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GM Rolls Dice With Roll-Out of Electric Car

December 05, 1996|DONALD W. NAUSS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DETROIT — In November 1989, two months before the Impact electric car was unveiled at the Los Angeles Auto Show, General Motors ordered some film footage of the battery-powered vehicle cruising around an Arizona test track.

As the team of Southern California engineers that designed the teardrop-shaped prototype looked on, the Impact was wheeled out with a license plate that read: "The Future is Electric."

But before the cameras were allowed to roll, a frantic GM official ordered the removal of the plate. "He said, 'It's too strong a statement!' " recalled Alan Cocconi, an engineer who helped build and design the concept car.

Such equivocation has been the hallmark of GM's approach toward electric cars over the past decade as California first agitated for, and then demanded, zero-emission vehicles.

While the world's other major auto makers have held their electric vehicle cards close to the vest, GM has been center stage. But its on-again, off-again production stance amounted to a confusing public display of corporate schizophrenia.

So it is with equal parts surprise and skepticism that the world is again watching GM as it becomes the first major auto maker in nearly 80 years to build electric cars from scratch and sell them to the public.

With the flair of a Hollywood movie premier, GM's EV1--a sleek, $34,000 sports coupe derived from the Impact--is being delivered today to consumers at 24 Saturn dealerships in Southern California and Arizona. As the EV1 is driven off by the likes of actor Ed Begley Jr. and Baywatch star Alexandra Paul, GM is undertaking an ambitious push into a new era of automotive transportation.

The stakes are enormous. If the vehicle succeeds, the hegemony of the internal combustion engine could be broken. Gas-powered cars will be with us for decades to come, but EV1 could legitimize a whole new approach with vast potential for cleaning the air and easing the need for oil. It could also lead to a wave of alternative-fuel vehicles using fuel cells, flywheels, ultracapacitors and other technologies still under development.

"This has the potential of being a revolutionary step," declared John Dunlap III, chairman of the California Air Resources Board.

If the EV1 bombs--and there is no shortage of doubters--it could relegate the electric car to the compost heap of history once and for all, while setting back alternative-fuel vehicle development for decades.

"It's not the right time or technology," said Lester Berriman, head of Drivers for Highway Safety, a small group of California engineers expert in auto issues. "It could kill electric vehicles for the future."

For California, the arrival of the electric car is a vindication of a controversial regulatory gamble--mandating zero-emission vehicles as a way to solve the state's severe air pollution problem. Even though the mandate was pushed back last year from 1998 to 2003, state regulators can now point to the EV1 as proof that electric car development has been advanced by their prodding.

For GM, the EV1 has been a catalyst for change. It provides GM, whose innovations have ranged from the automatic transmission to the catalytic converter, an opportunity to recapture the crown as a technology leader lost to the Japanese in the 1970s and 1980s. The vehicle also has been a laboratory for changing GM's corporate culture--from that of an arrogant, stodgy behemoth producing clunky cars to a leading-edge company open to new ideas and technologies.

Most important, the EV1 is an opportunity to learn whether the public wants such a machine. Consumers ultimately will decide the future of electric vehicles by their willingness to buy them despite their initial, and sizable, limitations.

Of course, GM, which invested $350 million in the EV1, is not the only auto maker scrambling to position itself for an electric future. Its U.S. competitors, and auto makers in Japan, Europe and Korea, are deep into electric vehicle development as California regulators tinker with their zero-emission deadlines into the 21st century.

Toyota recently doubled its research budget for alternative-fuel vehicles to $800 million a year. Chairman Shoichiro Toyoda predicts that in the next few years, if electric car costs can be cut in half, sales will take off.

"We seem to be on the verge of a technological revolution," Toyoda said.

To its credit, GM is first off the mark. The traditionally lumbering, insular auto giant went outside its walls to find inspiration, then returned to Detroit where some in-house dreamers brought it to life. The birth was long and hard. The EV1 was kept alive even when GM's own survival seemed in question. And it was shaped by the rugged crucible of California's environmental politics.

"It stands as a triumph of the visionaries," says Roland Hwang, transportation project director for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Back to the Future

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