Return of Electric Cars

In 1967, the City of Los Angeles tested Robert Aronsson’s Mars II Electricar because of its smog-free performance. Mayor Sam Yorty posed for a publicity photograph. Courtesy of Robert Aronsson.

In the 1960s, growing concern about smog and other forms of air pollution led to experimentation with electric cars, which some people regarded as an obvious solution to a national problem. Small businesses in car-related fields tried to solve the technological problems inherent in early electric cars – excessive weight, slow speed, and limited range – and develop modern battery-powered cars that met the needs of auto-dependent Americans.

Radio manufacturer C. Russell Feldmann and battery manufacturer Robert Aronsson independently used their resources to develop prototype cars and begin limited production. Aronsson worried about smog. A Western Union telegram delivery boy in prewar Los Angeles, he remembered how thick black exhaust from trucks fouled the air and obscured his bicycle ride. The Mars II car, a converted Renault 10 sedan powered by Aronsson’s patented tri-polar lead cobalt batteries, could run 70 to 120 miles per charge at speeds up to 60 miles per hour. Some Mars II cars ran as far as 146 miles on a single charge. Aronsson’s batteries also powered winning cars in the transcontinental Great Electric Car Race (1968) and the electric car division of the Clean Air Car Race (1970).

Feldmann and Aronsson both leveraged support from the electric power industry. Utility companies purchased most of the cars for test drives and real-time applications. These companies became interested in the potential for increased revenue from rechargeable battery cars for consumers and fleet use, but the cars’ performance did not meet expectations.

Banner from the General Motors electric car program, 1990s

Despite mandatory use of catalytic converters in new gasoline cars by 1975, air pollution from cars persisted in cities and elsewhere. Efforts to reduce smog in Los Angeles led to stronger action by state government. In 1990, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) adopted a policy of forced technological change pioneered by federal safety and emissions requirements. CARB issued a revolutionary Zero Emission Vehicle mandate: by 1998, two percent of new cars sold by major automakers (Ford, General Motors, Chrysler, Honda, Toyota, Nissan, and Mazda) in California were required to have no tailpipe emissions. By 2001 this figure would rise to five percent, and by 2003 ten percent, including sales by smaller-volume automakers such as Volkswagen, BMW, and Mitsubishi. Given available technologies, “emission-free” meant battery electric. Automakers scrambled to convert standard cars and light trucks to battery power for consumer and fleet leasing test programs in California.

GM Sunraycer

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Advanced propulsion and power management systems in the GM Sunraycer solar-electric car, winner of the 1987 World Solar Challenge, helped make GM’s Impact and EV1 electric car technologies successful.

Plaque, Electric Vehicle PrEView Drive

In the mid-1990s, General Motors asked consumers to test-drive experimental Impact electric cars in its prEView program. Pepco (Potomac Electric Power Company) gave this plaque to Washington, D. C. driver Patricia Brown in appreciation of her participation.

General Motors was in a unique position to design an electric car from scratch. In 1987 GM and its Hughes Electronics and Delco subsidiaries collaborated with aeronautical engineer Paul MacCready to design this new electric car. MacCready founded AeroVironment in 1971 to design and produce human and electric-powered aircraft. GM, its subsidiaries, and AeroVironment were ideal partners to design and build the lightweight, aerodynamic GM Sunraycer solar-electric car, which had won the 1987 World Solar Challenge in Australia.

In the late 1980s, AeroVironment again teamed with GM on Project Santana, named for California’s Santa Ana winds -- hot, dry desert air that dispelled smog by blowing it westward over the Pacific Ocean. The Santana electric car would be lightweight, aerodynamic, and have advanced propulsion controls. A concept car, renamed Impact, debuted in January 1990. By the mid-1990s, GM was ready to lease 50 handmade Impact cars to consumers in its PrEView program. The technological success of the Impact, and its apparent market potential, provided the motivation for CARB to pass its Zero Emission Vehicle mandate in September 1990. Given a corporate green light, GM and its partners went to work on a refined version of the Impact.

General Motors employee name badge, first EV1 Driveaway from the Lansing Craft Centre, November 14, 1996.

Between 1996 and 1999, General Motors built 1,117 electric cars to test the consumer market further. The aerodynamic cars, christened EV1, were the first full-sized, manufactured electric cars with speed, performance, power options, conveniences, and comforts equal to gasoline cars. GM heavily invested in research, design, and production, creating all EV1 systems and components from scratch but learning from propulsion and power control systems developed for the GM Sunraycer and Impact. A special GM team built EV1 cars at the company’s Lansing Craft Centre in Michigan, and the corporation leased them to consumers through Saturn dealers in California, Arizona, and Georgia.

Many EV1 lessees were enthusiastic about their driving experiences. Some were “green” advocates whose home solar panels delivered power to the local utility grid, reducing net energy consumption. Other lessees admired the EV1’s torque and quick acceleration. Initially, energy storage technology in the EV1 did not represent a major breakthrough; the lead-acid batteries produced a range of only 80 to 100 miles. However, in mid-production, GM substituted nickel metal hydride batteries with an improved range of 100 to 140 miles. The EV1 experience proved that electric car driving performance, comfort, and utility could be competitive with gasoline cars. Improved battery performance and lower production cost remained among the hurdles to full marketability.

EV1 Electric Car, 1997

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By 2003, GM determined that the retail price of an extended-range EV1 would be well beyond the reach of most consumers, and the market for a high-priced electric car would be too small to start production. After the EV1 leases ran out, GM set aside a few cars for museums and research purposes and destroyed most of the cars. Published photographs of crushed EV1 cars contrasted with the bold idealism of California’s ZEV program, public excitement over GM’s highly advanced vehicle, and the EV1 car’s good standing with car enthusiasts. This led to public angst over the faltering progress of alternative energy and fading hopes for cleaner air. The 2006 release of the movie “Who Killed the Electric Car?” crystallized the unexpected anger, bewilderment, and disappointment over GM’s apparent shortsightedness and elimination of the electric car as a consumer option. GM became a focal point of public outcry, but other manufacturers also cancelled their electric car lease programs. Automakers jointly mounted a court challenge to CARB’s call for emission-free cars and won; the CARB zero emission mandate was extended and then modified.

Twenty-first Century Electric Cars

Tesla Styling Model

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Consumers who bought Tesla electric cars chose colors from handheld styling models in company showrooms.

The electric car did not die. A growing perception that automakers stubbornly clung to traditional, reliable models – profitable and petroleum-based – while refusing to develop clean, affordable, “green” or alternative energy cars caused many people to hope that consumer demand would bring back the electric car. Domestic and global events reminded Americans that oil supplies are finite and vulnerable, and that inefficient cars may not be sustainable or desirable in the long run. The recession of 2008-2010 greatly affected new car sales, particularly SUVs and other inefficient, low mpg vehicles. Growing demand for cars and gasoline in China contributed to higher gasoline prices in the United States.

Growing evidence of environmental damage linked to gasoline cars, from the 2007 United Nations report on global warming and climate change, to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, caused more Americans to question the sustainability of gasoline cars. The technological and market success of the Toyota Prius hybrid gasoline-electric car and other hybrid cars demonstrated that unconventional cars with better fuel economy (and less gasoline consumption and emissions) would appeal to consumers and could find a place in mainstream automotive marketing. Scientific reports about the harmful effects of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that cars emit gained the attention of affluent consumers who were willing to pay more for a car with no tailpipe emissions.

On December 11, 2010, Nissan officials delivered the first retail LEAF electric car to Olivier Chalouhi at a dealership in Petaluma, California. Courtesy of Olivier Chalouhi

Between 2008 and 2012, Tesla, Nissan, General Motors, Ford, and several other manufacturers placed modern electric cars on the market. Virtues of the Tesla Model S, Nissan LEAF, Chevrolet Spark EV, and Ford Focus Electric included lower operating costs than gasoline cars, freedom from gas stations, concentration of emissions at power plants, clean distribution of energy (though not always clean production of energy), and the possibility of recharging electric cars with non-fossil fuel sources such as hydroelectric, nuclear, and wind power. The challenges for electric car manufacturers included increasing range (number of miles per battery charge), reducing charging time, and dealing with limited battery life. Sales of electric cars gradually rose as consumers accepted them and tested their advantages.

In 2012, Robert and Mary-Joyce Harris drove their Nissan LEAF electric car through Great Smoky Mountains National Park, leaving no carbon footprint in the nation’s most visited national park. The Harrises’ Black Bear Solar Institute installed charging stations in towns near the park’s entrances to encourage visits by electric car owners. Their BBSI vanity plate is housed in the transportation collections.

General Motors expressed regret over cancelling the EV1 program and vowed to become a leader in innovations that would bring back electric cars without “range anxiety” – fear of running out of battery power on the road. The introduction of the plug-in Chevrolet Volt hybrid in 2010, and the battery-only Chevrolet Spark EV and Chevrolet Bolt in 2013 and 2016 respectively, put GM in the electric car market.