Why GM should remember the fate of the EV1

The upcoming launch of the Chevrolet Bolt EV got me to think back to when I test drove a GM EV1 two-seat electric car in the summer of 1998, when I was the transportation writer for the Orlando Sentinel newspaper.

Humming along at 70 mph on Interstate 4 in a quick, noiseless and vibrationless electric car that used no petroleum and that had air conditioning and power steering –and everything else found in a normal car — had me feeling like George Jetson. The car felt so right. I was convinced the future was electric. There was no car in the world like the EV1 at the time.

My respect for GM as an engineering organization that could mass produce the EV1 was off the charts back then. But GM’s leadership, focused only on dollar signs and not corporate image, didn’t have the foresight to see very far down the road. And the EV1, available for lease in just two states, California and Arizona, ended production in 1999, after slightly more than 1,100 units were built.

The last time I saw more than one EV1 in one place at the same time was in an Arizona desert about a decade ago. I was at GM’s old proving grounds in Mesa test driving some new model. The dusty EV1s were crushed and stacked on each other like trash.

That floored me.

As a guy who believed in that car and the potential of its technology, I couldn’t believe GM could do such a despicable thing to what I considered a marvel. It eroded my last vestiges of confidence that GM knew its customers at all.

GM officials — fired, retired and current — have said killing the EV1 was one of the worst decisions the company ever made.

Had GM nurtured the seeds it planted with the EV1 and continued to improve its technology, the company probably would have not been embarrassed two years later by the Toyota Prius and later by Tesla Motors.

Mark Reuss, GM’s current head of product development, noted in a Facebook post today — responding to this blog — that GM is made up of people.

“The people who make GM change over time,” he wrote. “Many leave, many come, many have seen many times. The people who let EV1 perish are not here. The people who make Volts, Bolts, etc are here engineering and making them. While we work for an entity or holding company which is similar — the people who define the entity are completely different. Time to think of GM as who it IS, not who it WAS. We are not an “IT.”

Second chance:

Indeed, Reuss and GM’s current management team have a shot at claiming a leadership position in the electric-car market — a chance to atone for the EV1 blunder — with the Bolt. This is GM’s first purpose-built regular production electric car since the EV1 17 years ago.

On paper, at least, the Bolt looks like a winner. It can go 238 miles on a single charge, further than some versions of the Tesla Model D. The Bolt can be bought for around $30,000 after tax rebates — a figure that is considerably less than the average new-car transaction price of $34,313 in August, according to Kelly Blue Book.

I have hopes that the Bolt won’t suffer the same fate as the EV1, even if the battery powered five-door doesn’t light up the sales scoreboard. Times have changed. GM is not the same company it was in the 1990s in thousands of ways. And when it comes to alternative-energy vehicles, GM has already demonstrated that it won’t pull the plug if sales fall below estimates.

Rolling up their sleeves:

The Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid is a good example of GM not repeating the mistakes of the EV1. The first-generation Volt didn’t sell as well as GM had hoped and the company could have been justified with a one-and-done strategy.

But instead of folding its tent, GM engineers rolled up their sleeves and went to work making the second-generation Volt better in every respect. The new Volt is faster, lighter, far more efficient and less expensive than the original. That’s progress, the kind that would have come had the EV1 remained in production.

The second-generation Volt, which went on sale late last year, is putting up some of its strongest monthly sales numbers ever and, through September, is up nearly 72 percent this year to 14,295.

But, just to show you the gravity of making bad a decision, consider the sales numbers posted by Toyota Prius vs. the new Volt. In August, Toyota sold 12,984 Prius vehicles — down 27 percent from last August but still six times more units than the new Volt.

You can reach Richard Truett at rtruett@crain.com
C. Marco
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