Modern electric cars at 20: from EV1 to Bolt EV, where are we now?

Twenty years ago today, the very first GM EV1 electric cars were delivered to 40 lessees in California in a blaze of publicity.

Since then, plug-in electric vehicles have seen more than their share of ups and downs.

That first EV1 was a high-tech two-seater created specifically to meet California’s then-current zero-emission vehicle rules, intended to set the state on a path toward radically lowering vehicle emissions.

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But those ZEV rules were ultimately overturned by the state after automakers lobbied successfully with the argument that electric cars were too expensive to build, that buyers didn’t want them, and that there wasn’t adequate public charging infrastructure.

Does this sound familiar?

Just last week, Ford CEO Mark Fields told reporters the company would lobby the incoming Trump administration to delay, modify, or repeal stricter fuel-economy standards—and commented that there was no market for electric cars or hybrids.

2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV, road test, California coastline, Sep 2016

2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV, road test, California coastline, Sep 2016

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Ford’s current lineup of hybrids is solidly in second place among U.S. hybrid sales after various Toyota hybrids—the Ford Fusion Energi plug-in hybrid sedan had its best sales month ever in November—but the company’s efforts in battery-electric cars have been grudging and uncompetitive.

Until an updated 2017 Focus Electric was announced, that battery-electric model had the lowest range (73 miles) of any compact electric hatchback on sale and sold solely at compliance-car levels.

But while Ford has always been an also-ran in electric cars, the arrival of the Tesla Model S reset a lot of expectations among consumers about just what an electric car could be.

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It also alarmed other makers, General Motors among them, sufficiently that they took a closer look at the potential for building cars with high-capacity battery packs made of the latest lithium-ion cells.

Now every major automaker is planning to offer higher volumes of electric cars by 2020—even Toyota, whose strong belief in the superiority of hydrogen over electricity as a way to power cars made it the last major holdout.

So where do electric cars stand today, 20 years after the EV1 emerged into private hands?

(1) The world now takes climate change seriously, meaning increasingly tough limits on emissions.

Even if president-elect Trump doesn’t accept the scientific consensus on climate change, which he has called “bullshit” that was created by the Chinese to hurt U.S. industry, the rest of the world is moving toward reducing carbon emissions in every sector—China not least among countries.

However the laws are written, zero-emission vehicles will be increasingly favored by regulators.

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And they are far more likely to be plug-in electric cars than hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles.

(2) Range matters more than many carmakers understood.

In Europe and Asia, electric cars with ranges lower than 100 miles are practical because there’s a clean, reliable, frequent, pervasive mass-transit alternative for many longer trips.

The U.S. has no such thing, so individual vehicles have to serve all possible travel needs short of the distances only an airplane can cover—so less than something like 150 to 200 miles of range is simply a deal-breaker for many buyers.

People don’t drive as many miles as they think they do, surveys show, but confidence in a vehicle’s ability to meet anticipated needs—taking a sick kid to a hospital 40 miles away at 1 am—is an absolute requirement.

Tesla understood this from the outset; it’s never sold a car with less than 200 miles of range. Belatedly, other makers are catching on.

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