On the trail of the origins of today’s electric vehicles (part 2)

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This article is part of a short series on the history of electric vehicles. Part 1 can be found here.

The Tesla Roadster

Both the Compliance Cars and the Serious Cars since 2010 have one thing in common: They were brought into being through the pressure of the Tesla Roadster.

Like the newer non-compliance electric vehicles, it had most of the key features of a modern electric vehicle. It was a purely electric vehicle, without a range extender, fuel cell or the like. It had long range (over 200 miles), great user experience, was usable at all normal car speeds, and performed well. Although it was expensive, it proved that an electric vehicle was a viable idea, and not just a golf cart.

It was not originally intended to be built on a dedicated EV platform as Tesla planned to use the frame and body of the Lotus Elise to take advantage of existing economies of scale rather than starting from scratch. But as the design progressed and small adjustments here and there, the number of common parts between the Roadster and the Elise dwindled until those benefits were gone.

By accidentally landing on a dedicated platform, Tesla learned the hard way that clean sheet designs are the way to go. Other manufacturers had similar learning experiences in the 2010s, trying to make electric vehicles on common platforms with gas-powered versions of a vehicle and hybrids, and had problems of their own.

So the roadster really is the mother of all modern EVs, not only because it forced automakers to build EVs, but also because it proved most of the basic architectural elements that all successful EVs use today.

The tZero AC drive

The idea of ​​building the Tesla Roadster was no coincidence. The AC Propulsion tZero electric roadster is not only the most direct technological predecessor of the roadster, but also served to bring the founders of Tesla together to found the company.

Tom Gage and his company made 3 of the cars by hand. The skeleton of the car was a steel space frame with suspension components, drive train, batteries, and suspension bolted to it. A light aerodynamic fiberglass body sat on top of it all.

The first version was powered by a range of standard 12-volt car batteries, particularly Optima Yellow Top sealed lead-acid batteries that were popular with car enthusiasts. Despite this shortcoming, the car had reasonably good acceleration, top speed, and other characteristics. The range was only 90 miles, which was pretty amazing considering it was powered by relatively cheap batteries.

The range was really the biggest limiting factor for the car, so Tom Gage decided to build an improved version of the car using lithium-ion batteries like those already common in laptops. In the course of his project, he met Martin Eberhard, who had many ideas for electric vehicles that Gage said were unsustainable, but they continued to discuss electric vehicles and Gage’s project.

When it was finished, Eberhard was so impressed that he encouraged Gage to mass-produce the car, but Gage preferred to prototype and come up with ideas for sale to other companies. Eberhard then borrowed the tZero for several months and used it as his daily driver. JB Straubel later became aware of the car and showed it to Elon Musk, and both men encouraged Gage to mass-produce it. After Gage said again that he was not interested, he put Musk and Straubel in contact with Eberhard.

These men wanted to use the basic design to build the Tesla Roadster and they improved it and did just that.

GMs Impact and EV1 & the ’90s Compliance Cars

Tom Gage and AC Propulsion weren’t new to the electric car scene when they decided to build the tZero. In fact, the company has been building EV components since the late 1980s. The company’s founder, Alan Cocconi, designed and built the controller for GM’s first serious EV prototype called Impact, which was presented at a 1990 auto show. The company then built commercial EV propulsion units and prototypes for automobile manufacturers in the 1990s and to this day.

Just as the Tesla Roadster started the modern EV movement after 2010, the Impact did the same for EVs of the 90s. Based on a spaceframe (a technology that GM had used in an earlier production vehicle) and using other technologies from GM’s solar racing teams, they managed to build a highly efficient electric car that proved that EVs were at least reasonably profitable.

In many ways, it was like the lead-acid versions of the later tZero prototype. It could travel a reasonable distance for a city commuter, had decent performance, and could accelerate to speeds well over 160 mph. It even had plastic and fiberglass body panels and a space frame.

Since the car was fit for most journeys and GM intended to run the car in series production, the California Air Resources Board decided the time for EVs on California’s roads was and issued a mandate. They knew that not all cars could be electric cars, but they expected automakers to make a small percentage of their vehicles electric if they wanted to keep selling gas-powered cars in the state.

New Mexico State University’s EV1. Photo by Jennifer Sensiba.

GM eventually went into production with the Impact, but named the production car EV1. Other automakers, forced by the California government, followed suit, introducing their own electric vehicles in the late 1990s. Technology slowly improved, with battery-powered vehicles powered by nickel-cadmium batteries able to reach ranges of over 100 miles on direct current quick charge.

Auto companies didn’t really want to build EVs and successfully sued California for getting out of the EV mandate. Oil companies worked behind the scenes to undermine support for EV mandates and encourage public hostility towards them. Chevron also bought patents for improved nickel-cadmium battery technology and didn’t allow anyone to use that technology in cars unless it was a hybrid or otherwise burned gas.

The federal government supported hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, hybrids, and other technologies that posed no threat to gas-powered cars. Under pressure from all sides, the California Air Resources Board gave in and reduced EV mandates. When that happened, manufacturers ceased production and took back any leased vehicles they could, even though the owners wanted to keep them. The cars were then crushed, with EV1s rotting in the Arizona desert.

A couple of happy cars escaped total destruction. GM has donated some EV1s to universities for use as science projects or museum pieces, and Francis Fold Coppola claims he hid his EV1 to prevent GM from taking it back. Some electric cars from other manufacturers were not leased but sold to people who wanted to keep them, mostly RAV4 electric cars. You can occasionally see these for sale or at a charging station that still works today on their original nickel-cadmium batteries.

Before automakers (GM in particular) turned electric vehicle manufacturing on its head, there was a great deal of interest in making cleaner, more efficient vehicles. In Part 3, I’ll explore the origins of the GM Impact prototype vehicle that ushered in the ’90s EV era (which we know led to the tZero and the Tesla Roadster and today’s EVs).

Featured image: A GM EV1 donated to New Mexico State University (Photo by Jennifer Sensiba).

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