Don't suggest to Robert Purcell Jr., executive director of General Motors Advanced Technology Vehicles, that the GM EV1 electric vehicle was a failure. Although GM built fewer than a 1,000 of the swoopy electric sports coupes, and spent a huge sum of money on the project, Purcell says the EV1 may be the most important car GM has built in the last 20 years because of the lessons GM learned for future hybrids. Purcell was interviewed by Staff Reporter Richard Truett.
What new ideas and technologies did the EV1 bring to the road?
Beyond being an electric vehicle, the EV1 was really the first attempt at designing what was to be the most energy-efficient vehicle in the world - still is today. On a fuel-economy-equivalent basis you are looking at a vehicle that has in excess of 100 mpg in a two-seat coupe. And that was the objective.
The objective of the EV1 was not necessarily to do an electric vehicle; it was to design the most energy-efficient vehicle platform that could be conceived with the technology available at the time. That's why there was not a stone left unturned on that car in terms of how you reduce the energy consumption of an automobile. Everything from the typical things such as aerodynamics, mass and rolling resistance to the accessory systems.
For example, it had the first automotive application of a heat pump. Electrohydraulic power steering. We had electrohydraulic blended regenerative braking. Actually, the most sophisticated technology on the car is the braking system. It blends regenerative braking with friction braking so that the customer doesn't perceive any transition.
What did GM learn from the EV1? Have there been any spinoffs to other vehicles?
The technology in the EV1 drive system is the same basic electrical architecture that we are using on all our hybrids, even the bus. The Allison bus uses the EV1's electronic controls. Those are two EV1 controllers inside that bus. It's a common component set at the motor level that is used in all of our hybrids. Lightweight structures, aerodynamics - some of that stuff is even now in our high-volume production programs.
Some of the aerodynamic changes we made in our 2000 full-sized pickup trucks. It's a long stretch, obviously, from an EV1 to a truck, but some of the very simple changes we made on those vehicles to improve incremental fuel economy came out of our EV1 experience.
Also, tire pressure sensing on an electric vehicle is critical. If you have too much rolling resistance it requires too much energy, and all that heat buildup in the tires is energy wasted. So we needed to have very precise monitoring of tire pressure to ensure that we were going to get the maximum range out of the vehicle. We didn't want to give it away as rolling resistance.
So we designed a system that measures differential wheel speed, which was already available to us by virtue of the antilock braking system. You have to measure wheel speed for ABS, so by measuring the differential rate of wheel speed you are actually secondarily measuring circumference. As a tire is deflating, it's getting smaller, so it is spinning faster relative to the other wheels. So with simply a software change we could very accurately and in real time measure tire pressure. And that is the same system that we pioneered for the EV1 for a very specific purpose that is now available on six or eight GM product lines. We invented it here and developed it for the EV1, and it is now a high-volume option.
Aluminum cradles that come in the Chevrolet Malibu and Opel Zafira, all that came out of the EV1. Lightweight in interiors came out of the EV1.
Some industry analysts and media types look at the number of EV1s built and call it a failure.
If you are going to measure it in terms of the units sold, by most people's account it was a real disaster for General Motors. Well, they miss the point.
We used to have a slogan here about the EV1: This car is not about the last 10 days' sales. It's about the next 10 years. The traditional measure of success on a car program in this business is your last 10-day sales report. If that's what you use to measure the EV1, you miss the whole point. The car was a technology test bed that went beyond the lab. You only learn a certain amount in the lab. There's a whole range of issues that you never get to until you decide you are going to production and support a vehicle in production. You start getting real customer feedback from everyday usage that you could never get even from a test drive program, the kind of feedback you get when the car has been in service for six months, one year, two years or three years. That gave us a whole portfolio of technologies that we could find applications for on core products.
What other spinoffs is the EV1 responsible for?
It gave us confidence about going to volume production with things like aluminum cradles because we had been through a first-generation exercise. Hey, you can tool this stuff. You can validate it. It works. It's durable. You want to do that on low volume first on a specialized vehicle. And then you can ramp it up to high volume. You've had that early experience.
The tough thing with new technology is thinking you can take it to high volume in the first application. Too much risk. Too much technical risk and too much business risk. You want to test it out first and make sure you've got something viable. That's what EV1 did for us.
When did GM get serious about alternative fuel vehicles and developing this technology?
About 70 years ago with diesel electric trains. We were in production with electric vehicles in the 1910s. We produced electric trucks right after World War I that were used in many cities in the United States.
I'm from Washington, D.C. When I started working on electric vehicles here, my father, who was a native Washingtonian, said, `Oh yeah, I remember the old electric trucks Edison Co. used to use.' More recent times we did a lot of work on electric drive. We did the first driveable fuel cell-powered hybrid in 1968. So in terms of who has been working on advanced technology vehicles, that's the history of it. We were the first automotive company that actually produced a running fuel cell vehicle 30-plus years ago.
We have charts that go back about 10 years now that show there are three fundamental development paths that we needed to go down to position ourselves for a full range of vehicle options. First, you've got advanced internal combustion. The whole objective there is decreased emissions, increased efficiency. Second, you've got advanced electric drive. The idea there is low-cost propulsion. The third development path is in the body area, lightweight aerodynamic components and structures. If you work on those three development paths, you are able to create a whole set of options at the vehicle level. We've been working to that strategy since 1993 or 1994. We went public with it at the Detroit show in 1997.
Was it rough watching the EV1 sink in the marketplace, getting bad press because of sales while at the same time you were learning so much from it?
A lot of the reporting around vehicle programs doesn't get into the depth of understanding about what the program is really about. On most traditional programs, an intended high-volume type vehicle program, measuring sales and profitability is the right way to view a program's success. With the EV1, that was never the intent of the program.
We never expected it to grow to high volume. It was never intended to be a profit unit. We had a negotiated loss on the vehicle because we felt the learning and some of the image that we would create by producing a vehicle of that type was worth the investment that we were going to make. We had a very defined technical learning set of objectives that we set for ourselves. And we have accomplished those absolutely in spades.
So from my perspective, as the leader of advanced technology vehicles, I am focused on what we are doing in the marketplace, certainly, but a lot of my focus is what we are doing to advance the technology for future applications. The EV1 program was an unqualified success.