About halfway down the long hill leading to the General Motors Proving Ground test tracks in Milford, Michigan, it hit me that the electric concept car I was driving rolled on a cobbled-up show-car suspension and was armed with barely functional brakes. Uh-oh! It would be a supremely stupid, costly, career-ending blunder to crash this incredibly significant hand-built prototype EV by plowing off the fast 90-degree corner that awaited down the hill. Though the concept was called the Impact, I had no intention of putting that name to the test.
But wait! I recalled that the Impact featured variable regenerative braking with a rheostat control between the seats. I eased on the friction brakes, cranked the rheostat up to full regen, and barely made the corner. Whew! Shaken and chastened, I continued carefully to where I—as GM EV program Vehicle Test and Development manager—was heading to give members of the Board of Directors demo rides on the “Black Lake” skidpad.
At the 1990 Los Angeles Auto Show, people stopped in their tracks to gawk at this sleek, silver-bullet-shaped concept that would later morph into the EV1. Engineered and developed with high-tech California contractor Aerovironment, the Impact did more than just look cool. It could sprint from zero to 60 mph in a (then-quick) eight seconds and had achieved—in one test from 100 percent to absolute zero state of charge under ideal conditions at GM’s Arizona Desert Proving Grounds—a stunning 125 miles of range. At the time, that was better performance than any other practical electric car could claim.
Many saw it as the industry’s automotive future. Idealists cheered while skeptics scoffed. Politicians plotted to force-feed it to the American public. So positive was its press and public reception that on April 22, 1990 (Earth Day) GM CEO Roger Smith announced GM’s intent to produce such a car, targeting 25,000 units a year. Ken Baker, then head of Advanced Vehicle Engineering for GM’s Chevrolet-Pontiac-Canada Group, was recruited to lead the effort.
“We recognized the obvious shortcoming of EVs,” Baker later said. “Our plan was to be battery agnostic—take the best available and focus on engineering the world’s most efficient vehicle, which would give dramatically better performance once a better battery came along. We had just come off of the success of the [race-winning solar-powered] SunRaycer and were encouraged by the sold-state electronics that had been demonstrated in that car, and [in] Impact
One key goal was to see how quickly and efficiently GM could do a completely different new car through a new Systems Engineering approach. The production target was just 36 months.
Then, by September 28, 1990, California’s Air Resources Board (CARB) mandated the seven top-selling automakers to make two percent of their California sales “zero emissions” by 1998, five percent by 2001, and 10 percent by 2003.
Myth: GM’s EV program was a reaction to the CARB mandate.
Truth: Other way around. GM was already working to produce a practical electric car, so CARB decided to force all major automakers to follow suit.