Electric cars are the future, or so we are told by every major carmaker in the world. With incentives for electric vehicles and declarations on going electric in the next decade, governments, including ones from our region, are rolling out the red carpet to these alternative energy vehicles. While mainstream carmakers are investing heavily in EV technology, Tesla has gained a head start that is hard for anyone to beat, at least in the next decade. General Motors is in the race with its Chevrolet Bolt and the Spark EV, but neither of these is capable of giving Tesla’s cars any real competition. However, the story could have been completely different if America’s biggest carmaker hadn’t botched its first electric car project back in the late Nineties.

The EV-1, produced between 1996 and 1999, had many distinctions. It was the first mass-produced and purpose-designed electric vehicle from a mainstream carmaker, and was also the first passenger car to be sold under the General Motors badge. General Motors had started work on electric vehicles earlier and had shown a concept, ineptly named Impact, at the 1990 Los Angeles motor show.

That same year, the company announced that the Impact would make it to production. This announcement backfired in a way, as the California Air Resources Board (CARB) mandated that the country’s seven largest carmakers would be required to make two per cent of their product range emissions-free by 1998, and 10 per cent by 2003.

GM responded quickly by putting the EV into production, calling it the EV-1. Rather than selling it, it followed the leasing model, and gave the car out to drivers in California and Arizona. Despite the limited range, the car gained popularity quickly and the company began to be flooded with bookings. It has been alleged that at this point GM officials developed cold feet, purportedly fearing that EV technology’s popularity might cut into their lucrative spare parts market, as well as lead to unwelcome regulations in other states. Some critics also accuse the all-powerful oil industry in the US of having played a role.

Whatever the reason, the manner in which GM decided to end the EV’s production proved to be a massive public relations disaster for the brand. GM literally seized the cars back from the lessees and crushed them in Arizona.

By doing this, General Motors effectively gave credence to those who alleged that it was sabotaging the electric car. Apart from the bad publicity, building on the EV-1 would have given GM a flying start that no other carmaker would have been able to keep up with.