they did was agree to fund a little California R&D firm called Aerovironment to do a one-of-a-kind car. And then things just kind of almost got away from them inexorably. That car was so cool, and when it was introduced at the LA auto show in January of 1990 it was so acclaimed that Roger Smith just sort of -- he lost himself and said well, by God, we'll produce this. And then the cat was out of the bag.
CURWOOD: Now, GM has proven that it could do an electric car. But the other carmakers weren't very happy when Roger Smith said that in fact this could be done. And even GM itself has had some resistance with California officials over clean air standards.
SCHNAYERSON: When Roger Smith announced that GM would produce this car, the California regulators, on a body called the California Air Resources Board, who have this sort of unique power to set emissions standards in California, because of course it has the dirtiest air in the country, they said well gee, if GM can do this, it can be done. So we will declare that all the major car makers have to come up with electric cars, essentially emission-free cars, by 1998, and 2% of their fleets in California will have to be, quote unquote, emission free, which basically meant electric. Now that mandate overshadowed the whole story, as GM struggled to develop this EV-1 over the next years, as the program stumbled and was essentially put on a shelf. All along there was this mandate, which now the carmakers had to somehow figure out how to accommodate. They didn't like it. So all 3 American car makers, including GM, rallied together, spent a lot of money lobbying, also did this in partnership with the oil companies, I'm sorry to say. The oil companies spent far more than the car companies. And the result was that they got this mandate ordered down, delayed, pushed aside last December. And at that point Ford and Chrysler and the other carmakers no doubt heaved huge sighs of relief and thought great, now we don't have to worry about electrics for at least another 5 years. And that was when GM startled them by saying that it had secretly revived the EV-1, and would be coming out with it this fall. So Ford and Chrysler are if anything angrier at GM, because now that this car's going to be a reality, if it succeeds they've got to compete with it.
CURWOOD: So why did GM want to bring back the electric car?
SCHNAYERSON: Well, they had this mandate still hanging over their heads. They were having --
CURWOOD: But they could have just thrown a few batteries in the bottom of a van or a pickup truck --
SCHNAYERSON: Well that's true --
CURWOOD: And made the law. So why think -- it's a lot of money to make a new car, right? I mean we're talking of hundreds of millions of dollars, right?
SCHNAYERSON: Yes, indeed, at least half a billion. That's I think where GM looks particularly commendable, or almost courageous. Because as their lobbying effort against the mandate seemed to produce nothing, and as the other car makers grudgingly did exactly that, they began cobbling batteries together and making conversions, GM chose not to go the low road, and spend perhaps $20 million doing a conversion that would, you know, fulfill its obligation for the mandate but be a car that no one really wanted.
CURWOOD: Michael, I'm wondering, is there really a market for this car? I mean, 35 grand for a little 2-seater. Are people going to buy this?
SCHNAYERSON: Well, I think that a few thousand people will certainly be intrigued enough by the promise of electric cars to lease an EV-1 for $500 a month. What's got to happen in the next 3 years as that lease period unfolds is that the costs have to come down dramatically. And I think that there's where there's actually grounds for real optimism.
SCHNAYERSON: Yeah. Critics of electric cars have said in their lobbying campaigns against it that, you know, this car costs $35,000. Only the very richest people would want to buy such a thing. That's true, especially given its limited range. But this isn't like a new gas model that has a few incremental improvements and costs a little more than last year's model. It's more like the first PC or the first cellular phone, and what you saw in those technological marvels is I think what you'll see here. Namely that the electronics costs can come down dramatically. And if at the same time that very promising nickel-metal hydride battery can be produced, and GM is struggling very hard right now to do so, that could really expand the market dramatically. Nickel-metal hydride has been put, a nickel-metal hydride pack has been put into a prototype EV and taken the car 375 miles. Now that's a prototype --
CURWOOD: But that's a tank of gas.
SCHNAYERSON: Well, that's right.
CURWOOD: This car comes out to the public on December 5th. Tell me, now, is this really a cool car? Is this really a great car?
SCHNAYERSON: For one thing it looks like a cool car. It is -- it looks sort of like a Mazda Miata, but even, I would say, smaller and sort of lower to the ground, and more jellybean-like in shape. It is a really cool car.
CURWOOD: Michael Schnayerson is the author of The Car That Could a very inside look at the struggle at GM to invent and produce an electric car. Thanks, Michael.
SCHNAYERSON: Thank you, Steve.
CURWOOD: Michael Schnayerson spent 4 years researching and writing The Car That Could, the story of the world's first mass-produced electric car. The EV-1 is not the only new type car making headlines. Toyota has announced that it will offer a hybrid diesel and electric powered car. The hybrid will have a range of 70 miles a gallon. The as yet unnamed vehicle is expected to hit the market by the end of next year, with a sticker price around $22,000.
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