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The all-electric car: still an idea ahead of its time


In 1996, a documentary film was released called ‘Who killed the electric car’. General Motors had introduced the EV1 in small numbers in California in 1996, with encouragement from the State Government, which was looking for ways to reduce air pollution. It was the first modern electric car produced in any quantity and was available only on a lease basis. According to the film, the car was popular with customers, but GM (allegedly in collusion with the oil industry and supporters of the use of hydrogen fuel cells) deliberated conspired to ensure its demise. At the end of the lease period, most of the vehicles were destroyed and customers were not allowed to buy them.

The car in question was powered by lead-acid batteries (later, somewhat lighter metal hydride ones were used), weighed 1,400 kg but was still only a two-door, two-seater ‘sub-compact’ car in US terminology. The weight was comparable to that of other cars, but much of the vehicle was made from aluminium and plastics to compensate for the batteries. Range was given as 70-100 miles, increased to up to 140 miles when the NiMH batteries became available, but there is no record of what users found in practice.

General Motors cancelled the EV1 program in 2002, by which time 1,117 vehicles had been produced. Because they could not provide spares or backup, they refused to sell cars to what were reported to be 58 lessees who promised to take them without placing any obligations on the manufacturer. The problem was that the cars were used in California and were enthusiastically taken up by some people in the media. The high profile publicity did little for GM’s image and a handful of enthusiasts had a very significant impact. It may have been a rational business decision, but was a public relations disaster. For those who would like more information on the EV1, Wikipedia has quite a full account (General Motors EV1).

There have been similar stirrings in America more recently. Tesla Motors, co-founded by Elon Musk (who also founded SpaceX and co-founded PayPal), launched its Roadster model in 2008. A sports car, this was the first production model to use lithium ion batteries and have a range of more than 200 miles. But its base price is $109,000 and fewer than 2,500 have been sold (across 31 countries). Although partially overcoming the range issue, it is very much a toy for the better-off.

More important for the company in the longer term, therefore, is the Model S, a four-door saloon which has been available in the USA since June last year. Initial deliveries were of limited edition models, using an 85 kWh battery pack, and claimed to deliver 265 miles between charges, but still costing around $100,000. Base models, with a range of 160 miles, start at $59,000. While still hardly a mass market car, this new model does seem to fit into the high-end category occupied by the likes of BMW and Mercedes.

Unfortunately for the manufacturers, they had some bad publicity via a test drive by a New York Times reporter (Stalled out on Tesla’s electric highway). Having installed two fast charging stations (giving a full charge in an hour) on Interstate 95, Tesla had in principle made it possible to drive from Washington to Boston. In the event, even turning the heater off and driving relatively slowly did not extend the range sufficiently; after parking overnight, the car eventually needed towing to a charging point before the journey could be completed.

This performance was obviously compounded by the low temperatures at the time, but the loss of range was clearly far greater than the 10% the manufacturers claim. Tesla dispute the facts about this journey, but it does highlight the fact that, impressive as the new car is in many ways, electric vehicles are not yet ready to go mainstream. In America, fast charging points are only available in California and more recently on the east coast. Sales of more affordable models are hardly buoyant  Even in Europe, generally more enthusiastic about green issues, uptake has been slow at best (Electric cars miss targets globally; Better Place sputters in Green-Conscious Denmark). Recent figures for the UK showed it on course for sales of no more than 2,000 units in 2012, based on applications for government grants (Electric car sales accelerated in 2012).

Perhaps at some stage electric motors will take over from the internal combustion engine, but that day still seems very distant until some major barriers are overcome. First, they must provide a comparable range to conventional cars of a similar price. Second, there must be some way in which batteries can be recharged rapidly or, even better, exchanged, to give something approaching the flexibility of current vehicles. The second one is by no means trivial: a massive infrastructure has to be put in place with sufficient capacity to allow acceptably short turn-round times at garages. Enthusiastic early adopters may be happy to wait an hour or more to continue their journey, but this would be enough to kill electric cars for the mass market.

If both barriers could be fully overcome, a large increase in electricity generation capacity (and grid upgrades) would be needed to supply the power. Unless this was low carbon, electric cars would make little sense. Unless this was nuclear, low-carbon electricity would not be available on demand. In the meantime, it looks likely that motor manufacturers will concentrate on the much more competitive hybrid sector, leaving the all-electric car to evolve in future if the technology is right and the market accepts it. Politicians must learn again that setting targets and subsidising new technologies does not guarantee their success.