GM's EV1 Lives On, With EV2 on the Way

By · July 03, 2013

Ohio State's EV1

Ohio State's EV1 looks good, but the drivetrain is off in other cars. (Jim Motavalli photo)

I walked around the corner at Ohio State’s Center for Automotive Research (CAR) and there it was: a bright red General Motors EV1, the first mass-market electric car in the modern era. It was great to see it again, although looking smaller than I remembered it. It must be at least a decade since I’ve seen one.

As we all know, most of the 1,117 EV1s produced between 1996 and 1999 (and finally taken off the road by GM in 2003) were crushed. You may have heard, they made a movie about it. But a few cars, 40 some say, were spared an early death and sent to universities and research centers—minus controllers for the main drive, brakes, power steering and such. They were supposed to be studied and taken apart by students, not resurrected.

Chelsea Sexton, the EV expert who starred in Who Killed the Electric Car? and knows the EV1 program intimately, has located perhaps 20 of the cars sent into the wider world, and is tracking VIN numbers. "The only EV1 not adulterated before donation is at the Smithsonian, which only accepts 'intact specimens,'" she said.

No Driving, Now

The Ohio State car looks clean, but it’s not a driver. I shot some video of it:

Don Butler, an OSU research director, told me the university’s had the car 10 years. “It’s used primarily for research,” he said. “One of the terms is that we can’t drive it on public roads. We got the EV1 with the inverter disabled, though we were able to un-disable it. But parts of the traction system went into other cars we were working on, including our EcoCar contenders.”

Other colleges with EV1s include Western Washington, the University of Wisconsin, Brigham Young (which built an ultra-capacitor-based drag racing car with John Wayland of White Zombie fame as a consultant) and Penn State. The first two, remarkably, are now driving around.

A Rebirth Odyssey

Beginning in September of 2004, the Wisconsin team had quite an odyssey. The team started by getting a 380-volt nickel-metal-hydride battery together using parts of an old pack from the Ford Ranger EV (yes, it fit) and then getting the rest of the cells donated by the University of West Virginia.

They next went through an odyssey with the controller, trying a Solectria unit from the FutureTruck competition that didn’t work (only making the motor rattle and hum) because “the control boards were four revisions apart.” Finally, Ballard Power Systems donated a working controller, but the student team had to drastically modify the entire suspension/motor subframe to accommodate it.

There was tons of programming work to do, too, and a big setback when everything was in place but the integrated powertrain wouldn’t “wake up.” It turned out to have been installed backwards. By the time that was fixed it was August of 2005, and the EV1 was finally running and driving. Chelsea Sexton got to pilot it. "The experience was bittersweet," she said. "Very nostalgic, from the start-up cascade of dashboard lights to same familiar smell."

I’m sure the students involved got more hands-on training than any classroom could offer. Here's some video of that car on the road, with Chelsea at the wheel:

Another One Up and Running

The Washington car was resurrected in 2007 after an intensive round of hardware and software work from students, faculty and a now-defunct electric car company called EV Bones. Sexton says it's the closest car to stock, missing only one significant original part.

There are still occasional EV1 sightings, including one that shows up clearly on old Google Earth maps, parked on a back street in Richmond, California. But a really cool corollary to all this is the EV2 now under construction by the afore-mentioned Wayland. Yes, an EV2.

Get Ready for the EV-2

Wayland has taken an original EV1 transaxle with motor and transplanted it into his 2000 Honda Insight hybrid (a car known as the “Silver Streak”) which he says was modeled somewhat on the EV1. He’s also found four rare-as-hen’s-teeth EV1 wheels (a 2.5-year adventure) and after modifying the hubs and suspension, has those on the car, too.


The car at left is what the Silver Streak will look like when done. The other one you know. Family resemblance? (John Wayland graphic)

Wayland (who's had some experience behind the wheel of EV1s) thinks the “EV-2,” with a custom-made 71.5-kilowatt-hour battery pack (featuring Dow Kokam cells), will be good for 400 miles on a charge. It helps that the original Insight weighed only 1,800 pounds. The Silver Streak should weigh only slightly more than the original EV1. “I’m flipping the bird to GM for crushing the EV1, and doing the same to Honda for making fun of electric cars when they introduced the Insight,” Wayland said.

The EV-2 is now 80 percent complete, with a made-in Oregon Rinehart inverter one of the highlights of the spec-sheet. Wayland expects it to be on the road in August or September. “Stuffing 1,000 pounds of lithium-ion into a Honda Insight is quite a challenge,” he said. Nobody would doubt that. By the way, the Silver Streak is getting handmade “EV2” badges based on the original.

The spirit of the EV1 lives on!

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