to once-stringent air-quality mandates, General Motors designed
a battery-powered, exhaust-free car called the EV1—only
to quietly pull the plug and cover up its growing demand
consider myself a reasonable man. As such I tend to expect
others to behave with a modicum of reason and common sense.
Especially those with power. It was with this perspective
in the spring of 2001 that I watched in shock as 30 years
of environmental protection were being methodically dismantled.
From the Clean Air Act to the Clean Water Act to global-warming
initiatives; you name it, it was being killed. As my shock
plummeted into a sense of powerlessness, my gaze drifted
past the porch rail and landed with a thud on our family
car. A big, fat, gas-guzzling SUV. Just sitting there taunting
Like a slap I realized I was one of them. The UNreasonable
ones. So I made a decision. A radical decision. I decided
to go electric. I had seen those sleek, sort of George Jetson
EV1s shoot by me with surprising speed on the freeways.
I thought, fine, I’ll get an EV1. But as I lifted the phone
to make the call, I had no way of knowing that this simple,
reasonable act was my first step into the electric-car wars.
In 1990, California found itself in danger of losing federal
highway funds if it couldn’t find a way to meet air-quality
targets set by the Clean Air Act. As the California Air
Resources Board searched the hazy landscape for relief,
its eyes landed on a prototype electric car coming out of
GM called the Impact, to which Johnny Carson cracked, “What’s
next, the Ford Whiplash?” So the Air Resources Board proposed
a mandate that by 1998, 2 percent of cars sold in California
would be zero- emission vehicles. By 2001 that would increase
to 5 percent. And by 2003 a whopping 10 percent of all new
automobiles sold in California would be emission free.
GM’s first response was to dive in. The company committed
millions of dollars and teams of designers and engineers,
who emerged six years later with a sleek rocket ship of
an electric car renamed the EV1. It then set out in search
of a sales team, one that was not only good at selling cars,
but that had the patience and passion to educate an interested
but suspicious public. It ended up with a group of men and
women in their 20s who were almost all single, determined
and enthusiastic about the electric car. GM titled them,
rather dryly, “EV specialists.”
By the time I met them five years later, they could be more
aptly called “the Subversives.” They were battered and bitter,
but fighting with almost religious fervor against GM, the
company that had recruited them, for the survival of the
The result of my call to Saturn, through which EV1s were
being sold, was a dismissive letter basically saying there’s
no way in hell you can get one of these cars. I was welcome
to join their waiting list, along with undisclosed others,
for an indefinite period of time, but my chances of getting
a car were slim since they also informed me that they weren’t
planning to make any more.
That didn’t seem logical. If the cars were so great that
there was a waiting list, wasn’t that a good thing? Didn’t
the waiting list suggest a market, especially if it were
a long list? (I would find out later it was a few thousand.)
Clearly I needed to learn more, so I decided to pull whatever
strings I had.
The first string led to actor-director Hart Bochner, an
enthusiastic EV1 owner, who immediately hopped into his
car and came whirring up to my house for a test-drive. The
first thing you notice with one of these cars is what’s
missing. There’s virtually no sound. Just the slight hum
and quiet clicks of the brakes. Second, there’s no exhaust.
No fumes come wafting by like a wake chasing a motorboat.
Then, when you get behind the wheel, there’s no lag between
pedal and power, and boy, does this car have power. With
no gears to complicate acceleration, you get that launched
sort of feeling, a childish giddiness the Subversives called
“the EV smile.”
After a brief but invigorating spin around the neighborhood,
we hummed to a stop in front of my house. Hart bounced out
of the car like an Amway salesman, pamphlets in hand, already
well into his pitch about how hard these cars are to get
and how frustrated he was that GM and the oil lobby were
trying to kill the EV1.
wait a minute,” I said. “I guess I can understand why the
oil lobby would try and kill it, but why GM?”
don’t know,” he said, “but they are.”
When GM first launched the EV1, it was to mixed reviews.
The cars were expensive, the infrastructure was minimal,
there were constant breakdowns and, worst of all, the advertised
range of 70 to 90 miles per charge was in reality about
As one of the Subversives put it, “They had this battery
pack that was worthless. And they knew it from the get-go.
I mean, why were we releasing this car, with these batteries,
when we knew it didn’t meet our specifications?”
Needless to say, the reaction from consumers was chilly.
By March 1997, the cars were stagnating on showroom floors
and GM was making more vehicles than it was leasing. So
after the initial batch of 648 Generation I cars, GM shut
down the assembly line.
The Subversives, who all had high expectations for the EV1
and its potential to change the automotive landscape, also
had a deep distrust of GM. So when GM shut down the plant,
the Subversives, who didn’t feel that the company had given
the car a chance to succeed, dug in their heels, and the
The Subversives designed, printed and distributed their
own brochures, took over all event marketing from the company
GM had hired, and decided to go after their celebrity customers,
who they knew would talk about the car publicly.
Subversive No. 1: “We knew we had to show GM the product
they were asking us to sell was worth making. But we knew
at some point GM was going to get behind this. It had to.
It was just too great a car.”
By the spring of 1999, the Subversives had done it. They
had leased all 648 cars. And word was getting out, with
requests for cars starting to flood in. Still, GM didn’t
reopen the plant. The Subversives got frustrated.
Subversive No. 1: “We had leased every car we had. We were
begging for more. GM would say, ‘If there’s demand we’ll
build you more cars.’ We’d say, how do you, GM, define demand?
Tell us what you want and we will give it to you. How many
Subversive No. 2: “We were on the front line, talking to
the people who wanted the cars. GM would say, ‘We don’t
see the demand is there.’ The fact that 10 new people committed
to leasing a car today was anecdotal to them. I mean, how
could we determine if there was or wasn’t a market if there
wasn’t enough product to sell those present buyers?”
With no more cars to sell and demand rising, the Subversives
took the initiative and started a waiting list. Hart gave
me the name and number of “the insider,” the EV specialist
I would have to talk to if I had any hope of getting a car.
She turned out to be a woman named Deborah Anthony, a bright,
cheery, likable person who always spoke as if she had a
secret. In fact, as I got to know the Subversives, I found
they all spoke that way. She told me it was a long shot,
but she’d see if anyone in Detroit was a fan of mine from,
say, thirtysomething or some other project. I laughed.
Then I realized she was serious.
For the next two months, I badgered and begged Deborah for
my car, peppering her with questions about why these cars
were so hard to get, why GM wasn’t making more, didn’t they
see there was a market? Her responses were patient but cryptic:
Always the company line, but with a telling tone of voice
or random comments that would slip out. Never the words
but the music: parts unsaid that left me feeling this ship
I was trying to board was well on its way to sinking.
Finally, one afternoon she called to tell me she had been
offered another job. She thought it wise to take it rather
than face the firing she was sure was right around the corner.
Firing? “Oh, yeah. For all of us.” Then quickly, “But don’t
worry. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get a car. In fact,
I have some good news, I think. People in Detroit are fans!
I think you’re going to get a car! Oh, and the person
replacing me? You’ll love her. Her name is Chelsea Sexton.
She’s even more passionate about the EV program than I am.”
And Chelsea Sexton was. A tall, willowy, kind of crunchy
woman, she assured me I’d get a car if she had to give me
hers. In spite of the downsizing, she was determined to
fight, and she so respected those of us like Hart, Ed, Ted,
Mel. . . . “Mel who?” I asked. “Gibson!” she replied. “Do
you know him?” Not wanting to jeopardize my chances of getting
a car, I said, “Oh, yeah,” as if we were good friends, even
though I’ve only met the man once or twice.
the way,” I said, “I’m not going to wake up one morning
abandoned, am I? With you and the rest of your support team
gone, a three-year lease on a prototype car with no support,
no one to fix it, no one to explain this thing’s behavior
when it doesn’t act like a normal car?” She just smiled
and with a tilt of her head said, “I’m not going anywhere.
They’re gonna have to drag me out kicking and screaming.
Plus, you guys are pioneers. You’re leading the way into
the future. I just love that.” Well, that was it. I wasn’t
going to let Hart or Mel be pioneers while I stayed back
with the herd.
By the fall of 1999, the Subversives were feeling optimistic:
There was talk of the much-improved Generation II EV1, which
featured an advanced battery. GM and the state of California
were starting to make headway with the infrastructure, placing
charging stations throughout the state, and subsidies were
kicking in, which brought the monthly lease payment in L.A.
county down to a reasonable $275 a month. But GM had a problem.
They had been able to persuade the Air Resources Board to
give them a pass on the 1998 2 percent requirement for zero-emission
cars as long as they could get 186 Generation II vehicles
on the road by the end of ’99. It was now November, and
after much delay, the cars had finally arrived; a year’s
worth that not only needed to be leased but on the road
by New Year’s Eve.
The Subversives dove in. They worked straight through Thanksgiving
and Christmas, 14- and 15-hour days, seven days a week.
They even came up with an incentive system where each hour
they would leave an update on their common voicemail so
that everyone knew what was going on.
Subversive No. 3: “You’d check your voicemail, and there
were like 10 deliveries that day. It was so exhilarating.
Especially because no one thought we could do it. Nothing
was going to stop us.”
And just hours before New Year’s, they leased and delivered
the last of the 182 cars. They were elated.
Subversive No. 2: “That was our most hopeful. We had real
But the silence from the top was deafening. Finally, GM’s
EV1 brand manager, Ken Stewart, sent out a letter: “I want
to personally thank you for the wonderful job. . . . Your
efforts and results were absolutely outstanding. . . . You
were a part of one of the highest performing teams I have
ever had the pleasure to work with.” The use of the word
“were” didn’t escape them.
Subversive No. 3: “We never knew if GM was really happy
that we delivered all those cars or if they were really
upset about it.” Then came the announcement that confirmed
their worst fears. GM announced it was going to make a total
of only 500 Generation II models and then it would once
again shut down the assembly line.
What was becoming clear to the Subversives, and anyone interested
in the future of the EV1, was that it only had a future
as long as there was a mandate. And the mandate was starting
to crumble. The 2 percent and 5 percent zero-emission requirements
had been eliminated entirely, and the 10 percent requirement
for 2003 could now include low-emission gasoline vehicles.
According to former California state Sen. Tom Hayden, this
was how GM played the game: “They embarked on a scheme of
apparent cooperation while concealing their complete disdain
for and resistance to mandated change. They didn’t flat
out say no; they complained that it would be very difficult.
Then they sought the extension and wanted to broaden the
definition from electric vehicles to low-emission vehicles.
All reasonable-sounding adjustments, at least in comparison
to saying no. In fact, this is the new way of saying no.
Deadlines have to be pushed back, not because we’re stalling
but because we’re cooperating. In fact, we’re happy to cooperate
with you. Then in the end, the ultimate trump card is, the
public doesn’t want it.”
On Feb. 23, 2001, GM filed suit against the state of California,
claiming that the production requirement involving electric
cars illegally ignored cheaper and safer options. For the
Subversives this was a knockout punch. The immensity of
what they had been up against suddenly registered.
Subversive No. 1: “The feeling among the group had been,
‘We can make them do this.’ How naive was that? We’re going
to make the biggest company in the free world do something
they don’t want to do. If we can just make a big enough
case and get enough visibility to the project.”
GM told the Subversives to stop taking names on the waiting
list and to not admit there ever was one, as GM’s primary
argument in the lawsuit claimed there was no demand.
It was now July 2001. Still no car. But in spite of the
delay, in spite of the shaky outlook for this car, I still
wanted one. Maybe it was because President Bush was still
assaulting the ecosystem, or maybe I just couldn’t let go
of the thrill I had felt driving Hart’s EV1.
So when I finally got the call, I was thrilled, I think.
On the other end of the line was a frenetically chirpy voice:
it’s Chelsea. They said yes! You’re getting a car. Well,
actually, you’re getting my car, which is the silver, what
you wanted right? . . . You’re actually getting my car because
I’ve been . . . well, ‘let go.’ But don’t worry, ‘cause
I’m not gone until the end of September, which will give
us plenty of time to set everything up. Oh, by the way,
they asked if you were interested in a shorter lease, two
years instead of three. I told them no. You definitely wanted
ah . . . of course,” I replied with as much confidence as
I could muster. Five months of trying, not only two but
now three EV specialists; this was a lot for even a tree-hugger
like me. This had gone from being illogical to being unreasonable.
It was time to call GM and find out what was going on directly
from Goliath’s mouth. The only name I had was EV1 brand
manager Ken Stewart. The only phone number, a general GM
listing in Detroit.
The operator answered after the second ring.
I’d like to speak with Ken Stewart please.” “Who’s calling?”
“Well, um, my name is Peter Horton and I’m writing about
the EV1. . . . “
please.” After a few moments, “Yes, he’d like you to call
Dave Barthmuss over at public relations.” “Dave who?”
B A R T . . .”
Dave Barthmuss was a polite, swizzle-stick of a PR man,
charming and direct without divulging very much.
Me: “Why did you guys decide not to continue with the EV1?
It’s such a great car.”
Dave: “The big issue was we could only lease about 700 cars
in the first four years.”
you only made 648 cars in the first four years. How could
you lease more if you didn’t make more?”
we had leased more, we would’ve made more.”
doesn’t sound like a very aggressive marketing approach.”
there had been a market, we would’ve been more aggressive.”
And so on. Finally he told me he had no problem letting
me talk to Ken.
I liked Ken. His opening statement was, “GM is still very
bullish on the tech side of this car. The more you learn,
the more gee-whiz there is in it. The problem is the batteries.”
Somehow the use of the phrase “gee-whiz” without irony made
me think he was a decent guy.
wrong with the batteries? The ones in my car seem to work
you know how much it costs to replace those batteries? A
but doesn’t it cost a lot to replace a transmission or an
engine in a traditional car?”
as much as you’d think. An engine’s only a couple hundred.”
because you mass-produce them?”
that and other factors.”
you mass-produced the batteries, wouldn’t their cost come
but we’re not.”
there’s no market. No one wants an electric car.”
And there it was. That pedal tone of a refrain. Is there
or is there not a market for this car?
when did GM lose faith in the EV1?”
haven’t lost faith in it. The problem is nobody wants it.”
about the waiting list?”
been told by some of your former employees there’s a waiting
list of a few thousand people.”
don’t have a waiting list. We have an information list.
People who are interested in the car.”
how do you know there’s no market if you’ve never mass-produced
it and launched it with comparable numbers and dollars to
other launches like, say, Saturn?”
there had been a market we would have.”
I took a deep breath.
in 1990, when [then-GM Chairman] Roger Smith proposed an
electric vehicle, GM’s plan was to produce 25,000 cars per
year. By 1996, when the car was finally ready, that number
had been reduced to 1,500 before you’d sold one car. Before
you knew if there was a market or not. What happened?”
A beat of silence. Then, “You’re asking the wrong question.”
were so many duties for the customer above and beyond turning
the key. Getting a 220-volt electric line and box put in
your house, which meant city permits. . . .”
He then went on to talk about “days supply of vehicles”
and “share of voice versus share of market,” and as he spoke
I realized I wasn’t going to get a satisfactory answer from
Ken Stewart or Dave Barthmuss or anyone at GM on when or
why they lost faith in the EV1. Why they put so much money
and effort into creating such an extraordinary automobile
and then turned around and slowly choked the life out of
it. Finally, he stopped and hesitantly asked, “So what’s
your take on this?”
What’s my take? That’s a very good question. I know one
thing for sure; it’s complicated. Some have said that GM
made the EV1 to prove electric cars won’t work. Ken Stewart’s
response is, “If that was our aim we never would’ve made
such a great car.”
And he’s got a point. These days, as I slide behind the
wheel of my EV1 and set off to navigate the streets of Los
Angeles, environmental and political aspects get lost in
the sheer aesthetics and excitement of the drive. It truly
is a great car.
So what happened? Was there really no market? As former
GM CEO Robert Stempel said when I reached him at his new
job at Energy Conversion Devices, which manufactures batteries
used in electric vehicles, “We all know it takes some time
for a new product to catch on. Especially if it’s something
as new and radical as the EV1. I mean, Saturn wasn’t a moneymaker
when it first came out. But after some time and good marketing,
it’s become profitable.”
Time and good marketing. The EV1 was launched in December
1996 and production stopped in March 1997. Only four months.
And the marketing was hardly on the level of Saturn.
Tom Hayden: “Our mistake in the beginning was believing
that by mandating it, making it necessary and giving them
incentives to make it profitable, they would do it. We were
mandating an unwilling party. Unwilling in the deepest sense.
Unwilling to make a profit off an electric car because of
an unwillingness to embrace the notion.”
Greg Hanssen, a former EV1 owner, explains: “GM, I think,
feels they got burned somehow. They felt that they put out
the vehicle and there wasn’t enough support for it, and
the thought of building 100 times as many, then facing the
marketing, trying to educate consumers about this type of
vehicle, was just scary to them.”
Scary? Somehow we don’t usually assign such human emotions
to large corporations. But then again, maybe that’s the
point. Maybe it is too much to ask a corporation that thrives
on the bottom line to take on the monumental financial risk
of educating consumers, of teaching us to be smart about
our dependence on foreign oil and to do what’s best for
our planet and ourselves.
Maybe they’re right: If we don’t demand it, they shouldn’t
build it. Then again, what if they had? What if they had
followed through on Roger Smith’s dream? What if they had
truly presented us with the alternative? Would we have come
along? Would there have been a market?
Unfortunately, we will never know. Now as I drive through
Los Angeles and see the various hybrids and hear about the
demise Toyota’s electric RAV4 and about the inevitable fuel-cell
vehicles, I can’t help but feel the electric-car wars are
over. Somehow in this story, Goliath won.
Or did he? From my new EV specialist, Rob Randall (who sounds
like a character out of Braveheart): “Today, with
the Panasonic batteries, carpool lanes, free parking at
meters, the infrastructure, the subsidies . . . if we could
start over again today with all that, we’d change the world.”