Why was it that General Motors launched the pioneering EV1 electric car 25 years ago? More than the discussion of the car’s design or speed, or its range or comfort, that question of “why” tends to dominate the lingering fascination with the 1990s project.
Was it for GM to be ahead of the curve on what threatened to be a ruthlessly demanding new era of zero-emission regulations? Was it a conspiracy by the internal combustion engine-making giant to show environmental activists that “Sure, we can make you an EV, but you won’t want to buy it”?
I submit a different explanation.
GM created the EV1 because it could. And GM spent a billion 1990 dollars to do it because it could do that, too.
The EV1 was GM’s statement of “This is us.”
Recall that the early 1990s had seen mighty GM teeter into financial straits. Its balance sheet was looking a little dodgy, and hand-wringing ensued in Detroit, on Wall Street and on Main Street.
And yet GM’s house of technology was in order. Its vaults were stuffed with patents, and its engineering centers were packed with industry leaders, any one of them up for the challenge of a moonshot.
First among those leaders — that business unit called Delco.
Rewind this movie to 25 years ago, and you will find GM’s strategic thinkers contemplating the future role of the automaker’s in-house parts-making operations. GM’s component businesses constituted the single biggest original equipment supplier in the world in the mid-1990s. Delco Electronics and the alternator-producing subsidiary Delco Remy were technology bulls, seemingly capable of anything.
In 1992, GM began uniting its parts operations under a new name — Delphi — and placed the unit under the direction of engineering executive J.T. Battenberg III. And Battenberg had a vision of how Delphi could be steered into an evolving auto industry future.
The EV1 was certainly a project by “GM.” But it was more than that. It was a chance to let Delco Electronics and Delco Remy show the world what they were capable of.
Delco Remy produced the car’s propulsion system. It produced the battery — a lead-acid system before “lithium” had become a household term in the industry. Delco Electronics created the charging technology, consisting of an inductive system that required no metal-to-metal contact.
The Delphi business called Delphi Harrison designed the car’s advanced cabin climate-control system. In doing so, Delphi engineers took the radical step of creating a heat pump for the car, a component that is now becoming common in electric vehicles. Delphi engineers in Lockport, N.Y., also wrote the software to make the car’s electronics work together.
A big part of the early product brain work was undertaken at a leased building in Indianapolis called Delco Remy Plant 39. The components operation had created a product line at the site to undertake “Electric Vehicle Propulsion.” Parts engineers had begun working there in 1990 — far ahead of the EV1 launch — on the science and mechanics of advanced lead acid, lithium polymer and nickel-zinc battery solutions. In those days, engineers and advanced planning strategists, like those at Delphi, weren’t thinking just in terms of “EVs.” The working phrase of the times was “alternative propulsion” — whatever that might mean. Electric? Maybe … but also maybe hydrogen? Or natural gas? Or Brazilian sugar cane-based ethanol? Who could be sure?
The future had not yet arrived. All options were on the table. And it was falling to auto industry scientists to figure it out.
That meant the work and innovative solutions would come largely from component and technology engineers. And in the early 1990s, rare indeed was the supplier that was big enough on a global scale to possess the technology muscle and engineering staffs to deliver such advanced solutions.
Delphi and its piece companies were. And they proved it with the 1996 launch of a car like none that had ever been delivered to the market.
Why did they bother? Because they could, and they wanted the world to know it.