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Best-Kept Secret in Detroit: The Development of GM's Electric Car

November 10, 1996|DONALD W. NAUSS | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Nauss is a Times staff writer who covers the auto industry in Detroit

On March 8, 1994, a small group of General Motors Corp. engineers was called together for a meeting in a small office in Troy, Mich. Entering the room, it saw a 20-foot banner that read, "Making Automotive History Together--It's Electric." Ken Baker, GM's vice president of research and development, told the engineers that after 3 1/2 years of starts and stops, the Impact electric vehicle program was on again. The car would be built.

But, he said, the project would have to remain secret. This would avoid tipping off competitors, but more important, it would increase GM's chances of killing California's electric vehicle production mandate. So it would be a "black program."

In Baker's words, it would "run silent, run deep."

It turned out to be one of the best-kept secrets in Detroit history. Not until last January--a month after California regulators agreed to relax the mandate--did GM Chairman John F. Smith Jr. reveal that the company would begin selling the first purpose-built electric vehicle in modern times. The EV1, the production version of the Impact concept car, will be sold in Southern California and Arizona beginning in December.

How the EV1 became a reality after years of ups and downs is the subject of Michael Shnayerson's "The Car That Could." At the same time, it is a much broader story--one that touches on the financial turmoil and boardroom intrigue of one of the world's largest companies, the interplay of politics and government policy on corporate decision making, and the personalities of ambitious executives with ample egos.

Shnayerson, a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, was given unlimited access to the team charged with taking the Impact from concept to production. Over four years, he sat in on secret planning sessions and conducted 275 interviews with top engineers and others.

The book contains a rich collection of anecdotes and previously undisclosed information. Though the material is dense at times, it largely avoids the techno-babble that only engineers can understand. The story is told through the eyes of an intriguing cast of characters: Alan Cocconi, the brilliant Southern California engineer who developed the power electronics for the Impact; Stanley Ovshinsky, self-promoting inventor who teamed up with GM to produce an advanced battery; and Bob Purcell, a philosopher-mechanic turned corporate strategic planner who is charged with making a business out of electric vehicles.

The book recounts the well-chronicled tale of the Impact's beginnings, which evolved from a solar racing car. Some of its technology was used for an electric vehicle developed in a super-secret operation headed by a ragtag team of Southern California engineers. Then-GM Chairman Roger Smith was so impressed with the vehicle that he unveiled it at the 1990 Los Angeles Auto Show and several months later promised to produce it by the mid-1990s.

Baker, a career GM engineer, was tapped to produce the Impact. He had overseen GM's aborted 1970s effort to build an electric version of the Chevrolet Chevette and was skeptical of signing on again. But again he jumped into the job with passion.

It was a difficult one. Baker's engineers found that much of the Impact was not workable and would have to be redesigned. They had to find ways to decrease the vehicle's weight and costs. Progress was often disrupted by infighting among GM subsidiaries, particularly between Hughes and Delco Electronics, which were jealous of each other's involvement or technology.

While the Impact was moving to production in late 1992, GM was headed for financial disaster and the electric vehicle program was in jeopardy. Indeed, the program was shelved after the boardroom coup that resulted in Robert Stempel's resignation and John F. Smith Jr.'s ascension to chief executive.

To the outside world it appeared that GM had given up on electric vehicles. But that wasn't quite the case. Baker was given approval to create 50 vehicles for test purposes and to pursue a possible joint venture with Ford and Chrysler.

The mating dance of the Big Three is one of the more intriguing accounts of the book, providing a glimpse at how competitive and distrustful the Detroit auto makers are of one another. Both GM and Ford learned that they were working on a conversion electric vehicle based on the same Mitsubishi minivan. But neither could overcome their mistrust of the other enough to cooperate on a joint venture.

As GM's finances improved, however, some of the top leaders began to push electric vehicles as a way for the company to recapture the technological leadership position it once held. The belief was that if GM could get in the marketplace first, it could seize a leadership position and set the standards for the industry.

But publicly, GM appeared schizophrenic at best on electric vehicles. While it said it was committed to building electric cars, it opposed any mandates--either in California or the Northeast. Indeed, as it pushed forward on development, it increased efforts to repeal the mandate.

This book is a good read. Anyone interested in the future of electric vehicles and the auto industry will find plenty to contemplate here. Be warned, however, that it is written from the point of view of an electric vehicle believer.

For Californians who have an unwavering suspicion of Detroit, the book offers an insightful look into the operations of a far-flung organization. GM is not the monolith that some might think. The engineers developing electric cars are often as chagrined at the decisions of their corporations as outsiders. And those decisions are not always as sinister as they appear.

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