After their first meteoric rise and fall, electric cars essentially disappeared for decades. It wasn't until the late 1960s that they saw renewed interest. That interest was prompted by changes the gasoline-powered car had wrought on our skies in the intervening 50 years. With smog and air pollution a hot topic—and the prospect of inexpensive nuclear-generated electricity on the near horizon—engineers around the globe began taking another look at electric cars.
But the problem of limited range remained the paramount stumbling block, and no one had the solution although several approaches, including hybrid gasoline-electric combinations, were tried on an experimental basis. Finally it took legislation and looming regulations from the powerful California Air Resources Board (CARB) to get auto manufacturers off the dime on the development of a modern electric car.
In its continuing battle to fight air pollution, in 1990, CARB instituted the historic Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) mandate. It dictated that just 8 years later, in 1998, 2 percent of the vehicles sold in the state of California had to emit virtually no pollutants at all. That figure was also slated to grow to 10 percent by 2003.
This long-rumored edict struck fear in the hearts of auto manufacturers. To sell vehicles in the large and lucrative California market, a market bigger than that of Canada, they would be forced to find ways to engineer, develop, and sell ZEVs in numbers that would represent at least 2 percent of their total vehicle volume. To many of them, that was more than a tall order, it was virtually impossible to do on their own. Smaller manufacturers looked to bigger manufacturers such as General Motors, Ford, Honda, and Toyota, hoping the big fish would design and engineer ZEVs and then allow them to buy some to sell on their own. But the large manufacturers were looking at their own problems, namely putting together ZEVs that consumers might actually want to buy. Because CARB was not about to waver on the zero-emissions requirement, the only feasible way to get there was to build electric cars.
So they moved their fledgling electric vehicle (EV) efforts forward and developed vehicles they hoped California consumers would accept. General Motors decided to get ahead of the game with its Impact, which was quickly renamed the GM EV1 and introduced to the public with a clever marketing campaign. Ford, Honda, and Toyota all adopted lower profiles, but all would eventually introduce electric vehicles to the California market in anticipation of the 1998 deadline. Ford's choice was, counter-intuitively, a compact pickup truck; Toyota decided its RAV4 compact sport utility vehicle would make a good EV; and Honda settled on the completely nondescript EV Plus.
What happened next is open to interpretation, depending on your political and environmental persuasion. Some say the electric cars, including the highly visible EV1, were stupendous successes. Others say they were dismal failures and proved that it was impossible to interest even 2 percent of the buying public in purchasing or leasing a ZEV, which was, of course, an EV. Some owners/lessees absolutely loved their electric cars and trucks, but others discovered what owners of Baker and Waverly electrics had discovered in 1910, that their limited range of maybe 70 or 80 miles on a charge made them impractical for many uses. Conspiracy theorists believe that the manufacturers intentionally put poorly performing vehicles into the market in an attempt to kill the electric car.
Whether you buy that notion or not, the effect of the limited sale of EVs and their experiences in the real-world persuaded CARB to back off from its mandates. They decided to attack air pollution in other, less direct ways. With the monkey off their backs after the requirement to sell 10 percent ZEVs by 2003 was dropped, the auto manufacturers quickly bailed out of the electric vehicle business altogether. Most famously, GM refused to renew the leases on all the EV1s that were on the streets, forcing drivers to return them. The cars were eventually crushed. A few electric Ford Rangers and Toyota RAV4s are still out there, but they are orphans of the storm.
So if you are looking to buy a new electric vehicle from a major auto manufacturer, something you could have done earlier in the decade, you are out of luck. A few smaller companies do offer electric vehicles, but they are far from mainstream. They range from rudimentary Neighborhood Electric Vehicles (NEVs) that offer maximum speeds of 30 mph to exotic, hand-built specialty sports cars with shockingly impressive performance and prodigious price tags.
Was this article helpful?
Hybrid Cars! Man! Is that a HOT topic right now! There are some good reasons why hybrids are so hot. If you’ve pulled your present car or SUV or truck up next to a gas pumpand inserted the nozzle, you know exactly what I mean! I written this book to give you some basic information on some things<br />you may have been wondering about.