COMPETITION FOR THE EYE OF CAR-SAVVY CALIFORNIANS WAS INTENSE THAT JANUARY WEEKEND in 1990. Amid the flashing neon and leggy models at the Los Angeles Auto Show, all the world's manufacturers had paraded out a stream of futuristic concept cars. * There was a snazzy Porsche fastback powered by a gutsy 250-horsepower engine. A speedster with wet-suit upholstery that could be hosed out after a trip to the beach. A topless beach car with a radio that doubled as a portable boombox. A sedan equipped with video cameras instead of rearview mirrors. * But none attracted the crowds like the unassuming silver coupe displayed under the blue-and-white General Motors logo. Eager for a look at the car named the Impact, auto show patrons lined up around the velvet ropes. How much is it? How fast does it go? Does it really work? When can I buy it? * John Williams was amazed by the reaction. The then-manager of advanced engineering at GM's Chevrolet-Pontiac-Canada group had flown in from Detroit to gauge the public's interest. He had never before seen the Impact, but as he boarded the jet for Los Angeles he thought, "No big deal. Just another concept car." In his 25 years at General Motors, Williams, then 42, had seen many such cars come and go, and he knew most were just fantasy machines for repressed engineers. * Williams and his colleagues had become almost numb to the ridicule of Californians who think GM stands for Generally Mediocre. Walking past all the Hondas, Toyotas and BMWs in the convention center's parking lot, he was painfully reminded that the ailing, stodgy old man of the auto industry has one of its smallest market shares--24%--in California, the car capital of the world. * Yet, to his surprise, here was a GM prototype that had captured the imagination of this discerning crowd. The Impact, a two-seater with a sleek teardrop shape, fascinated people not for the amenities it had, but for what it didn't have: no engine. No fuel. No exhaust. No transmission. No muffler. And it would never need a tuneup or a smog check.
To satisfy his own curiosity, Williams pored over the car's engineering specs. He learned that the simple little car had broken one longstanding technology barrier after another, from its horsepower to its battery range. The more he read, the more he wondered: Had the electric car finally come of age?
Three months later, in celebration of the 20th anniversary of Earth Day, Roger Smith, then-chairman of the automotive giant, made an announcement that startled the global automobile industry. General Motors vowed that the first mass-produced electric cars would roll off its assembly lines by the mid-1990s, with the inaugural batches headed for smoggy Southern California.
MANY PEOPLE--INCLUDING SOME WITHIN ITS OWN CORPORATE RANKS--WONDER WHAT KIND OF insanity has gripped the world's No. 1 auto maker. The prototype, the Impact, wasn't even conceived or built by GM's own staff but by a bunch of mavericks in the San Gabriel Valley who had never made a real car before. Why would General Motors, notorious for its ultraconservatism, invest tens of millions of dollars--eventually hundreds of millions--in an electric vehicle at the same time it was suffering its worst corporate losses in history? Its electric-vehicle team has remained virtually unscathed in the midst of a fiscal rampage in which GM plans to shut down 21 plants and eliminate 74,000 jobs to try to recover from its $4.5-billion 1991 loss.
Yet the decision wasn't really so rash. The stakes in the electric-car business rose when, in September, 1990, California adopted the world's toughest automobile-emissions standards. Beginning in 1998, 2% of all major manufacturers' cars sold in California (or about 40,000 cars) must be emissions-free, increasing to 10% by 2003. Auto makers have a strong incentive to make the electric cars efficient and priced to sell; if they fail to meet the mandates, they will be prohibited from selling any cars in California.
At GM's sprawling, campuslike Tech Center in the Detroit suburb of Warren, a high-spirited but anxious team of more than 200 men and women is racing to meet the company's goal of being first to market. Other auto manufacturers around the world are now rushing to catch up, most keeping their progress a closely guarded secret. So far, Ford and Chrysler are concentrating their electric-car efforts on vans, to be marketed to businesses that operate fleets of cars.
The GM team is wrestling with engineering challenges entirely new to the auto industry as it prepares to manufacture its electric cars at a shut-down Buick plant in Lansing, Mich. The team members are busily fine-tuning such quirky details as how to display the amount of battery power available, where to bolt the front license plate so it doesn't spoil the crucial aerodynamics and how to minimize the crunch of the tires on gravel since the car runs silently, with no engine to mask outside sound.