Why GM Killed the Electric Car?

I am a big fan of electrifying our transportation grid, but I recognize that we still need to do a bit better on battery storage technology before electric cars can be expected to make serious inroads as the transportation mode of choice. I have not yet seen “Who Killed the Electric Car?”, but a lot of the second-hand information I have seen seems to indicate that the program was killed without much justification. I wish the program hadn’t been canceled, but I wondered if there wasn’t a bit more to the story.

Well, today a few more pieces fell into place. Someone at The Oil Drum linked to a post in Google Groups that gave an explanation for why the electric car went by the wayside, from someone pretty close to the project:

Some facts about the EV1, the research and development of which was produced by _my_ division of GM, Hughes Electronics:

General Motors lost two billion dollars on the project, and lost money on every single EV1 produced. The leases didn’t even cover the costs of servicing them.

The range of 130 miles is bogus. None of them ever achieved that under normal driving conditions. Running the air conditioning or heater could halve that range. Even running the headlights reduced it by 10%.

Minimum recharge time was two hours using special charging stations that except for fleet use didn’t exist. The effective recharge time, using the equipment that could be installed in a lessee’s garage, was eight hours. Home electrical systems simply couldn’t handle the necessary current draw for “fast” charging.

NiMH batteries that had lasted up to three years in testing were failing after six months in service. There was no way to keep them from overheating without doubling the size of the battery pack. Lead-acid batteries were superior to NiMH in actual daily use.

Battery replacement was a task performed by skilled technicians taking the sorts of precautions that electricians do when working on live circuits, because that’s what they were doing — working on live circuits. You cannot turn batteries “off.” This is the reason the vehicles were leased, rather than sold. As long as the terms of the lease prohibited maintenance by other than a Hughes technician, GM’s liability in the event of a screw-up was much reduced. Technicians can encounter high voltages in hybrid vehicles. In the EV1, there were _really_ high voltages present.

Lessees were complaining that their electric bills had increased to the point that they’d rather be using gasoline.

One of the guys I worked with transferred to the EV1 program after what was by then a division of Raytheon lost the C-130 ATS contract. He’s now back working for us. He has some interesting stories, none of them good, though he did like the company-subsidized apartment in Malibu. He said the car was a dream to drive, if you didn’t mind being stranded between Bakersfield and Barstow on a hot July afternoon when a battery blew up from the combined heat of the day and the current draw.

Source: Why GM Killed the Electric Car

I have to admit that this explanation makes a bit more sense than some of the conspiracy theories I have been hearing. Maybe GM rolled out the electric car before it as ready for primetime, but I still believe that it will be ultimately more feasible for us to derive the bulk of our transport from electric vehicles than from biofuels.


Gristmill also reported on this a couple of months ago:

Ex-GM employee responds on electric car

There are a number of comments following the essay that are worth reading.

21 thoughts on “Why GM Killed the Electric Car?”

  1. I do read Gristmill fairly regularly, especially when I notice a lot of hits coming from that direction :), but I missed that one.

    Your link got chopped off, so here it is again:

    Ex-GM employee responds on electric car

    OK, you guys scooped me on that one by a couple of months. There aren’t enough hours in my day to read all of the stuff I need to read.



  2. If it was that bad, all GM had to do was turn some EVs over to Consumer Reports, and then let the resulting wail kill the electric car.

    Unfortuntely we have a battle of personal rememberences.

  3. Unfortuntely we have a battle of personal rememberences.

    That’s true, and as a reader just told me in an e-mail “skepticism cuts both ways.” I agree, which is one reason there is a “?” in the title. I don’t necessarily take the guy’s word here as gospel, but his account would help explain some of the puzzling aspects of this. Regardless, I hope the next movie we see about electric cars will be “Who Revived the Electric Car?”. I want a role in that movie. 🙂

  4. Information on energy density:

    1 Kg Gasoline = 44MJ

    Donald Sadoway, a professor of materials science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said:

    We’ve got batteries in my lab right now that are 300Wh/kg and I can see the possibility of breaking 400Wh/kg.”

    300Wh/kg = 1 Mega Joule/Kg

    From the Guardian article and the chart above:

    Lead acid battery 0.11 — 0.13MJ/kg

    The nickel metal hydride 0.22 — 0.32 chart

    Current lithium ion batteries 0.45 0.54 — 0.72


    1 l gasoline = 30 MJ

    The Honda Insight makes 60/66 mpg, best of any car sold in the US. That is about 3.8 l/100km or 114 MJ/100 Km. It is a very small vehicle that weighs less than 850 Kg and has a maximum permissible pay load of 182 Kg (two of me would overload it). It carries 40 liters of fuel, which gives it a range of more than 600 Km.

    DoE says that the average gasoline engine produces about 3/8 of the energy in the gasoline as mechanical energy. It also says a big chunk of that (17.2% of the gasoline base) is lost at idle, something that hybrids reduce dramatically. The rest goes to accessories (2.2%), drive line losses (5.6%), friction (6.8%) and inertia (5.8%). [Inertia=Braking, but regenerative braking can reduce that loss].

    Using the Insight as a model and the 3/8 figure above, and figuring the drive live and friction loses to be a wash, It takes 43 MJ/for 100KM.

    I think the average car gets driven about 12,000 mi/yr or 19,300 Km/Month. Lets say that is about 50 Km/day. But, as a reserve let’s make 100Km the minimum target. So we would need 43 Kg of batteries from Prof. Sadoway’s lab, or maybe 80 Kg of current Li-ion batteries, 132 Kg of NiMH, or 330 Kg of Pb/acid batteries.

    That is for a really light small vehicle. It would take about 2X a much to push around a mid sized sedan. YMMV. If you lead a well ordered existence, a battery powered vehicle would probably be OK. A lot of folks with families, obligations over several counties, activities, etc. might find that range constraining.

    My prediction is that the only way battery powered vehicles will become popular is if you can sell people on the idea that they are good second or third vehicles for commuting and other predictable uses.

    Finally, we need to remind folks that there are no free lunches. EV’s create problems of their own. Is the world supply of Lithium or Nickel adequate? What happens to those batteries when they wear out? It is easy to imagine recharging your EV at home. What happens when you cannot go home?

  5. Battery technology has advanced quite a bit since the EV1. I see a combination of PHEVs (plug-in hybrids) and EVs as the most promising way — after higher mpg — to reduce petroluem fuel use.

    The average daily travel distance of 50% of U.S. drivers is 25 miles or less, and another 30% travel 25-50 miles. Shorter-range EVs as second cars would work for many people, and PHEVs with All-Electric Ranges of 20-60 miles would use little motor fuel.

    There is ample off-peak capacity in the existing grid to charge millions of EVs without justifying new power plants.

    The (southern California) South Coast AQMD sponsored two recent technical seminars on plug-in hybrids (PHEVs) and lithium battery technology.

    June 22 was about PHEVs in general, while July 12 was mostly about Li-Ion battery technology as applied to vehicles.

    See http://www.aqmd.gov/tao/ConferencesWorkshops/techforum.htm for agendas and comprehensive technical presentations. Individual PowerPoints (as PDFs) can be downloaded from the agendas’ links.

  6. The buyers have spoken: Forget electric cars. BY PATRICK BEDARD, Car & Driver Magazine January 2004

    Inquiring minds still wonder, however, who was right: GM, when it said there were no customers for battery EVs, or CARB and the Green Car Institute and the rest of the knee-jerk enviros, when they loudly insisted for years that demand was huge?

    Toyota, I’m now convinced, has the answer. …

    … Toyota decided to test EV demand by offering the RAV4 EV through the Prius-proven channel. …

    What happened? Sales were feeble, only 47 cars in the first two weeks, just eight percent of what the Prius had done after its launch. And then they slumped: 213 EVs over six months compared with 3262 for the Prius. …

    Toyota concluded, as had GM before it, that there was no possibility of developing a profitable business with electric cars and ended the program after six months.

    Every mile means more when you start on empty. BY PATRICK BEDARD, Car & Driver Magazine August 2001

    Here’s what I know. Car guys have universal longings — for a machine that’s rare, the only one in town. And for a car that’s involving, that grips your attention every moment of the trip.

    The EV1 delivers on both counts. But how much extra will you pay for really intense involvement with a miles-remaining display that rarely shows more than two digits? Because that’s the electric-car experience.

  7. R. Schwartz, you hit the nail on the head with the very poor energy density of even the best battery technologies versus liquid fuels. I looked at this years ago when a friend leased one of the EV1’s, and I offered him the opinion that since batteries were (at the time) almost 2 orders of magnitude worse than gasoline, the electric car of the future was unlikely to be battery powered, because the greater efficiency of electric drive just wasn’t enough to overcome the huge disadvantage, and foreseeable advances in battery technology were not going to close the gap. I suggested to him that fuel cells were the way to go.

    What’s changed since then? Well there have been some advances in batteries, but the big change is the hybrid (my friend bought a Prius after his lease expired, and he loves it).

    The plug-in hybrid sure seems like the way to go short-term. Shift all your short-trip driving to the grid, make the rest of your travel more efficient, avoid getting stranded. IMO the next step past that is an all-electrically-driven plug-in hybrid that can recharge itself using energy from a liquid fuel.

    We have the technology to make the plug-in ICE-based hybrid work now. Any improvements in on-board power storage (e.g. ultracapacitors) are all to the good, but what’s really missing is a cost-effective and portable way to produce electric power from a liquid fuel. Fuel cells aren’t there yet. For bonus points, the liquid fuel should be renewable.

  8. I agree with doug on the prospects for PHEVs (see my earlier post for more). The electricity can be sustainably generated, and the backup ICE removes range limits.

    But I would disagree with robert and doug on the adequacy of current battery technology for pure EVs for shorter-range use. A friend with a Toyota RAV4 EV recently wrote:

    << My RAV4 EV has a NiMH pack that holds 27 kWh of power and weighs 1000 lbs. I can travel 120 miles on that much energy in a car that has the drag coefficient of a barn door. A Li-Ion pack with the same energy content would weigh about 400 lbs. This pack at “retail” prices today would cost about $13,500. Considering that a glider RAV from Toyota (a glider is a car that is manufactured without the ICE components) would cost about $10,000 with the EV motor/controller costs included. Toyota’s total cost of production for the EV RAV would be about $23,500. And that’s without the cost reductions of mass producing the batteries. >>

  9. << The Secret Tesla Motors Master Plan (just between you and me)
    by Elon Musk
    Chairman of the Board

    published Wednesday, August 2nd, 2006

    Backgrounder: My day job is running a space transportation company called SpaceX, but on the side I am the chairman of Tesla Motors and help formulate the business and product strategy with Martin and the rest of the team. I have also been Tesla Motor’s primary funding source from when the company was just three people and a business plan.


    As you know, the initial product of Tesla Motors is a high performance electric sports car called the Tesla Roadster. However, some readers may not be aware of the fact that our long term plan is to build a wide range of models, including affordably priced family cars. This is because the overarching purpose of Tesla Motors (and the reason I am funding the company) is to help expedite the move from a mine-and-burn hydrocarbon economy towards a solar electric economy, which I believe to be the primary, but not exclusive, sustainable solution.

    Critical to making that happen is an electric car without compromises, which is why the Tesla Roadster is designed to beat a gasoline sports car like a Porsche or Ferrari in a head to head showdown. Then, over and above that fact, it has twice the energy efficiency of a Prius. Even so, some may question whether this actually does any good for the world. Are we really in need of another high performance sports car? Will it actually make a difference to global carbon emissions?

    Well, the answers are no and not much. However, that misses the point, unless you understand the secret master plan alluded to above. Almost any new technology initially has high unit cost before it can be optimized and this is no less true for electric cars. The strategy of Tesla is to enter at the high end of the market, where customers are prepared to pay a premium, and then drive down market as fast as possible to higher unit volume and lower prices with each successive model.

    Without giving away too much, I can say that the second model will be a sporty four door family car at roughly half the $89k price point of the Tesla Roadster and the third model will be even more affordable. In keeping with a fast growing technology company, all free cash flow is plowed back into R&D to drive down the costs and bring the follow on products to market as fast as possible. When someone buys the Tesla Roadster sports car, they are actually helping pay for development of the low cost family car.

    Now I’d like to address two repeated arguments against electric vehicles – battery disposal and power plant emissions. The answer to the first is short and simple, the second requires a bit of math:

    Batteries that are not toxic to the environment! I wouldn’t recommend them as a dessert topping, but the Tesla Motors Lithium-Ion cells are not classified as hazardous and are landfill safe. However, dumping them in the trash would be throwing money away, since the battery pack can be sold to recycling companies (unsubsidized) at the end of its greater than 100,000-mile design life. Moreover, the battery isn’t dead at that point, it just has less range.

    Power Plant Emissions aka “The Long Tailpipe” (For a more detailed version of this argument, please see the white paper written by Martin and Marc.)

    A common rebuttal to electric vehicles as a solution to carbon emissions is that they simply transfer the CO2 emissions to the power plant. The obvious counter is that one can develop grid electric power from a variety of means, many of which, like hydro, wind, geothermal, nuclear, solar, etc. involve no CO2 emissions. However, let’s assume for the moment that the electricity is generated from a hydrocarbon source like natural gas, the most popular fuel for new US power plants in recent years.

    The H-System Combined Cycle Generator from General Electric is 60% efficient in turning natural gas into electricity. “Combined Cycle” is where the natural gas is burned to generate electricity and then the waste heat is used to create steam that powers a second generator. Natural gas recovery is 97.5% efficient, processing is also 97.5% efficient and then transmission efficiency over the electric grid is 92% on average. This gives us a well-to-electric-outlet efficiency of 97.5% x 97.5% x 60% x 92% = 52.5%.

    Despite a body shape, tires and gearing aimed at high performance rather than peak efficiency, the Tesla Roadster requires 0.4 MJ per kilometer or, stated another way, will travel 2.53 km per mega-joule of electricity. The full cycle charge and discharge efficiency of the Tesla Roadster is 86%, which means that for every 100 MJ of electricity used to charge the battery, about 86 MJ reaches the motor.

    Bringing the math together, we get the final figure of merit of 2.53 km/MJ x 86% x 52.5% = 1.14 km/MJ. Let’s compare that to the Prius and a few other options normally considered energy efficient.

    The fully considered well-to-wheel efficiency of a gasoline powered car is equal to the energy content of gasoline (34.3 MJ/liter) minus the refinement & transportation losses (18.3%), multiplied by the miles per gallon or km per liter. The Prius at an EPA rated 55 mpg therefore has an energy efficiency of 0.56 km/MJ. This is actually an excellent number compared with a “normal” car like the Toyota Camry at 0.28 km/MJ.

    Note the term hybrid as applied to cars currently on the road is a misnomer. They are really just gasoline powered cars with a little battery assistance and, unless you are one of the handful who have an aftermarket hack, the little battery has to be charged from the gasoline engine. Therefore, they can be considered simply as slightly more efficient gasoline powered cars. If the EPA certified mileage is 55 mpg, then it is indistinguishable from a non-hybrid that achieves 55 mpg. As a friend of mine says, a world 100% full of Prius drivers is still 100% addicted to oil.

    The CO2 content of any given source fuel is well understood. Natural gas is 14.4 grams of carbon per mega-joule and oil is 19.9 grams of carbon per mega-joule. Applying those carbon content levels to the vehicle efficiencies, including as a reference the Honda combusted natural gas and Honda fuel cell natural gas vehicles, the hands down winner is pure electric:

    Car | Energy Source | CO2 Content | Efficiency | CO2 Emissions
    Honda CNG | Natural Gas | 14.4 g/MJ | 0.32 km/MJ | 45.0 g/km
    Honda FCX | Nat Gas-Fuel Cell | 14.4 g/MJ | 0.35 km/MJ | 41.1 g/km
    Toyota Prius | Oil | 19.9 g/MJ | 0.56 km/MJ | 35.8 g/km
    Tesla Roadster | Nat Gas-Electric | 14.4 g/MJ | 1.14 km/MJ | 12.6 g/km

    The Tesla Roadster still wins by a hefty margin if you assume the average CO2 per joule of US power production. The higher CO2 content of coal compared to natural gas is offset by the negligible CO2 content of hydro, nuclear, geothermal, wind, solar, etc. The exact power production mixture varies from one part of the country to another and is changing over time, so natural gas is used here as a fixed yardstick.

    Becoming Energy Positive
    I should mention that Tesla Motors will be co-marketing sustainable energy products from other companies along with the car. For example, among other choices, we will be offering a modestly sized and priced solar panel from SolarCity, a photovoltaics company (where I am also the principal financier). This system can be installed on your roof in an out of the way location, because of its small size, or set up as a carport and will generate about 50 miles per day of electricity.

    If you travel less than 350 miles per week, you will therefore be “energy positive” with respect to your personal transportation. This is a step beyond conserving or even nullifying your use of energy for transport – you will actually be putting more energy back into the system than you consume in transportation!

    So, in short, the master plan is:

    1.. Build sports car
    2.. Use that money to build an affordable car
    3.. Use that money to build an even more affordable car
    4.. While doing above, also provide zero emission electric power generation options
    Don’t tell anyone. >>

  10. Darrell, I don’t think we disagree really. Actually my friend also has a RAV4 and still uses it. It can do a short commute with nightly recharging. He needs a special charging station, though.

    I guess my point is that such commute-only vehicles are going to have limited appeal. A lot of families won’t be able to afford to keep a vehicle solely for one purpose. Single people will be in a tougher spot yet. Though I suppose a car-sharing scheme might broaden the audience.

  11. Agreed, Doug. I’m thinking of many 2-vehicle households, where my ideal would be an EV for shorter trips (and 120 miles isn’t all that short), and a PHEV for local as well as longer trips. (In the meantime, my wife and I are waiting for a Toyota PHEV to add to our Prius, that would replace our old “spare car” Maxima.)

  12. Darrell: “NiMH pack that holds 27 kWh of power and weighs 1000 lbs. I can travel 120 miles”

    That is 97.2 MJ from a 453Kg battery pack or 0.21MJ/Kg. Which travels 193 Km at 50MJ/100Km.

    I had used 43MJ/100Km, and, for NiMH,.32MJ/Kg. I regard my calculation as being confirmed.

    “A Li-Ion pack … at “retail” prices today would cost about $13,500. Considering that a glider RAV from Toyota … would cost about $10,000 … Toyota’s total cost of production for the EV RAV would be about $23,500.”

    If Toyota can build it for ~$23,500 they will sell it for more than $40K, without leather upholstery, which is twice as much as a base conventional RAV4. That is a lot of gasoline.

    Doug: I agree BEVs will have to be urban runabouts.

  13. Some other good points that were made to me via e-mail, that I will reproduce here:



    Careful with that EV1 post. GM doesn’t even claim that they spent $2 billion, much less lost that much. (GM wasn’t giving these cars away, after all.) Rick Wagoner (head of GM) has usually used the number $1 billion, and even that probably is overstated. (Not that they didn’t spend that much, but that they’re counting things that were avoidable results of their own management.) $1 billion probably accounts for all the marketing, all the stops and starts ordered by management, and all of the lobbying against the car in the first place. Even so, Wagoner has recently said (in Motor Trend, July) that his biggest mistake as CEO of GM was cancelling the EV1.

    (I should say that what I’m writing here isn’t pulled from the ether, but based on Michael Shnayerson’s overwhelmingly pro-GM book, The Car That Could.)

    If GM had wanted to make back some of that money, it could have accepted the offer by many drivers to buy the cars outright, without any warranty or service guarantee. GM refused.

    And surely you’ve got to be suspicious of claims that electricity began to cost more than gasoline – maybe when it was introduced in 1998 ($7/barrel, good times!) but by the time they were pulling the cars off the road in 2002-2003, that’s a ridiculous claim.

    I can’t speak to all the technical stuff, but it’s worth stacking some guy in a chatroom versus the people who’ve gone on record giving completely opposite views – people who can actually prove they were part of GM. And since when can you not “turn off” a battery? Last I heard, a battery could be drained, removed, and recharged. Indeed, that process – without the middle step – is a battery’s raison d’etre. If no one was doing this, it speaks to poor service on GM’s part, not an inherent flaw with the car.

    Even if the guy did work for Hughes, after it was bought by GM there were… tensions within the corporation and Hughes ended up on the losing end of some turf wars. I’m not saying all of his stuff should be discarded, but someone from old-school Hughes has more than one reason to slam GM and the EV1 both.

    Skepticism is warranted when people present you with a conspiracy theory, of course, and Occam still cuts deep. But this guy’s unproven assertions about his “expertise” don’t buy him any credibilty with me, especially when he goes up against people with far more convincing records. To put it another way, skepticism is needed for both ends.

    I don’t necessarily buy the “conspiracy theory” angle that the movie pitches, but it’s pretty clear, if you read Shnayerson, that GM was hostile to the EV1 from the very beginning, and was looking to kill it. And that’s in a book that is, as I said, overwhelmingly pro-GM. Frankly, it could have been a technological marvel – indeed, many drivers said it was – and GM would have still killed it.

  14. “Even so, Wagoner has recently said (in Motor Trend, July) that his biggest mistake as CEO of GM was cancelling [sic] the EV1.”

    That’s a hoot. If that what he thinks, he is even more deeply in denial than I thought he was.

    Second, A single entity, such as GM, cannot be said to have conspired. A conspiracy requires at least two. GM took a decision. So did Toyota. See the Bedard article cited above. The available evidence is that there was not, is not, and is not likely to be a viable market for EVs, without subsidies from the government or the manufacturers.

  15. I think part of GM’s reluctance to produce an electric car is that they aren’t interested in getting into the business of manufacturing batteries and electric motors, especially when it jeopardizes their existing business of manufacturing engines and transmissions. They would essential buying products from their competitors and be competing with themselves.

    Regarding the batteries, full draining some batteries can greatly reduce their life expectancy, though it probably wouldn’t hurt to do it occasionally. Furthermore, I have noticed that with many household batteries if they are depleted will still produce a small amount of current if allowed to sit for a little while, perhaps the same problem applies to car batteries. Regardless, people have been able to work with golf carts and backup power systems, so I doubt electric cars are that hard to work on. I am sure in the long run maintenance costs would be lower than they are in a conventional car.

    That part about air conditioning halving the range sounds kind of fishy though. One would expect for the air conditioning to not effect the mileage any more than it would in a gasoline car. Even if we assume that the generator in a gas car is twice as efficient as the main engine(which would explain the 10% range loss from the lights), that would imply that a gas car looses 50% range from having the AC on.

  16. One point I can confirm is the danger of working with high current batteries. In my early engineering days I worked on electrical circuits that were low voltage but (potentially) high current. One of the older engineers gave me a good scolding when he saw me poking around with an oscilloscope probe while I was wearing my wedding ring. He told me a story about a guy whose ring had accidentally shorted between two contact points. The resulting current flow was so great that the ring partially melted, with great harm to the guy’s finger. Ever since then I always make a point to take my ring off when poking around in electronic circuits, even computer circuit boards and such. Obviously an electric car battery needs to provide far greater current flows than a computer power supply. Accidentally shorts with a screwdriver or ring could produce severe injuries even when the voltage is not high.

  17. I believe that most of the $1B was paid for by the government’s PNGV program.

    It’s silly to capitalize even a significant % of the development costs on only 600 vehicles.

    It’s silly to discuss their production costs. At a volume of 600, these were basically hand-built.

  18. Tesla says their 50 kwhr batteries cost $20,000, and that they expect the current trend of cost reduction per year of 8% to continue for at least the next 5 years.

    Here’s the source: http://www.siliconbeat.com/ entri…c_roadshow.html
    They’ve also said elsewhere that they fully expect to move to safe and much more effective (more power/weight, faster charge/discharge, much longer lifetime) batteries like the A123systems in the next few years.

  19. Watched “Who Killed the Electric Car” recently (great documentary), then i heard that GM and Tesla are making another run at the electric car (yay for progress!) hopefully development of this technology can go on unhindered by the corporations that depend on oil consumption.

  20. Does a complete electric system exist that can charge the battery while the EV drives?
    In an overly simple layman’s terms, much like the alternator recharges the 12 volt battery in most cars today…I’m sure that the inventor of such a system would have made it public…however “it seems to me” that some type of generator could be added to EVs to fully recharge or at least extend the range of the batteries used…am I completely nuts or naive in thinking this system is even possible?

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