Apart from its work with fuel cells, GM has been dabbling in electric cars for nearly a century.
From 1912 through 1917, GMC produced a line of electric trucks. The early to mid-1960s saw GM build several prototype electric cars from Chevrolet Corvairs. The cars, named the Electrovair I and Electrovair II, were powered by silver-zinc batteries and had a range of 40 to 80 miles. Rising oil prices in the 1970s prompted GM to try again with an electric version of the Chevy Chevette in 1979.
But it wasn't until 1990 that the electric car began to show real promise. That's the year GM introduced its Impact concept car, a zero-emissions two-seater that could go 120 miles on a charge.
GM built a 50-car test fleet of Impacts in 1993 and spent $32 million over the next two years letting 1,000 consumers and several major utility companies drive them. Encouraged by the car's performance, in 1996 GM introduced production versions of the Impact, called the EV1.
Heralded as the first purpose-built, mass-produced electric car in modern times, the EV1 was an instant hit among futurists and environmentalists. GM produced about 1,000 EV1s from 1996 through 1999, leasing them to consumers in California and Arizona through Saturn dealerships.
In a decision that is controversial even today, GM discontinued the EV1 program in late 2003. For all its innovation, the EV1 was impractical: It had two seats and could drive for only about 80 miles before it had to be recharged for four hours. Subsequent generations extended the battery range to almost 140 miles.
According to GM, a waiting list of more than 5,000 names generated only about 50 people willing to follow through on a lease. The automaker already had spent about $1 billion on the EV1, and providing replacement parts and service for a fleet of about 600 vehicles proved too expensive.
Others had a different theory. In the 2006 documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? it was suggested that GM sabotaged its own marketing efforts out of fear that the EV1 would steal business from its existing gasoline-fueled business. The movie didn't mention that Toyota Motor Corp. killed its own fleet of electric cars, citing reasons similar to GM's.
GM, of course, denies the conspiracy claims. But the EV1 remains a touchy subject with executives.
"Why do people keep saying that we didn't do anything with the EV1?" asks Stephens, the powertrain vice president. "We learned quite a bit, and that's really helped us in a lot of the stuff you're seeing now. We've got more mild (hybrids) out than anybody else does, and we've done it in a very short period of time."
Vice Chairman Bob Lutz agrees. He says the EV1 "solved a lot of the fundamental problems" for GM in such areas as power electronics, regenerative braking, managing battery temperatures, packaging for possible crashes and electric power steering.
"All the guys who worked on it were scattered to the wind, but we got them all back," Lutz said. "And they think their ship has come in."