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One Last Day With an EV1

EV1 in our driveway

I have followed the story of the General Motors EV1 electric vehicle (EV) with the greatest of interest for over a decade, starting with the introduction of its predecessor, the Impact show-car, in 1990. I tried to talk my way into the "public beta test" of the Impact in 1994; I was at the Los Angeles Auto Show in 1996 when the EV1 was introduced to the public; I went to my local Saturn dealer for a look as soon as I heard they had arrived in late 1996; and when they became available for rent at EV Rental Cars in late 1998, I was one of the first customers in line (I wrote about the experience in the first of several test-drive reports that have appeared on this website). Sadly, General Motors and other automakers put a lot more effort into getting California's Zero-Emission Vehicle (ZEV) regulations watered down, repealed, or struck down in court than they ever did into actually marketing their ZEVs, or even making them readily available, and recently all the automakers have stopped making EVs (the sole exception being DaimlerChrysler's Global Electric Motorcars division, which makes small low-speed EVs). General Motors never offered the EV1 for sale, only for lease, and a few years back they stopped renewing the leases, so the last ones are running out now and the cars will be gone from the road by the end of this year. Before they took back the EV1s from EV Rental Cars, I went there to rent one for a final drive.

EV1 with John Bogert

Of course, I did my usual test-ride offer to people at the lab where I work, giving people a spin around the parking lot during lunch; I also drove down to the offices of our local paper, the Daily Breeze, to give one last ride to John Bogert, their columnist whom I had previously taken on a test ride in the Honda Insight hybrid-electric car.

EV1 next to Chevy in garage

The charge state of an EV1's battery pack is measured in "bars," since there's a little indicator on the dash with eleven divisions to indicate full charge; after all the test rides, including my usual trick of flooring the accelerator briefly to demonstrate to people that this isn't a golf cart, I was down to 5 bars out of 11 when I got home in the evening. Here is the EV1 parked next to my 1970 Chevy Caprice "project car" (not yet converted to CNG!), getting a boost from the portable charger I found in the trunk (the small blue box on the floor below the bumper). This EV1 was one of the original 1997 models (introduced in late 1996) that were refurbished and re-leased after their initial leases ran out; the original lead-acid batteries were replaced by higher-capacity ones, but they left the utility chargers with the cars. Lessees of the car had permanent chargers installed in their garages, wired into 220-volt appliance circuits; these put out 6.6 kW of charging power, whereas this "opportunity charger" plugs into a standard 110-volt wall socket and puts out about 1.5 kW. The NiMH (nickel metal hydride) battery systems that were introduced in some of the 1999 models would use most of this power cooling themselves during charging, so portable chargers were not included with 1999 models, but apparently GM left them in the trunks of the refurbished 1997 models. Lucky for me, since I was able to boost the charge state to 8 bars while we slept! I just wish that GM would have sold me an EV1 to put in my garage for more than one night...

EV1 in front of "EV1 Death Row"

The next morning my wife and I drove out to Van Nuys to pay our respects at the "EV1 Death Row" in a parking lot at the GM Powertrain plant there, where EV1s are sent to wait to be scrapped after their final leases ran out. The ol' soldier we were driving would wind up on the wrong side of the fence soon, as well. You can also see electric S-10 pickups in the lot awaiting the same fate.

Small charging paddle with adapter

Afterward we hit the Burger King drive-through for a late breakfast (being the only car in line not emitting pollution at idle while waiting!), then drove to the Metro Rail station around the corner to feed the EV1 as well. The public charger there was a standard 6.6 kW version, and brought us up from 5 to 6 bars in about 15 minutes while we ate. You'll note that we drove the 30 miles from the South Bay up to the San Fernando Valley on the freeway, including the climb over the Sepulveda Pass, on just three bars of charge; and yet people still think electric vehicles don't have enough range per charge to be practical! The photo above shows the adapter (provided with the car) that we used to fit the recent-model small charging paddle securely into the original large charger port on the car. (If you look at the portrait I just posted to replace the five-year-old one on my About Me page, you'll notice that I didn't remember to use this initially!)

Last look

Finally, we headed back to the Budget rental site outside the Los Angeles airport, where EV Rental Cars is based, to turn the EV1 in for the last time. With two bars left on the gauge and four picked up during recharging, and 100 miles showing on the trip odometer, this worked out to around 80 miles per full charge (and of course, the NiMH variants of the car got even more, up to twice this). Looking at all the gasoline vehicles parked in this lot, the vast majority of which would have been used (even in Los Angeles) for relatively short distances each day, it just makes me want to bang my head against a wall to think that this beautiful, efficient vehicle is regarded by most as an impractical toy!

GM Advanced Technology Center

A week or so later I drove my natural-gas van to GM's Advanced Technology Center, on Electric Vehicle Drive in Torrance. On the window out front, they still had stickers boasting of the EV1 and the electric S-10 pickup; I wonder how long it will take them to scrape those off, and change the name of the street.

Chargers at GMATC

Out front, where I first saw a Toyota Prius parked next to two EV1s four years ago, two of the four public EV chargers were disabled, with their charging connectors entirely missing, and the other two had cobwebs on them. [Note added 21 January 2006: the chargers have now been removed, and the window stickers mentioned above as well; the street sign still reads "Electric Vehicle Drive."]

eGO Cycle at gas station

I don't want to end this report on too much of a down note, though: I came up with a consolation prize a couple of weeks later. My daily commute is seven miles round trip, and since I'm usually too disorganized to catch the bus and too lazy to ride a bike (never mind that I could use the exercise!), I have been driving most days in my van, using just under one gasoline-gallon-equivalent (GGE) of CNG each day to haul two tons of metal with me. For several years I've been looking at electric scooters (20-25 MPH mopeds, usually with Vespa-like styling, not 10-15 MPH motorized skateboards like the Zappy that resemble a "Razor"), but the price tags started at $2500 and went up from there. Well, for the last couple of years eGO Vehicles has been making an electric moped that has been very well reviewed; they start at $1399, but recently they have been running a "back to school" sale with the price cut to $999, and they even have a few reconditioned factory and demo models (from the previous year) for $699, or half price! My wife and I calculated that, given my van's low around-town fuel economy (I have pushed 30 miles per GGE on the open road, but that's another story!), the scooter would pay for itself in two or three years, so I grabbed one and have been riding it most days since. Here it is parked at a local gasoline station, under a sign showing gas prices at historical highs, even worse than the peaks this spring and two years ago (not adjusted for inflation, but close to historical highs even accounting for that!). One of these could pay for itself even more quickly for you, if you're paying this kind of money instead of fifty cents less for CNG...

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new 2 September 2003, revised 21 January 2006