On January 4, 1996, General Motors announces at the Greater Los Angeles Auto Show it will build an electric car, dubbed the EV1, to be launched in the fall of that year.
The EV1 wasn’t an entirely new concept, as electric vehicles had been around since the auto industry’s nascent days. In the early 20th century, the Columbia Runabout, which could travel 40 miles on a single electric charge at speeds of 15 mph, was a best-seller. As Time.com noted: “Before her husband Henry’s mass production of gas-powered cars crushed the electric industry, Clara Ford drove a 1914 Detroit Electric, which could last 80 miles without a charge.” The oil crisis of the 1970s, coupled with a burgeoning environmental movement, led to renewed interest in electric vehicles, although no automaker was able to develop one that garnered mass appeal.
When it debuted in 1996, the EV1 was made available to consumers in just two states, Arizona and California, and for lease-only, as GM considered the development of electric vehicle technology to be ongoing. During its years in production, from 1996 to 1999, around 2,500 EV1s were produced in total. In late 2003, the company announced it was pulling the plug on the EV1 program and wouldn’t renew any leases. GM cited the high cost of producing and maintaining the vehicles as a reason for the EV1’s demise. However, as The Los Angeles Times noted in 2009: “The EV1 began in the 1990s as a response to a zero-emission vehicle mandate by California’s Air Resources Board….When, finally, GM and other automakers managed to get California to soften its zero-emission mandate in 2002, [GM CEO Rick] Wagoner promptly canceled the program.” (During this time, other automakers introduced then discontinued their own electric vehicles, including Toyota, whose RAV4 EV was available from 1997 to 2003.)
Environmental activists protested the end of the EV1, staging a mock funeral and later holding a vigil at a Los Angeles-area GM facility that had impounded a number of EV1s that would later be destroyed.
By 2008, GM had been hit hard by a global economic crisis and slumping auto sales and needed a multi-billion-dollar bailout loan from the federal government in order to stay in business. In March 2009, company CEO Wagoner was ousted by the Obama administration and in April of that year, GM filed for bankruptcy. The company was criticized for continuing to focus on its sport-utility vehicles and small trucks despite a growing consumer demand for smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles. Wagoner was quoted as saying that pulling the plug on the EV1 and not putting more development resources toward hybrid gas-electric vehicles was a major mistake of his career.