Illustration of GM's 1966 Electrovan Hydrogen HybridEnlarge Photo
I laugh when I read bloggers' comments about General Motors being incapable of being able to engineer an electric vehicle. These folks diss GM for not being innovative. They diss GM for making money while building trucks and SUVs that American's wanted to drive. They write off GM as just being plain stupid.
Being from Detroit and knowing these companies as I do, I have a different take. To agree with the above, one has to ignore history that readily available to be studied and honestly parsed.
Responding to comments from intellectual luminaries like David Letterman about General Motors being inept, GM Global Electric Vehicle Development Executive, Frank Webber responded "There seems to be in the minds of many some sort of inherent conflict between being a large, traditional automaker and the ability to develop cars of the future. I couldn’t disagree more with that sentiment, and GM is on a mission to prove it. ...At GM, we have a level of product research, testing and development as well as a supplier network that is unmatched. When you consider the very real distribution, volume and quality issues some of the smaller start-ups have experienced, it’s hard for me to see how they are better equipped than us to deliver the volumes necessary for real change."
Consider some of the truths in Webber's comments: How many vehicles has Tesla Motors delivered? I'd wager that there have 10x as many articles written about Tesla than the some 400 cars they've delivered. Fisker Automotive doesn't even have vehicles for sale yet. So looking at the two big players in the American electric vehicle market, their net contribution is about 400 units in an automotive sector that is still running at over 9,000,000 units per year.
In other words, bit players get plenty of attention, but have yet to make a difference in the real world.
On the other hand, GM has made, and will continue to make a difference in terms of technology, and eventually, on the mass market itself.
Will GM's electric EV1 ever match up to its gas counterparts?
Regarding GM's technical prowess, consider the EV1. Certainly destroying them was a gargantuan PR blunder, but no one can dispute the technical leadership those cars represented. Unfortunately, at a cost to build estimated at $80,000 in 1990s money, it was too expensive to produce at a profit (the reason GM is in business, remember).
Battery array under the hood of the 1966 Chevrolet Electrovair II
But the EV1 isn't GM's only example of being a technological leader. If you ever have a chance to stroll through the GM Heritage Collection, you'll find the 1965 Electrovair II, a fully electric, highway-capable battery powered Corvair. There's also the 1966 Electrovan, an electric-hybrid that generated it's own power using liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. This was the world's first hydrogen-powered vehicle.
No, I guess GM is incapable of innovating....
Unfortunately, these vehicles from the 1960s weren't economically competitive to produce, so they weren't. (Say it again with me, "GM is in business to make money.")
Lyle Dennis with the Chevy Volt Test MuleEnlarge Photo
For the most recent proof that GM is capable of building a meaningful, practical, and affordable electric vehicle, check out everything we have published on the 2011 Chevrolet Volt. My gut is that once the Volt goes into production, it will sell at rates that will be the envy of Tesla and Fisker, thus making a real impact in the market.