THE FUTURE AUTOMOBILE (Part 8) Juxtaposition
The Juxtaposition of Innovation and Legislation
GM Gets Caught-up in the Excitement
There were many factors that lead GM to embark on a plan to bring into being a production electric vehicle (EV). The government over the years had put a great deal of money behind experimental EVs and these experimental EV's were demonstrating capabilities that were looking as if they could be marketable as products. The awareness of electric vehicles, through the various contests taking place nearly everywhere, was growing rapidly. Talk of the upcoming World Solar Challenge was making news around the globe. Corporations and universities were developing teams to participate in electric endurance challenges such as solar car races and high-speed contests. There were even enthusiasts fervent enough to make electric dragsters. Advancements in equipment and the successes of amateurs with electric speed also rekindled the idea of attempting to go after land speed records with electric vehicles once again.
After a couple of decades of loosing market share to a growing list of foreign competitors, GM needed to differentiate itself from other car makers and revive its image. GM's executives felt it could do so by exploiting the enthusiasm of the time by getting involved with displays of innovation. Even though it was reluctant to do anything towards curbing its products impact on the environment, GM's executives felt that they could also hold environmental legislation at bay by demonstrating it could make a vehicle that wouldn't harm the environment as much. It felt it needed to make itself look like a company at least seeking environmentally friendly solutions to the pollution problems that its mainline products were producing. Also, having an electric vehicle in its line-up of products would give GM a strategic time advantage over its competition if others in the industry should suddenly decided that there was a market for such vehicles.
Paul MacCready in front of the Sunraycer
Both vehicles were produced by AeroVironment for GM.
GM decided that the change in the public's perception of the company should begin with its entry into the World Solar Challenge (WSC). Rather than using an in house advanced engineering group to do this, it instead hired Paul MacCready1 and his research and development company AeroVironment to do the business of making GM look innovative with Hughes corporation assisting.
Paul MacCready seems to live by the credo, "go big or go home." Not only did GM's entry, the Sunraycer, win the World Solar Challenge but it won arriving two days before the second place participant crossed the finish line. A media swarm ensued. The experience of being thought of as a technological innovator and leader seemed to energize all of GM. No longer was GM going to look like the giant lumbering and stumbling dinosaur of the previous two decades. GM's CEO Roger Smith had a feeling that the company's continuing troubles in the marketplace would overshadow their accomplishment of having won the World Solar Challenge. GM wanted to be associated with being an innovation leader. In order to develop this image further they needed to keep the good press coming. GM went back to AeroVironment and asked them to produce a prototype of an electric vehicle that would put GM at the cutting edge of the technology.2 AeroVironment created the Impact concept car, which stole the Los Angeles Auto Show in 1990.3 For months after the show it seemed that the automotive press could talk about nothing else. Again, GM looked like the future of the automobile industry and not the industry laggard that it had appeared to be in the 70s and 80s. Being exposed to the excitement that was generated by the Impact, upper management began to embrace the goal of making GM an innovation company. Soon after the LA Auto Show GM announced that it would put the Impact into production.
New California Legislation
Unfortunately for GM, the government of California was watching. For years the big three automakers had bellyached about California's stringent pollution standards. It constantly complained that it was impossible for them to produce cars that reduced emissions as much as California wanted and still make a profit. With the advent of the Impact, GM not only demonstrated that it could lower emission standards significantly, but that it could produce a car that had no emissions coming from it at all. So, in the same year as GM was celebrating its success with the Impact prototype, California's Air Resources Board (CARB) produced its now famous 1990 ruling commonly referred to as the Zero Emission Vehicle Mandate. The mandate required automakers to produce 2% of its entire fleet sold in California as ZEVs (Zero Emission Vehicles) by 1998, 5% in 2001 and to increase that number to 10% by 2003.4
The Automakers Unite Against CARB with the Unwitting Help of DOE
The Department of Energy and the big three automakers knew that for 100 years lead acid batteries were the only EV battery to survive the demise of the electric vehicle, and they convinced themselves that the lead acid battery was too big, too bulky and too heavy for effective use in any road worthy EV. What they felt they needed was a better battery, one lighter in weight, which could hold more electricity, would last longer and be made of inexpensive materials. In 1991 DOE consolidated its previous grant money for battery advancement into one pool, pushed through an exemption from anti-trust rules so the big three automakers could work together with DOE on an advanced battery, and created the United States Advanced Battery Consortium (USABC). The USABC was launched to produce the advanced battery that was needed to make EVs a viable option for automobile consumers.5
Ford was reluctant to join at first; it had begun development of an advanced battery using sodium-sulfur in 1960. After 30 years of refinements the automaker projected that it was finally reaching a producible, functional battery.6 However, the opportunity to communicate with the other automakers was too great a temptation and so Ford joined Chrysler and GM in the USABC, if only to learn what the other automakers were doing in this area. The meetings were mainly held by the department heads of the big three automaker's EV initiative programs, Ken Baker from GM, John Wallace from Ford and Jean Mallebay-Vacqueur form Chrysler.7 The first meeting of these three was unfortunately held immediately after the CARB mandate was announced.
GM, unlike the others, had a car being readied to meet the mandate that would operate using lead acid batteries, but would benefit greatly from a better battery. The others had previously made various models that were mainly conversions that they sold to utility companies. Ford, of course, had its sodium-sulfur battery. However, with the shock of the ZEV mandate announcement the meetings set up by DOE to help the big three coordinate the development of the next EV battery turned into something entirely different. Ford and Chrysler let it be known that they wanted to fight the mandate. Their strategy to kill the mandate was to comply with it in some minimal manner but work actively to get the law repealed before it reached the 10% ZEV level. Even with a vehicle being readied for the market, GM agreed with the strategy. They continued to coordinated their efforts through these meetings, meetings, I would like to remind you, that were set up by the government so that the big three could develop a battery to make the EV a reality. For GM this made for an unusual paradox of action. On the one hand it was working to produce a viable EV for the market, spending millions of dollars on its development, while on the other hand it was also spending millions of dollars together with Ford and Chrysler to have the mandate repealed and kill the government initiated incentive for its EV.
After two years of no real progress on a battery from the USABC and plenty of what seemed like collaborative effort on the part of repealing California law, DOE must have figured out that its dream team partnership of the big three automakers to produce the battery of the future was not working and the process may have actually been counter productive. In 1992 DOE decided that it would not put its 20 million dollar contribution into Ford's sodium-sulfur battery, but instead would put the entire amount behind a white haired, septuagenarian inventor named Stanford Ovshinsky. Ovshinsky was the pioneer behind amorphous and disordered materials that created new branches of physics and material science. Some time around 1983 Ovshinsky put into production the first consumer oriented nickel metal hydride (NiMH) batteries. For ten years his spectacular claims for his batteries were labeled as fantastic or untrue. There was even gossip that Ovshinsky may have been unstable in the mind, echoing the treatment of Nikola Tesla nearly a century earlier, however, Ovshinsky's batteries would, in the end, outperform even what seemed to be his most ambitious predictions for the battery's performance. To suddenly move its money from the consortium of major automakers to the largely unknown Ovshinsky, DOE must have realized that the advanced battery it had been looking to birth with the big three, had most likely come to life more than a decade earlier through Stanford Ovshinsky.
Stanford Ovshinsky holding his nickel metal hydride (NiMH) green battery.
Roger Stemple, GM's Chief Executive Officer before Roger Smith, became friends with Stanford Ovshinsky and did much to start the connection between the inventor and GM. When Stemple was fired from GM as its CEO he sought out and went to work for Ovshinsky, such was the promise of the new technology in Stemple's mind. GM, seeing an opportunity to get ahead of Ford's advanced battery technology quickly worked a joint venture deal with Stanford Ovshinsky to produce the batteries. However, GM again acts paradoxically, refusing to use the NiMH batteries in its soon to be produced Impact. Ovshinsky took GM's money but came to realize that GM's motives for buying into the company were not what he originally thought, which was to use his battery technology. In 1993 Ovshinky gave his first EV specific NiMH batteries to Chrysler instead of GM, which installed them in its newest version of its electric TEVan, the EPIC, a stylized electric conversion of its popular mini-van automobile.
GM continued to roll on with its Impact project, however, as it got closer to a production vehicle, it renamed it the EV1. In 1993 GM estimated that it would take 3 months to compile a list of 5,000 people who might possibly be interested in buying the EV1, but it took only 1 week to get 5,000 people to register and put themselves on the waiting list for the vehicle in California.
CARB Births an Industry
Bob Beaumont's AC powered Tropica now the color of Yasmine Bleeth's eyes
CARB (the California Air Resources Board) legislation sparked a groundswell of entrepreneurial automobile ventures. With that said the EV universe would not be complete without Bob Beaumont adding something to the EV galaxy. Remember Bob Beaumont, the intrepid creator and marketer of the CitiCar in the 1970s. He was back in the 1990s. Mr. Beaumont, seeing an opportunity to rectify all the errors of his past venture, put together a team of builders and designers in a new venture dubbed Renaissance Cars and began production in 1995 of the sexy, sporty, unbelievably cool EV called the Tropica powered by two 6.5" Advanced DC motors, and got it to market a full year before GM's EV1 was due for public release. After 12 cars, however, the venture went bust. Actor Don Johnson of Miami Vice fame together with other investors bought up the assets of the company, moved them to California, renamed the vehicle the Model Z and the company Zebra Motors, (later changed to Xebra Motors because of a trademark infringement). Don Johnson had one of the cars painted to match the color of Yasmine Bleeth's eyes and had her drive it on his new television show Nash Bridges.8 The new company produced only two more vehicles, largely from the test and production parts leftover from its initial production in Florida. It officially died in 2001 when its remaining assets were auctioned off.
California didn't just mandate innovative change, it worked to help attract investment in research and development in the EV production process to the state. In 1996 the EAA (Electric Automobile Association) helped institute CALSTART, a state sponsored incubator for EV research in Alameda, California.9
In 1996 GM began production of the EV1,10 however, GM severely restricted the market by limiting the distribution to leases only and only to California and Arizona. In 1997 Toyota offered the RAV4-EV through fleet leases nationally.11 That same year Honda began fleet leases of its EV+ to the New York Power Authority and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts,12 on top of its leases to residents of California. 13 A year later in 1998, Honda offered to lease the EV+ to consumers in the state of New York as well.
GM claimed that the demand for the vehicles never materialized, denying that a waiting list of people wanting to purchase vehicles ever existed. Grassroots groups and individual testimonials on the web attest to buyers being turned away from dealerships rather than being sold EV1s, a far cry from the claims that potential customers didn’t show up at all. The quote that follows from a reader to Car & Driver magazine is a typical example of what prospective consumers of electric cars faced when trying to purchase an electric car at the time. "I tried to lease an EV1 the first year they were offered. The dealer network could not locate for me a single one of the 'EV1s [supposedly] stacked up in inventory' that you mention [in your article]. I am still on the EV1 waiting list that GM says never existed."14 This scenario played out for consumers of Toyota's RAV4-EV, Honda's EV+ and other EVs of the period.
In come the Hybrids
1997 Toyota Prius hybrid gas-electric vehicle
In 1997 Toyota unveiled its Prius hybrid gas-electric vehicle at the Tokyo Auto Show15 and begins sales in Japan. Sales reached a respectable 18,000 vehicles, the entirety of its first year’s planned production run for 1997. In 1999 Honda beat Toyota by seven months to the U.S. market with its hybrid the Insight. The Insight of the time was a special 2-seater car made with an all aluminum body. Its label as a hybrid is somewhat dubious though, most of the superior gas mileage was from its lightweight materials, very small size, aerodynamics and extremely efficient minute gasoline engine. It only had a tiny two-inch thick pancake electric motor unable to move the vehicle on its own, but only able to assist it when accelerating, an electric motor that doubled as the starter motor, or maybe it is the other way around, a starter motor that doubles as a hybrid assist motor. The Honda Insight of this period was what would be called a mild hybrid. In 2000 Toyota entered the U.S. market with its Prius sedan.16 In 2002 Honda expanded its hybrid lines by offering the Civic Hybrid, its second commercially available hybrid to enter the United States.17 By 2002 Toyota's hybrids are far more successful than ever predicted. With pressure on emissions coming from California and at home in Japan, Toyota announces plans to convert its entire car line to hybrids by the year 2012.18
The After the Millennium Zag
AC Propulsion's tZero c.2003
In 2003 AC Propulsion's tZero advanced battery electric vehicle receives the highest grade in the Michelin Challenge, traveling 300 miles per charge, going 0 to 60 miles per hour in only 3.6 seconds, and averaging at speed of 100 mph.19
On January 25, 2001 CARB begins to weaken the ZEV Mandate. On March 5, 2003, a reconstituted CARB in California, under tremendous pressure from lawsuits by the auto industry, lawsuits supported by the administration of George W. Bush, amends the ZEV Mandate effectively killing it. The new ruling gives ZEV credits to manufacturers for cars that are not zero emissions vehicles, substitutes fuel-cell vehicles for targets previously occupied by battery electric vehicles and pulls back the number requirements for fuel-cell cars for the future years, such as making the 2009 requirement for fuel-cell vehicles now only 250 demonstration vehicles. This change in the mandate was crucially important since fuel-cell vehicles were used to reduce the number of battery electric vehicles required in the original mandate. The automakers argued that fuel-cell vehicles would be readily available in the near future; so pushing for battery electric vehicles was unnecessary. However when CARB was reconstituted the automakers pushed hard to have the requirements for fuel-cell vehicles reduced to demonstration levels only. 2003 should go down in the history books as one of the most infamous years for production electric vehicles. With the changes in the ZEV mandate the major automakers dropped their EV programs. Toyota stops production of the RAV4-EV, Honda stop lease renewals of the EV+, and GM recalls leased EV1s and begins to crush them.20 The 2nd major dead stop for battery powered vehicles since the 1980s happens again in 2003.
Listed below are some of the reasons the big three United States automakers gave for suddenly stopping the move to electric vehicles:
- The technology was not ready to meet the ZEV mandate
- There was no demand for battery electric vehicles
- The market should decide what vehicles the public will buy and not the legislature
- Fuel-cell vehicles are just around the corner and the automakers would rather put their money into developing fuel-cells than loosing money on battery electric vehicles
- Hybrids are a better interim step towards ZEVs that would give the industry time to develop ZEVs while still reducing emissions
Whatever the reasons given by the big three automakers, work towards ZEVs stopped and work on hybrids had never truly begun. There was one problem. Somebody forgot to tell Toyota that Hybrids were not to be built in any serious way either.
At first Honda's approach to hybrids was much like that of GM's approach to battery electric vehicles. It produced a 2-seater aluminum car. It limited production and limited distribution at first. However, the waiting list began to get rather long and Honda's facility was already in place, so Honda kept on producing the vehicle.
Toyota seems genuinely surprised at the stronger than normal sales of its hybrid, called the Prius. Even though Toyota lacked the super efficiency engine technology of Honda, its hybrid was a true hybrid. The gasoline engine and a 40-horse power electric motor were put in parallel. A "parallel hybrid -[is where] the electric motor can power the car by itself, the gas engine can power the car by itself or they can power the car together." 21 When going slow and in stop and go traffic the Prius travels in electric mode only, when traveling faster it operates the gasoline motor and when accelerating it uses both motors. Both the Insight and the Prius do not operate their gasoline motors when snarled in California's traffic, polluting less when the pollution savings are needed most, unlike conventional vehicles whose gasoline engines operate all the time even when stopped in traffic.
I often hear people refer to the Prius as the invention of the hybrid by the Japanese. However, the technological concept behind the hybrid was not a new one; its origins go back to Belgian, Henri Pieper's patent of 1900 and Frenchmen, Louis Antoine Krieger's production of the first hybrids in 1903. The Prius' actual drive train wasn't a Japanese invention either. The design was taken directly from Baruch Berman, Palos Verdes Peninsula, George Howard Gelb, Tsih C. Wang and Neal Richardson of TRW Inc. Power System's 1971 patent.24 A like design of the drive train had already been demonstrated in the DOE hybrid electric experimental vehicle the HTV-2 in 1978. The only real material difference between the HTV-2 and the Toyota, Prius was that the Prius used NiMH batteries invented by the American inventor Stanford Ovshinsky. Using Ovshinsky's NiMH reduced the size and weight of the battery pack to where it could be more easily hidden within the vehicle. Even the Prius' design and look came from designers in California. The genius of the Japanese automaker was the ability to recognize the value of innovations, such as those made in the United State but ignored, and manufacture and market them.
The second rendering of the Toyota Prius was marketed as being somewhere between a Toyota, Corolla and the Camry. The newer Prius, which looked almost the same as the first Prius, was deemed good enough for export and so in 2001 Toyota introduced the Prius for the first time to the United States. Sales for the Prius grew far beyond Toyota's expectations and the company had a hard time keeping up with demand for the vehicle. Toyota's upwardly adjusted sales figures woke them to the possibility that production volumes could reach those of their most popular lines. People were also willing to pay a premium for these cars. The added price premium paid for the added hybrid components. If sales reached levels to be more like one of their conventional vehicles, its costs would not be significantly more yet the premium would remain. With that insight into the future profitability of hybrid cars Toyota announces in 2002 plans to convert its entire line of automobiles to hybrids by 2012.22 Toyota's success with its hybrid technology made every other automaker on the planet take notice. Japanese companies again put the American automakers in the unwanted position of having to play catch up.
Ford's & Th!nk's "City" electric vehicle
Ford anticipated it would comply with the ZEV mandate with a partnership with Pivco, a Norwegian maker of electric vehicles rather than making EV’s on its own. Ford renamed Pivco Th!nk. Th!nk had two electric automobiles, one being a golf cart like neighborhood electric vehicle (NEV) called the Mobility and the another being a micro-mini car called the Th!nk City. Ford had also been working on a hybrid version of its small SUV the Escape. However, it had postponed its announced release date for its hybrid Escape every year for several years, unable to get its proprietary hybrid system to work. It delayed its Escape hybrid to the point where one could wonder if they ever intend to produce the vehicle at all. Honda released a Civic hybrid conversion in 2002, its second commercially available hybrid gasoline-electric car. However, the new Civic hybrid's fuel economy was only slightly better than its most fuel-efficient gasoline car only at a much higher price. Honda since then embarked on a crash program to improve its hybrid's fuel efficiency. 23
It seems as the end of the millennium approached there was new optimism for what technology could do to solve problems coming from the automobile sector. The Internet allowed for greater access to information than at any previous time in history. Solar energy was not only producing electricity without polluting but moving people and vehicles across the vast outback of Australia. College students were building super fast racecars powered by non-polluting electricity and racing them regularly at speeds that would have amazed Walter Baker and his Torpedo. Elementary school kids were using their young inventive brains to make cars that could travel faster and farther in an hour than most of the vehicles ever made by the EVC could. Even GM was caught up in the possibilities of what was happening, first with its win of the World Solar Challenge and then with the production of the Impact/EV1 electric vehicle. Unfortunately, for GM its response was at best bipolar in nature, trying to make the vehicles and at the same time working against them.
On the one hand there is all this advancement, all this change and all this excitement, optimism and hope for technology to bring us to a new cleaner, safer future. On the other there is the misguided dropping of the technological frontier by most of the major automakers immediately after an extremely close national election that put a new administration in Washington DC with two former oil men at the helm. California, too, saw change. A new governor changed the makeup of CARB and they in turn weakened the mandate.
My conclusion is that unfortunately Detroit often believes its own created rhetoric. However, just like in the 1970s when the Japanese were able to make major inroads into the American automobile market because of short sighted and slow acting American companies, Japan, with its American hybrid technology, once again has the technical advantage to dominate automobile sales. Toyota's hybrid technology allows every car in its line to save gas and pollute less without any real compromises for the consumer. What bothers me the most is that the technology Toyota started with in its hybrid drive was technology developed in the United States, by Californians no less, and advanced by the DOE with the American tax payer's money. To add insult to injury the technology was available for nearly thirty years to American auto companies, who did nothing with it. To add one more embarrassment to the American automakers, Toyota's new hybrids use batteries that were developed by Stanford Ovshinsky right here in the U. S. of A. nearly two decades before the Prius was introduced to the public.
It is obvious to me that American automakers suffer from some sort of affliction that makes them counter-innovative. They internally have the capacity to innovate; as demonstrated by the Sunraycer and Impact/EV1 programs, however, there are large well-budgeted portions of each company devoted to squashing technological innovation both inside and outside of these companies. American automakers spend a substantial amount of capital to fund a substantial lobbying effort to keep legislative mandates requiring that automakers implement existing technology that will solve problems such as pollution and poor efficiency from ever being implemented or being effective. For me this aspect of funding counter innovative activities speaks volumes about the future of the U.S. auto industry.
Unfortunately for them, innovation has a life of its own. A lesson one would think that the big three would have learned after the oil crisis of the 1970s. However, they did not, and now with rising oil prices, the Middle East exploding with terrorism and warfare and pollution problems once again knocking at our door
American automakers find themselves once again in a situation where they will lose market share and American manufacturing jobs to foreign companies that are not so disinclined to implement innovative initiatives.
1 Paul McCready was the designer of the Gossamer Albatross, the first human powered airplane.
2 Shnayerson, Michael, The Car That Could: The Inside Story of GM's Revolutionary Electric Vehicle, (New York: Random House. 1996).
3 Electric Vehicle Timeline, Newton Public School System, 2003 (Accessed 29 April 2004)
4 EAA EV History, Timeline (Accessed May 8, 2004)
5 Hybrid Car History, Hybridcars.com, 2003 (Accessed May 1, 2004)
6 Electric Vehicle Timeline, Newton Public School System, 2003 (Accessed 29 April 2004)
7 Shnayerson, Michael, The Car That Could: The Inside Story of GM's Revolutionary Electric Vehicle, (New York: Random House. 1996).
8 Electrifying times, Model Z Roadster EV on Nash Bridges, (Accessed May 22, 2004)
9 EAA EV History, Timeline (Accessed May 8, 2004)
10 EAA EV History, Timeline (Accessed May 8, 2004)
11 Renewable Energy Policy Project (May 22, 2004)
12 Honda EV+ Electric Vehicle Drivers (Accessed May 22, 2004)
13 Renewable Energy Policy Project (May 22, 2004)
14 EV World (Accessed May 22, 2004)
15 EAA EV History, Timeline (Accessed May 8, 2004)
16 Hybrid Car History, Hybridcars.com, 2003 (Accessed May 1, 2004)
17 Hybrid Car History, Hybridcars.com, 2003 (Accessed May 1, 2004)
18 Advanced Automotive Batteries, Market Overview,
19 EAA EV History, Timeline (Accessed May 8, 2004)
20 EAA EV History, Timeline (Accessed May 8, 2004)
21 How Hybrid Cars Work, Howstuffworks.com (Accessed May 23, 2004)
22 Advanced Automotive Batteries, Market Overview,
23 Hybrid Car History, Hybridcars.com, 2003 (Accessed May 1, 2004)
24 Power train using multiple power sources US 3566717 A, 1971(Accessed November 17, 2013)
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