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GM's first-generation electric car

March 12, 2000

The plug has been pulled, but the auto may leave an important legacy. A Little Car's Big Shadow Earlier this month, General Motors announced that it was, in effect, pulling the plug on the early model of its electric car, the EV1. Yet after all the ballyhoo--and the skepticism--that greeted the 1996 debut of this car, its demise is an occasion less for sadness than optimism. Shed no tears for that cute silver coupe. Its epitaph should not be just "good idea/flawed execution." Rather, as gas prices march to record highs and sales of guzzler utility vehicles hold strong, the short, troubled life of this first-generation commercial electric car may eventually cast a long shadow. The world's largest auto maker issued a warning this month that a defect in the recharging system of its original EV1 electric cars is a potential fire hazard. That hazard was so severe, GM said, that EV1 drivers should immediately garage their vehicles and wait for tow trucks to pick them up. Lessees were to be offered special deals on other GM cars--with gasoline engines, of course. Some 500 second-generation EV1s that became available for leasing in December are unaffected by the recall. Widely anticipated and years in development, the EV1 was hardly the runaway hit GM had hoped for. The cars were so pricey that GM offered them only for lease--starting at $350 monthly--rather than sale. The bulky battery left room for just two people, and the car had a limited range between recharging. Fewer than 1,000 motorists took the plunge, and only 450 of the first-generation cars were still operating when the recall was announced. California lawmakers pushed reluctant auto makers, GM among them, into the electric car market to comply with state requirements that small numbers of zero-emission vehicles be available for sale by 2003. Electrics--with no combustion engine, no fuel and no exhaust--are probably the only true zero-emission vehicles that will be road-ready by then. The EV1 was an object of curiosity as it glided by on the freeway. But it has proved to be more than that, providing some of the inventive spark for hybrid cars like the Honda Insight and the Toyota Prius, which combine a gasoline engine with an electric motor for exceptionally high gas mileage and very low emissions. Amid proposals to tap the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve or eliminate the federal gas tax, the EV1 reminds us that the best way to cope with soaring gasoline prices is through cars that use less gas--or none at all.

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