How GM Plans To Dominate The Electric Vehicle Market… In The 1980s

from the flashback dept

There’s an awful lot of talk these days about efforts by both startups and big automakers to bring electric vehicles to the market, with the widespread expectation that they’ll be commonly available in the near future. In fact, GM is apparently rushing the production of its Chevy Volt to get it to market faster than expected. That may actually be the case, but Chris Maresca writes in to point out that this all sounds mighty familiar. He was flipping through a 1980 copy of Car and Driver magazine and found the following:

The media are making all kinds of noise lately to the effect that electric cars are coming, that they?re going to help us kick our imported-oil habit, and that you?ll be able to drive them for pennies a day.

A company that can develop a non-petroleum-fueled car palatable to the masses stands to make a pretty good buck. That?s why GM will shell out some undisclosed number of billions on electric vehicle development during the next five or so years.

It?s a tall order, but GM is already well on the way to pulling it off. Whether the buyers will be there, however, is a question GM is still struggling to answer.

A study commissioned by Gulf & Western predicts that we?ll have something like 34 million EVs – about one quarter of the national fleet – on the road by the year 2000. GM … has publicly committed itself to mass-producing electric cars by the mid-to-late 1980s ? probably 100,000 per year or more.

It’s good to remember that these sorts of plans don’t always work out as announced.

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Comments on “How GM Plans To Dominate The Electric Vehicle Market… In The 1980s”

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dorpus says:

What if

What if we live on a planet that has too much oil spurting out of the ground, and environmentalists tell us to burn more?

Will earth-friendly homes have gas flares burning out of their chimneys 24 hours a day? Will solar, wind power be outlawed? Will environmentalists spread oil slicks on lakes for “Zero Fish Day”? Will California outlaw bicycles? Will they have guerrilla asphalt paving projects to turn national forests into parking lots? Will asphalt-huggers lie down to protest grass growing through the cracks? Will health food stores sell crude oil shakes coming out of little tabletop factories, since babies don’t get enough petroleum in their diet? Will swimming pools require everyone to cover themselves in tar sunblock? Or will Starbucks stores sell Chlorine Frappucino, with extra bleach? Will teenagers get tattoos of highway median strips on their backs?

Anonymous of Course says:


GM did kinda, sorta… with the EV-1 which was
a decent vehicle. Couldn’t compete with gas
engine autos and this was no surprise. Now
with the high cost of gasoline and the advances
in battery and power conversion technology maybe
an electric car will fare better.

Can’t fault them for trying though.

Dorpus, my VW Golf diesel gets 50mpg without fail.
Come here, now! I’ll squeeze the oil out of your
fatty brain and it will run my vehicle for a week.

tubes says:

Re: EV-1

Bull it didn’t compete. It was doing so well it scared the hell out of the oil & automobile companies. If I was able to get my hands onto one of them, I would buy it right now! Too bad the car manufacturers only leased them out & as soon as the lease ran out they took all them back & scrapped them! Just think about it their acceleration was just as good as most cars, zero fuel, got about 200 miles per charge & almost zero maintenance tire rotation that’s about it. Those were on the road in the early 90’s imagine where the technology could be right now. They were a lot better then these horrible hybrids we have now. Come on my little Corolla gets the same exact mpg as these ugly ass cars & they get a BS tax write off because they overpaid for a heavy piece of shit.

Anonymous Coward says:

Gulf & Western? Blast from the past! That’s a while ago. You know, I fully expect that gas is going to drop to $1.50 a gallon again.

Oil co’s act like a big bank. I’m buying one gallon right now at a crazily inflated price, and you bet I expect a few free later on. After they get what they want. Chevron or someone’s going to come out and say “WE FOUND THE MOTHERLOAD, GAS FOR $1.50” or something.

Masses will be fooled, and electric cars will be shelved again. In a way, it’s social manipulation. Oil companies want to drill offshore or in Anwar, get a few more refineries, sell gas to end customers instead of selling to power plants (Displaced with Nuclear) once they get some of that, everything will be cheap again.

I was looking up LPG cars a few days ago. Remember those? LPG acts a lot like gasoline, but has a 108 octane level. Why didn’t that take off? Oh yeah, inability to fuel the car. Sounds like the same problem Hydrogen Fuel cells are going to have. The strategy sounds the same too, Huh?

It’s all very predictable patterns!

john Legg says:


Could not resist taking uo the comment on the “failure” of LPG. Depends where you are I guess. In Australia both Federal and State Governments subsidise the conversion of vehicles to LPG to the tune of $3000.00. Virtually EVERY service station has an LPG bowser and I have have two vehicles, a Land Rover and a Jaguar, running on LPG very successfully.
Cost ? 60-70 cents per litre as opposed to $1.60 for petrol.

James Westfall (profile) says:

Nothing new here

While this may sound like they’re re-hashing old ideas, they’re simply continuing ideas they’ve been working on for decades. All major car makers have been making alternative fuel vehicles since the 70s and the oil crisis then. However, very few were ever successful because they simply couldn’t compete with the mileage gasoline-powered cars were getting.

No one’s actually stopped making EVs/PHEVs since the 70s, they’re mostly destined for things like fleet vehicles and developing countries.

John (profile) says:

Who Killed the Electric Car

Everyone, including car manufacturers, need to see the documentary-movie, “Who Killed the Electric Car”.

It’s amazing that the EV-1 (the first all-electric vehicle) was in production and available to consumers TWENTY years ago (yes, in the late 1980’s), yet it was killed off for a number of reasons.

Yet, here we are TWENTY years later and can manufacturers are only now re-thinking the concept.

However, the biggest obstacle isn’t oil companies or the car companies’ lack of advertising: it’s the American people’s perception that a car needs to go a thousand miles “just in case”.

The EV-1 could go 60-70 miles before it needed a recharge, which is more than enough for the daily commute and a stop at the grocery store. (The movie says that research showed that most people only drove 30-40 miles a day.)

Yet many people couldn’t accept this limitation- they wanted to be able to drive wherever they wanted, knowing they could stop at any gas station, fill up on gas, and keep driving.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Who Killed the Electric Car

You’re right, and that is because I do usually drive 44 miles per day. The problem I have is when something comes up and I need to drive 90 miles…what do I do then?

Going back to visit my mother, in-laws, grandparents is 172 miles, how does that work? Do I buy 2 cars or stop visiting family? We can’t even meet halfway and go back home…that is really useful.

Nasch says:

Re: Re: Re: Who Killed the Electric Car

I think ultracapacitors are the solution. How many people know how much gas is in their tank when they’re not in their car? You don’t need to know! If you need gas, you go get gas. Forgot to get gas last night? No problem, just get some this morning. With a battery powered car, if you forgot to plug it in last night… oops. You’re not going anywhere for a few hours. If you had an ultracapacitor, you can charge it up in a few minutes and be on your way. If they work like the electronics geeks say they will anyway.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Hogwash

No, people aren’t expecting electric cars to go 1000 miles on one charge. They are expecting them to be able to get where they want to go. That might not be to the grocery store around the corner. Since there isn’t already infastructure in place for electric vehicles, this means they need to be BETTER rather than worse. At the very least they should be roughly the same.

Although the “failure” of the EV-1 had nothing to do with this. It was just shelved for some unfathomable poltical/corporate reason that no one outside of GM will ever know.

Plenty of people need a car primarily for commuting and don’t commute between San Diego and LA daily.

Haywood says:

Re: Re: Hogwash

“Although the “failure” of the EV-1 had nothing to do with this. It was just shelved for some unfathomable political/corporate reason that no one outside of GM will ever know.”

One conspiracy theory is: the maintenance on an EV is practically nil, no cooling system, oil changes, ETC. The smooth delivery of power makes the drive train wear slowly, even the tires wear more slowly. Much of the profit is made in sale of parts & labor in the dealer shops.

George says:

Re: Who Killed the Electric Car

I saw Who Killed The Electric Car a few months ago. The first half was real left wing, but the second half did a lot better of tieing together the entire story.

I didn’t think too much about it, but I was in Orange County, California last month, they had Electric Car Charging Stations at Costco! I was just flabbergasted!

Anyway, just seeing the plug in adapters put things in perspective- that you could plug in your car while shopping.

What an great idea, but it totally cut the oil industry out of the loop. There was woo much to loose, and much was at stake. I think the oil industry paid everyone off.

National Geographic Channel had a show where some scientist said it’s possible that high CO2 levels millions of years go melted the icecaps and greenland, in turn creating incredible earthquakes and shifts in tectonic plates– increased stress on the outer shell of the planet, and many volcanic eruptions and leading to lack of sunlight and ultimately the iceage.

Anyways, by pumping the CO2 back in the air(from fuel) we’re possibly creating similar conditions seen millions of years ago.

I’m no environmentalist wacko. Just remain open to interesting theories. Sorry for lack of sources, I’m just trying to recall from memory. If I find out what the show was, I’ll post it.

Ben (profile) says:

Re: Who Killed the Electric Car

You are neglecting the fact that the resale value was decreased by the limitation. That 40-80 mile limit, limited who the car could be resold to, thereby limiting the resale value, thereby increasing the actual cost of the vehicle.
If the resale value had been guaranteed to be say, 60% after so many years, preferably by the government, then they might have sold.

Jerry says:

Re: Re: Who Killed the Electric Car

You are neglecting the fact that the resale value was decreased by the limitation. That 40-80 mile limit, limited who the car could be resold to, thereby limiting the resale value, thereby increasing the actual cost of the vehicle.

Kind of. I recently sold an old Bianchi road bike for MORE than I bought it for. The guy knew he was getting a bike to perform a specific task. Sale and resale of an electric car needs similar customer education. For major metropolitan areas looking to reduce carbon emissions, it may very well be a good decision to provide special tax incentive for these types of vehicles. Chances are you wouldn’t buy a vespa if you live in Colby, Kansas because it doesn’t fit the socioeconomic needs of the area.

Another note, I was reading about the THINK car, and it only has 580 parts. Pretty remarkable. Fewer parts means quicker diagnosis and repair times, and lower cost to maintain.

Additional costs seen in purchasing the car may actually be the dealer’s way to make up for lost revenue on repairs, oil changes, etc.

kerry bradshaw says:

Another confused media story about the Volt

The Volt is NOT being rushed into production. The media is, once again, as usual, confused. The final version of the Volt’s design, or shape, is what’s being displayed in Septemvber. Those who know anything about the Volt know that its launch date will be in Nov, 2010, a date which has not changed in the past 1 1/2 years. I’m sick of media incompetence. The media cannot understand even the simplest of stories without screwing up. No wonder the public is so demonstrably stupid – look at the information they are being given.

Lee Iacocca says:

Re: Another confused media story about the Volt

No wonder the public is so demonstrably stupid – look at the information they are being given.

Except you of course.

We’re not all that stupid. It’s just that with fuel prices very affordable, worrying about electric cars is relegated to the very back burner. And, in the end, as bad as the prices are, at least it’s available. In 1973 and again in 1979, fuel wasn’t available at any price.

GM may have been working on an electric car in the early 80s but you can bet that didn’t last long. At the start of the 80s, GM was getting its corporate butt kicked by the Japanese imports. I’m sure the electric auto became a dead issue very quickly.

DaveP in Ohio says:

EV-1 the first MODERN all electric car

The EV-1 was far from the first all electric car… I own a 1980 Comuta-Car and a 1975 CitiCar, but they also are far from the first…

Thomas Davenport invented the battery electric car in 1834… Thomas Edison built one in 1889.

In 1900 1/3 of all cars built were electric, 1/3 steam and 1/3 gasoline.

More interesting EV Facts are available at the Electric Auto Association’s website:

Promoting EVs since 1967

Al Gored says:

Global Cooling on the way

GM has spent Billions for decades trying to develop an electric vehicle with no success!

Also dont forget that TIME magazine had a cover story in the late 70’s about the impending ICE AGE and how man kind was doomed. I guess all those gas guzzlers we bought in the 70’s and 80’s really paid off!

Kent R says:

Federal Government makes more ....

the Federal Government makes 18 cents a gallon on gasoline, the gas companies make around 8 cents a gallon on gasoline.

Hmmmm, make we should have a wind fall tax, on the Federal Government!

and as far as Global Warming, then explain the Ice Age and the Little Ice Age. Man wasnt even around when the Ice Age ended yet the planet “quickly” increased in temperature.

Prior to the Little Ice Age, GREENLAND WAS ICE FREE! Hence the name Greenland!

In the late 17th century, earth started to cool and didnt warm back up until the early 19th century.


Derek Kerton (profile) says:

Denial Drivel

RE the comments above in #23

I’ve seen this misinformation BS a few times now. Yeah, the federal goverment is the one profiteering from oil prices.

Except YOU are the shareholders of the Federal government. And YOU own the land on which the oilcos are placing their wells and pumps. Last I checked, it’s reasonable for the landowner to get a cut for the oil that’s pumped out of their own land. A big cut, I would think, based on a case study of Jed Clampett.

Those revenues go straight to the national treasury, and offset the taxes we pay.

Are you really clued out enough to complain about getting your cut?

Lee says:

Captains of industry

Captains of industry tell us all how wise and powerful they are and how we should trust then because they are business people and know best.

But these same Captains of industry perform as though they are the most incompetent, incapable, mixed up can’t do morons in town.

Just because our political leaders continue to get away with it does not mean these industrial leaders can also have it both ways.

If they are crappy business people, who make lousy decisions over and over, they should be shown the door, without a golden parachute.

If they are the crooks they appear to be and are screwing America because it makes them some bucks, they should be shown a door with bars on it, from the inside.

Anonymous Coward says:


couple points.
1. auto makers will make what ever they can make money on, its not dependant on oil consuming cars, that just happens to be the market currently.

2. Greenland got its name from early Norwegian immigrants, who picked the name Greenland as an advertising and marketing strategy, to encourage farmers from Norway to migrate there. Greenland has had ice before the little ice age.

Call me skeptical says:


Where is all this electricity going to come from? You could argue that Los Angeles would be one place that would greatly benefit from the advent of electric cars.

There is no huge net benefit to removing gas burning cars, as energy needs to be generated somewhere. LA is already subject to rolling brownouts when demand gets high, now you want to put 8 or 10 million cars in the basin on the grid as well?

We can’t build nuclear plants because people won’t have them, we have exhausted the hydroelectric possibilities in most locales, and coal and oil burning power generation at least partially cancel out the benefit of electric cars, just moving the polluter from the individual to the utility.

Electric car proponents, where is this energy going to come from and why aren’t we already tapping it for current (no pun intended) needs? While there are efficiencies in mass production of energy, this is still largely a zero-sum game. All you are doing is creating new wealth with someone besides the oil companies.

You could argue that it’s all a giant scam intended to redistribute wealth to new barons and away from the old oil barons.

Andrew Peterson says:

Re: But...

“where is this energy going to come from”.

The energy is already there, just not during peak times. If everyone in California plugged in their car at noon the load would be too much. If, as I would expect, they plug in their auto at the end of the work day the load would be balanced out. This would allow for more efficient use of the electricity on the grid. I’ve even heard of theories that would allow the autos to be a sort of battery backup.

Energy isn’t the problem, energy when 90% of the population is running their AC and business is running full steam (minor pun, sorry) is the problem.

Call me skeptical says:

Re: Re: But...

“Energy isn’t the problem, energy when 90% of the population is running their AC and business is running full steam (minor pun, sorry) is the problem.”

So it’s your assertion that the energy is already “there” and that the increase in demand will not necessitate any net-new energy generation needs?

That’s very naive. This is one of the fallacies of the electric car that continues to slay me. How can otherwise intelligent people make an argument like that? Any argument to the contrary is marketing hype because using more energy = more energy generated. Simple as that.

There WILL need to be additional energy generated, and no, people will not go without air conditioners in their homes and offices to power them.

Andrew D. Todd (user link) says:

The Key is Tooling Up

The thing to look for is whether or not the automakers are actually going to tooling-up expenditure. This is something which is not really an issue for computers and electronics, but it is an issue for automaking.

Fully functional prototype automobiles are made by highly skilled craftsmen, and therefore they cost a lot of money, about what a Formula I racing car costs, a million dollars, or two million dollars, or five million dollars. Limited production runs, such as the 1100 or so EV1’s which were manufactured, still involve a lot of hand labor. Depending on what kind of accounting you use, each EV1 might have cost GM anywhere from a hundred thousand dollars to a million dollars, or a total of anywhere from a hundred million dollars to a billion dollars. The costs were so intermingled with things like labor buy-out payments that it is impossible to be precise about the actual costs. The EV!’s were leased out for about four hundred dollars a month, typically for a couple of years, and counting the incidental expenses of customer support, I doubt that GM made as much as ten thousand dollars each, before the costs of production were taken into account. In short, the EV1 was a complete financial loss, from the first to the last, and each EV1 was practically a free gift to its lessee. Of course, at GM’s level, given the way Roger Smith was throwing money around on all kinds of unprofitable projects, that was merely petty cash.

To make a car at a price which people can afford to buy requires an enormous amount of tool and die work, reducing every operation to the point where it can be done by a suitably motivated chimpanzee. That means that a series of massive stamping dies have to be made for each sheet-metal part. And some of these dies will weigh many tons. It may be necessary to build new and special stamping presses. Nontrivial sums will have to be spent on custom racks and boxes, to move parts around without their getting banged up. The list goes on and on. Are there enough railroad tracks to deliver the parts where they need to be, in good time? Someone will have to check and make sure. At that level of planning to the last detail, a new model of conventional design costs a couple of billion dollars. A serious commitment to the electric car might very well cost twenty or thirty billion dollars for GM alone, by the time all the different models had been accounted for. It remains to be seen whether GM is going to spend that kind of money.

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