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Rollout of 1999 EV1s

I've been bugging various people involved with the General Motors EV1 electric car for years: GM Advanced Technology Vehicles (GMATV) team members, Saturn dealers who actually retail the car, and people who have already leased them. Thus I was delighted to receive an invitation to a "Sneak Preview" of the 1999 model year EV1, held in Los Angeles on Saturday, 5 December 1998.

1999 EV1 Rollout

The event, in a ballroom at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel downtown, was emceed by Rick Ostrov of GM EV marketing services, one of the folks I've been bugging all these years; he said this was the largest EV1-specific event ever held, and I believe him--this picture doesn't show a quarter of the people in that room: reps from GM, Saturn, Edison EV, and other organizations interested in electric vehicles, a large fraction of the four hundred or so current lessees, and many prospective lessees. I am waiting until they actually start selling the car, which is currently only available for lease; thus I'm not really a prospective lessee per se, but I didn't correct them since it got me in the door!

Of course, one reason for the lease-only policy is that the technology is advancing not at the typical pace of the automobile industry, but more like that of the computer industry; GM doesn't want to leave a customer stuck in a few years with the equivalent of a 286 PC in the age of the Pentium II. The 1999 EV1 is an illustration of this rapid rate of improvement; it looks almost identical to the original 1997 models on the outside and under the hood, but the Power Electronics Bay that controls the flow of energy from the batteries to the motor (and back, when the car is slowing down) has had its weight, volume, and price cut in half from the 1997 Generation I to the 1999 Generation II, and the parts count has been cut by a third, all without compromising performance. In addition, the standard lead-acid batteries are an improved design that increases the range by twenty to thirty percent over the 60 to 90 miles "real world" range usually quoted for the 1997 EV1, and gives longer battery pack life as well.

NiMH badge on 1999 EV1

The big news, however, is that the 1999 EV1 will be optionally available with a Nickel Netal Hydride (NiMH) battery pack, which will about double the range to 120-160 "real world" miles between recharges! These advanced batteries have been available in the Honda EV Plus since it was introduced, but the much less aerodynamically efficient shape of that car gives a shorter range (and even more advanced Lithium Ion batteries are used in the Nissan Altra, but this vehicle is not readily available yet). In addition, the NiMH batteries are designed to give several thousand charge/discharge cycles; multiply this by over a hundred miles per charge, and you can expect these batteries to last for hundreds of thousands of miles--they are a true "life of the vehicle" pack, unlike lead-acid batteries that need to be replaced every few years.

The Power Electronics Bay is the most costly component of the car, and advanced NiMH batteries aren't cheap either. However, the price of the former has dropped by half in two years, as noted above, and the price of the battery pack is being brought down at comparable speed as manufacturing experience is gained. When you couple these with the increased range of the NiMH EV1 (people commonly quote a "psychological threshold" of 100 miles per charge as the minimum that most consumers would be willing to accept) and the "life of the vehicle" battery pack, well, I for one would say that you have a product that is "ready for prime time", i.e., the mass market. A couple of people have speculated in my hearing that the Generation III cars, about the 2001 model year, will have seen enough drop in their production cost and enough optimization of their electronics that GM will feel comfortable about actually selling them; I sure hope so! The Detroit News reported in September that Cadillac is getting ready to assume the "point" position for GM's alternative-fueled vehicles; the idea is that since Cadillac buyers are less price-conscious than, say, Chevrolet buyers (or the typical Saturn buyer!), some of them will be willing to pay the initially higher prices of alternative-fueled vehicles for the privilege of being at the vanguard. This sounds to me like a good strategy for a mass-market entry; of course, I also think a compressed-natural-gas (CNG) version of the Cadillac Escalade full-size sport utility vehicle would be a good idea (Ford is testing a CNG version of their large SUV, so maybe they could sell that with the Lincoln Navigator badge too).

With regard to these future marketing plans as they apply to the EV1, Frank Pereira, the EV1 Brand Manager with GMATV, said at the rollout that he has seen a "sea change" in attitudes toward battery-powered electric vehicles at GM. In the past few years, there has been a widespread perception that battery-only electric vehicles were just a stepping stone, a "testbed" on which to develop motors and power control electronics that could then be incorporated into hybrid-electric vehicles with small, efficient gasoline or diesel generators onboard to provide most of the electricity for the drive motor. Battery-electric vehicles would be phased out after a few years, and petroleum-powered hybrid-electric vehicles would in turn be superseded by vehicles with fuel cells instead of internal combustion engines to supply the electricity. The simplicity of a battery-electric vehicle is hard to beat, though (look how ubiquitous battery-powered devices are in everyday life!), and he says that with the 1999 Generation II EV1, people at GM are starting to think that they have a real-world product here, not just a rolling experiment. I wish them the best of luck in realizing their vision!

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new 12 December 1998, revised 14 December 1998