For drivers who find the downshifting-like sensation disconcerting, a knob on the instrument panel allows reducing or even eliminating the regenerative braking. But most drivers come to find it preferable to ordinary braking, claims MacCready. After a while, he says, you start to treat the regular brakes like emergency brakes.
By August of 1989, despite the progress that different teams were making, Brooks saw that the myriad challenges of turning bright ideas into working machinery had put the project behind schedule. The body team was still making molds, and the chassis and powertrain hadn’t yet been assembled and tested. When Brooks reported to GM that there was no way the car would be rolling by the original goal of the end of the year, GM responded that it had already arranged to unveil the Impact in fully functional form on January 3 at the Los Angeles Auto Show, one of the industry’s mega-events. I felt that goal was practically impossible, says Brooks. But all I could do was assign the teams individual deadlines that were all equally impossible.
The groups started working late into the night, and sometimes into dawn, seven days a week. Then in late October the body team delivered the finished shell to the powertrain and chassis teams. For all of November the teams labored together in an enormous shop north of Los Angeles, almost without stop, to fashion the major components into a complete car. Finally on November 28 the crew lined up to cheer as the still-doorless Impact was taken on its maiden voyage around the AeroVironment parking lot. It drove beautifully, said Brooks. The only thing we couldn’t get to work right was the windows. They were mounted on tracks and everything, but they just didn’t roll up and down right.
There was no time to worry about the windows. The car was immediately whisked via truck to GM’s proving grounds outside Phoenix for a battery of road tests. There the AeroVironment teams watched in horror as the Impact accelerated well--and then died before going very far. Its range was pathetic. Then one of the engineers realized that the powertrain was swimming in oil, thanks to an overfilled gearbox. After a quick draining the Impact stunned everyone with its performance; not only did it leave a Miata and a Nissan 300ZX in its dust in a head-to-head, standing-start race to 60 mph, but even when cruising at highway speeds it retained enough kick to press a driver into the seat when the accelerator was stomped--a benefit of its high-rpm, gearless powertrain. By the time an ordinary car going sixty downshifts into the right gear to accelerate, says MacCready, the Impact is already in the passing lane moving ten miles an hour faster.
There was something decidedly eerie, though, about all these impressive tests: the car’s almost total silence as onlookers watched it winding out and tearing up the track. Being electric, it barely whirred.
The Impact stole the show in L.A.; three months later GM announced it would begin manufacturing a production version of the car sometime in the mid-1990s. GM was being cautious; the company had let out word of similar intentions for a different, far less impressive electric car a few years back but had never followed through. This time, however, it appears to mean business.
Although GM refuses to set a specific target date, some industry watchers are predicting a 1996 introduction for the Impact--long enough to give GM a chance to do the necessary fine-tuning, but soon enough to give the company a running start at meeting tougher vehicle emission laws slated to take effect in 1998. So far things seem to be moving apace; GM has announced that the Impact will be assembled at the Lansing, Michigan, plant that had been the home of the ill-fated Reatta--the sporty Cadillac that was recently discontinued--and has assigned to various GM divisions the jobs of producing the major components.
It helps, of course, that the Impact was specifically designed for mass production. AeroVironment insists on calling it a demonstrator rather than a concept car, which is just a showpiece to gauge public reception. Yet the car that AeroVironment actually delivered to GM was, after all, only one vehicle, obviously a very labor-intensive one. MacCready cautions that GM will make many compromises to get the design to be as factory-friendly as possible. Mass production is a whole different ball game, and it’s GM’s ball game, he says. We’ll probably be advising them along the way, but they’ll be deciding what changes to make. It’s not a prospect that fills everyone at AeroVironment with joy, but it’s necessary, of course, if the car is ever to have the impact that MacCready and crew originally envisioned.
As for what the Impact is likely to cost when it does roll off the assembly line, MacCready professes ignorance there too. I don’t know how they’ll calculate pricing, he says, but I imagine they’ll sell it way, way, way below cost. Subsidizing Impact sales would make it easier for GM to meet increasingly stringent pollution and gas mileage requirements on automaker fleets and would help the company develop the market it would need to justify designing and building other, more profitable electric cars.
Actually, MacCready predicts that the big market in the coming decade or two may not be so much for all-electric cars as for hybrid cars designed to run on batteries in pollution-choked cities and on gasoline--or natural gas, or ethanol, or hydrogen, or some other range-extending fuel-- on long highway trips (though the way Americans drive now, 90 percent of all car trips fall within Impact’s 120-mile range). AeroVironment is rumored to be working now on a hybrid car for GM, but MacCready won’t confirm or deny it. The impetus for such cars is building, especially since Los Angeles declared its intention to become a zero-pollution car zone, meaning that electric cars will have to make up an increasingly large portion of all new-car purchases in the city beginning with 1999 car models. Nine eastern states and the District of Columbia have already enacted legislation that follows the Los Angeles lead.
Whether or not MacCready is working on a hybrid car for GM, he lets out that whatever it is, the project is relatively far-out. He claims he has no choice. Our contract with GM specifically states that we are expected to occasionally fail, he notes. It may be the only clause in the contract he violates.
An Intensifying Electric Field
The GM Impact may be the odds-on favorite to become the first electric car to win a mass market, but there’s no lack of rivals. In fact, just about everyone seems to have some sort of electric vehicle in the works.
Both Chrysler and Ford, for example, have built electric versions of their minivans. Ford’s, which boasts the innovation of a motor built around the rear axle, is slated to go into production in the latter half of the decade. Although these electric vans can’t touch the Impact’s quickness or range, their roominess and otherwise conventional design may give them an edge with some buyers. These vans, along with the Impact, should eventually benefit from the better batteries expected to emerge from a battery research consortium that Detroit’s Big Three recently set up.
Needless to say, it would be a serious mistake to count the Japanese out of the race to build a better electric car. Nissan seems to have the lead there, having already shown off a sluggish but snazzy-looking prototype boasting a nickel-cadmium battery that can be fully recharged in a mere 15 minutes--but only from a special, high-power source. Mitsubishi and Daihatsu have also announced aggressive programs. (But GM is hoping to turn the tables on the Japanese for once, having pointedly mentioned that the Impact will be produced in a right-side steering version--the Japanese, like the English, drive on the left.) Europe too is eyeing the market; electric car contenders there include Volkswagen, BMW, Audi, Fiat, and Peugeot.
Nor is the field limited to the conventional car manufacturers. Canada’s Vehma Corporation produces an electric version of a GM van, while the Eaton Corporation in Troy, Michigan, offers a Chrysler minivan conversion. And Clean Air Transport in Sweden recently won a $7 million subsidy from the City of Los Angeles to start selling its $25,000, 75-mile- per-hour electric sedan next year. In a few years, the budget- and fashion- conscious among us may even have a Swatch Car to consider; SMH, the Swiss manufacturer of the ubiquitous Swatch timepieces, has announced plans to develop an electric car with Volkswagen’s help.
Smaller, boutique electric car efforts abound. Tiny Solectria in Waltham, Massachusetts, for example, markets an electric version of GM’s Geo Metro. And the Vehicle Research Institute at Western Washington University is employing a modest $250,000 grant to implement its pro-vocative design for a solar-powered electric car incorporating a small gasoline or natural-gas burning engine to extend its range. My belief is that hybrid vehicles will be in much wider use than pure electric cars, says Institute director Michael Seal.
GM isn’t sure it disagrees; it has hedged its bets with a hybrid prototype of its own. Indeed, many observers insist that, at least for the next decade or so, the best way to reduce air pollution and cut down on oil consumption is to come up with cleaner-burning gasoline and more efficient gasoline engines. That’s already happening. Instead of adding its name to the long list of electric car wannabes, Honda recently unwrapped a prototype for a gas-burning two-seater that gets 100 miles to the gallon. And Arco Oil has developed a gasoline that significantly cuts emissions-- though it has no intention of marketing the stuff until pending clean-air laws force consumers to put up with the fuel’s higher cost. Don’t hold your breath. Or on second thought, maybe you should.