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Easy Rider

The Car that Could: The Inside Story of GM’s Revolutionary Electric Vehicle

by Michael Shnayerson
Random House, 295 pp., $25.00

Taking Charge: The Electric Automobile in America

by Michael Brian Schiffer
Smithsonian Institution Press, 225 pp., $24.95

Is there an American male who hasn’t at some time fantasized about getting to test-drive the newest, sportiest, most advanced automobiles Detroit produces? Cars rank fairly low on my own list of obsessions—still, it was with unmistakable pleasure that I climbed into the driver’s seat of GM’s new EV1 last month. The nation’s first mass-produced electric car in seventy-five years, the EV1 goes on sale later this fall in California. If you are interested in buying one, here is what you need to know.

Urged on by the GM rep, I took my low-slung, cherry-red EV1 from zero to seventy-five in eight or nine seconds, the fastest and smoothest acceleration I’ve ever felt. And the quietest—the car sounds like a muscular laptop computer. “What we’re showing people is that the future doesn’t need to be like Soylent Green,” the GM rep said. And in fact this was entirely unlike eating processed human flesh. “You can save the planet and have a hell of a lot of fun,” he said as we not roared, not zoomed, but hushed past an impressed crowd of schoolboys.

The electric car has a history—it’s one of the few inventions I can think of that was briefly successful, went into a long decline, and now has a second chance. Michael Brian Schiffer provides a comprehensive history of its first appearance in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when New York City boasted electric taxi fleets, Henry Ford’s wife cruised the grounds of her estate in an electric car, and dozens of manufacturers competed to build battery-powered vehicles. If the electric car had won out in its early battle with the internal combustion engine, the nation would likely look utterly different today—not only cleaner and quieter, but more compressed, with the sprawl of suburbs limited by the range of the storage battery.

We sped off down the other fork of the road, and for an interesting reason. Cars were not a utilitarian invention, but were originally seen as toys for well-to-do men, and the way that they played with them was by “touring” the countryside. Had they been judged by their suitability for commuting, say, or their ease of maintenance and operation, electrics would have prevailed—but as even the relentless boosters at Electrical World admitted in a 1902 editorial, the battery current would not last long and it was hard to imagine driving through the countryside with an eye on the electric meter, as reined in as if you were connected to a long extension cord. “In touring the country [one] wants to have a certain liberty of action which a journey fully prearranged does not and cannot give,” Electrical World wrote sadly, a credo that could serve as a useful epigram for the century that followed.

From the outset, therefore, electric cars were confined to a special or “niche” market, the niche being occupied by well-to-do women who did not like the crowded democracy of trolley cars and shuddered at the film of grease that coated passengers in the early days of the gasoline car. They were advertised relentlessly as second cars—the Pope-Waverley Electric was “A Princely Gift for Your Wife.” The Columbus Electric “takes no strength. The control is easy, simple. A delicate woman can practically live in her car yet never tire. Make the women of your family independent of chauffeur.”

It was a modestly successful pitch, yielding several thousand sales annually. But even that small segment of the market disappeared when the 1912 Cadillacs appeared with an electric starter. No more wrestling with cranks—even the delicate wives of merchant princes could start a gas engine with a turn of the ignition key. That—and the $850 price tag on the early Model Ts, a fraction of what an electric sold for—set the course for the American future.

So how did General Motors—which has spent the twentieth century killing mass transit, encouraging the growth of suburbs, fouling the air, hooking Americans on huge engines, and otherwise proving that what is good for it is bad for America—come to consider reversing this history? How did they happen to spend the hundreds of millions necessary to produce the snappy little rocket I was driving with such leadfooted pleasure?

Michael Shnayerson’s new book offers an inside explanation, the result of hundreds of interviews with the people who built the new car. Although its publisher maintains that the book is “in the tradition of Tracy Kidder’s The Soul of a New Machine,” in fact it’s quite different. Kidder told the memorable story of obsessed technicians working to produce a new computer, nerds in their glory. Engineers work long hours in Shnayerson’s story, too, and inventors struggle with new batteries. But the real drama takes place in GM’s corporate offices and board rooms and in private jets. The EV1 (called the “Impact” during most of its years of development, prompting Johnny Carson to ask if “the Ford Whiplash” would be next) faced political, economic, and cultural challenges at GM that far outweighed the technical difficulties.

Through an odd conjunction of circumstances (for instance, the need to prove to Wall Street that GM’s newly acquired Hughes Aircraft, which makes aerospace equipment, offered real technological synergies for the company generally), the company found itself sponsoring an experimental solar-powered car in a race across Australia in the late 1980s. It won, and spent a few million more dollars underwriting a team of California subcontractors who delivered a so-called “concept car” to the Los Angeles automobile show in January of 1990. The vehicle was said to have the aerodynamics of an F-16 fighter and a number of improvements in electronic motors and computer controls. It had a range of about 120 miles—a little more than twice that of the electric cars of 1910—and plenty of acceleration. All in all, it excited Roger Smith, the chairman of GM who had presided over the company’s near-collapse in the late 1980s. (And did so with memorable aloofness, best captured in Michael Moore’s film Roger and Me.) “After another tough year of dwindling market share and closing factories,” Shnayerson writes, “Smith seemed almost intoxicated by all the approbation” he got for driving the first model around the auto show. So intoxicated that he announced GM was going to build the car—put it into production, the first mass-produced electric car in more than seven decades.

That pronouncement set off another chain of events. Nine months later, a group called the California Air Resources Board, or CARB, issued their latest directives in the never-ending struggle to clean up southern California’s air. Using standards much tougher than any other state’s, they had already reduced by as much as 95 percent the pollution that poured out of automobile tailpipes. But the state was still growing fast—between 1974 and 1990, the number of cars registered in the state had more than doubled. As traffic jams proliferated, even “clean” cars gave off clouds of hydrocarbons. Lured by cheap gas, Californians (and others across the country) kept buying bigger “utility vehicles” that burned more gas and caused more smog. So this time the CARB officials went further. They wanted “zero emission vehicles”—cars without tailpipes. That is, electric cars. But no one was building electric cars. CARB’s solution was a man-date, and a heavy-handed one: if you wanted to sell vehicles to Californians, by 1998 you’d need to be selling 2 percent electrics. By 2003, 10 percent. Everyone wanted to sell cars to Californians, of course, so they were essentially ordering an industry into being.

The mandate angered Detroit—it would be too expensive; the technology wasn’t really ready yet; consumers wouldn’t like the cars. GM’s “director of environmental activities,” that is to say its chief of pollution protection, Sam Leonard, had a whole litany of such arguments to put to Shnayerson and anyone else who would listen. (And given GM’s lobbying power, that was a long list of people—when California governor Pete Wilson was running for president, for instance, he got a letter from Midwest governors demanding he scrap the mandate.) The company even assigned one of its lobbyists to work with the engineers developing the Impact, so that he could better work out arguments against it. (Shnayerson reports the “jesuitical fervor” with which the lobbyist Bill Way inveighed against the mandate during lunchtime arguments: “Where outside Russia have you ever seen that attempted?”) But for years CARB stood its ground, and with one powerful argument. Hadn’t Roger Smith told the auto show press conference it could be done? Well, get on with it. Though the carmakers eventually managed to get the mandate somewhat relaxed, it did its job. Not just GM but a host of international carmakers (and watchmakers—Swatch has an electric car under development) were now in the electric game.

In fact, GM has now brought electric cars to market—two years ahead of CARB’s schedule. They are expensive—with a sticker price of about $35,000, though federal and state incentive payments will cut that by seven or eight thousand dollars. But they are in showrooms. They have the same kind of shiny sales brochures other cars have, and the same kind of overearnest salesmen. Now the question becomes: Will a significant number of people buy the EV1 and the many models now following in its wake? And if they do, will it make much environmental difference?

As part of their struggle against the California mandate, the car companies have long claimed that almost no one will want to buy electric cars at their current stage of development. In the fall of 1993, when GM announced plans to offer fifty prototype Impacts to consumers for two-week test drives, the company expected it might have trouble finding eighty drivers. Instead, 10,000 people called a special line in Los Angeles, 14,000 in New York City. Even the automotive press, long used to sneering at electrics as overgrown golf carts, offered glowing reviews: “drives like a real car,” “smooth delivery of power.” This aura of hipness may have surprised GM, but not anyone who had read Noel Perrin’s delightful Life with an Electric Car, published the year before, in 1992.1 Perrin, an essayist and professor of environmental studies at Dartmouth, bought himself a Ford Escort converted to electric power by a small California firm in the summer of 1990 and tried to drive it back home to his Vermont farm. Along the way, almost everywhere he stopped, people would cluster admiringly around the car. Some, noting the small supplemental solar panel on the roof, wanted to know if he could drive on a cloudy day; he met a surprising number of electric car hobbyists who were playing with batteries in their backyards or garages. And virtually no one sneered at Perrin—“Cool,” they told him. Or, “That’s what we all need to do,” or “No pollution—it’s gotta happen.”

That doesn’t mean most of those people will buy an electric any time soon. Of the remaining obstacles to consumer acceptance, the chief one is clearly range. When Perrin set off fromLos Angeles on his cross-country trek, he had two good days of forty or fifty miles on a charge. Then he hit I-80 up through the Sierras to the Donner Pass. “As the road kept rising mile after mile, the car began to tire. By the time I’d gone fifteen miles, it was clear I wouldn’t reach Emigrant Gap, as I’d hoped, or even the minuscule town of Gold Run. I was mostly going forty now, and the gauge was dropping fast.” He coasted back downhill to Auburn, found a truck with a towbar, and had the car pulled to New England. Back home, the car handled his thirteen-mile commute if he remembered to plug it into its recharger while he was at work. After about two and a half hours of recharging, the car was ready to take him home. But when he visits a friend forty-six miles away “sometimes I make it without stopping; sometimes I don’t.”

In some ways, it’s odd how little has changed since the last generation of World War I-era electric cars. Both use large lead acid batteries; both get between 50 and 100 miles on a charge as long as the ground is level and the weather is warm. The new models go much faster, but that simply gets them onto the road (no one who drives in America today is going to buy a thirty-mile-per-hour car, and it’s hard to blame them). To overcome this trouble, the technicians promise new batteries soon. Much of the drama in Shnayerson’s book involves Stanford Ovshinsky, inventor of new nickel metal hydride batteries, which took the Impact more than 200 miles on a single charge in some tests. For the moment they’re still too expensive to make commercially, but almost everyone who studies the field predicts that will change soon. If it is not made of nickel metal hydride, the battery will be made of sodium sulfur or nickel cadmium or some other substance that will store electricity more efficiently. (On the other hand, as Thomas Edison remarked early on in his effort to build a better battery, “just as soon as a man gets working on the secondary battery it brings out his latent capacity for lying.”)

But they will need to double or triple the range of the early electric cars because the intervening six decades have seen the doubling or tripling of the distances people need to travel to work, to shop, to visit, even to worship. As Michael Schiffer observes in Taking Charge, the last electric successes were delivery trucks manufactured just before World War I. But as gas cars expanded cities into larger metropolitan areas, “the majority of truck buyers chose a general-purpose gasoline vehicle despite its more frequent breakdowns and higher operating expenses.” The gas car, in other words, created the grounds for it alone to flourish, like some toxic plant that poisons the soil for competing species.

Of the writers under review, only the historian, Michael Schiffer, is skeptical about the future prospects for the electric car. While electric car advocates “never tire of pointing out that an electric with a range of 25 to 60 miles is an adequate city car for most people,” he writes, “what they ignore is the single most important lesson that the history of the early electric vehicle teaches us: the choice of a car technology is influence by the extreme, not the average, anticipated use.” In other words, almost no one is going to buy the electric for their first car, because they can imagine days when a special project at the office lengthens the commute, and then the school calls to say that their child is sick, and then the Little League team gets into the playoffs in some suburb on the other side of the city. And in two-car families where both adults work, it’s quite possible that both drivers will be able to imagine such exigencies occurring simultaneously. Indeed, the salesmen for the EV1 told me they anticipated that a good many of their customers would be looking for a third car.

It’s also not entirely clear that many Americans want a car that is in any way complicated to drive. Only a small percentage of American cars are sold with manual transmissions, for instance, despite the fact that they get considerably better gas mileage. An electric car demands the driver’s attention—for one thing, your potential range fluctuates wildly, depending on how fast you accelerate and drive. When I was roaring along in the EV1, the range readout dropped as low as thirteen miles; if I’d driven it more conservatively for the next half-hour, the range indicator might have gone back up to thirty miles or more. Those who are used to trying to eke out more time from a laptop computer by turning down the brightness of the screen will understand the concept. Of course a gas car gets better mileage depending on how you drive, too, but the tank’s so large it makes little practical difference. And if you run low, filling up takes two or three minutes, not the two or three hours required to recharge the battery.

As Perrin writes, “You can see the difference in electricity consumption every fraction of a second, and keeping the needle from leaping up becomes a kind of game you play with the car, just as you might play with a Nintendo or a pinball machine.” One hopes Americans will enjoy that game, because as a third car the electric isn’t going to make much of a dent in any of our problems. If it is even partially to fulfill the hopes of environmentalists, it will need to be the standard commuter car, the one that’s parked nearest the street in your driveway.

Even assuming they are widely driven, however, how much difference will the electrics make environmentally? It depends in part on what problem you’re worried about. (The common assumption that all environmental problems, from river pollution to ozone depletion, are essentially the same is akin to assuming that bullet wounds and lung cancer are more or less identical.) There’s no question that these “zero emissions vehicles” would help dramatically with urban air quality (not to mention noise pollution). No carbon monoxide, no nitrous oxides flowing out the tailpipe—the Angelenos could drive around the clock, which to the casual visitor seems their practice anyway, and the air would still sparkle.

But unless, like Perrin, people installed individual solar collectors at home, those emissions would just be moved somewhere else—to the smokestacks above utility generating stations from which the electricity for recharging would flow. The resulting pollution would depend on what fuel the utilities used. If they were burning coal to produce electric power, then urban smog might be replaced by extra doses of acid rain; if they were burning natural gas in an efficient way, the total amount of pollutants would drop, especially since it’s easier to scrub the exhaust pipe of a single generating station than those of a million cars.

If you’re worried about larger problems than urban smog, the picture is at least as complicated. Our most pressing environmental dilemma is global warming, and some environmentalists desperate to cut the world’s consumption of fossil fuel have looked to new types of cars to cut back on carbon emissions. But here too the math can be hard to do. If you run your car on electricity from coal instead of energy from oil, the result may be to pump even more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than you do at present. Natural gas produces less CO2 than oil, and of course nuclear and hydro-power, which are significant parts of the electric generating pool, give off no carbon dioxide at all.

Calculating the odds that electric cars (or the gas-electric hybrids other inventors are touting) will be a big help, then, means making predictions about where our electricity will come from. That’s a harder job than usual at the moment, both because new technologies are appearing quickly and because the utilities are being deregulated by Congress. Christopher Flavin of the Worldwatch Institute makes a strong case in his recent book Power Surge2 that the new and more efficient sources of renewable energy such as solar power and highly efficient fossil fuel combustion systems are near at hand. By the time electric cars become widespread, at least twenty years from now, he thinks they will be powered fairly cleanly. But within the next few years—it’s already begun in New Hampshire—consumers will also be choosing among competing electric providers much the way they choose among phone companies today. That will lower the price of electricity enormously. New York City residents currently paying 13.5 cents per kilowatt hour could conceivably end up paying half that much not far in the future, which will make running an electric car even more practical. But if the deregulation is accompanied by relaxed environmental standards—if the competition is entirely on the basis of cost—then we’re likely to burn a lot more coal, which is unmatched both for its economy and its filthiness.

At the moment, the only laws that stand in the way of that conversion to coal are the Clean Air Act amendments of 1990, which were not designed to address either smog or global warming. They are instead supposed to control acid rain, mainly by limiting the amount of sulfur that Midwestern utilities can emit—and hence they have all but stopped the construction of new coal-fired generating stations. If that restriction can be maintained long enough for the new generations of technologies based on renewable energy sources to come into use, then electric cars might really be an important part of the transition to a different energy future.

At best, the electric car could encourage a transition back to smaller-scale regional life. Its limited range would in fact be a benefit, encouraging the more active use of the land near city centers, and discouraging further sprawl. More and more, following the advice of the new urbanists discussed in James Kunstler’s recent Home from Nowhere,3 we would zone neighborhoods for shopping, working, and living so that they could be reached by electric cars—and even by mass transit, bike, or foot. In this vision, we’d drive our electric cars across President Clinton’s bridge to the future, and then we’d park them. (In the somewhat different vision of the architect Moshe Safdie, small electric cars might be used interchangeably on city streets as well as on highways. After you had driven one, you would simply leave it to be recharged and then used by someone else.4 ) But new technologies won’t accomplish such changes by themselves—if there’s any clear lesson of the electric car’s renaissance, it’s that strong government mandates are needed to overcome the inertia of the status quo.

And in the worst case? Well, the EV1 is a neat new toy, one more thing to own. “I’ve been a surfer for forty years, man,” said the salesman who was coaching me through my test-drive. “This is my coolest board.”

  1. 1

    Noel Perrin, Life with an Electric Car (Sierra Club Books, 1992).

  2. 2

    Power Surge: Guide to the Coming Energy Revolution (Norton, 1994).

  3. 3

    Home from Nowhere: Remaking Our Everyday World for the Twenty-First Century (Simon and Schuster, 1996).

  4. 4

    His views will be published in The City After the Automobile (written with Wendy Kohn), forthcoming from BasicBooks in 1997.

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