“All right, how do I start this mule?” I asked, eagerly gripping the wheel of the car parked outside the General Motors Technical Center in Warren, Michigan. Pat Bouchard, an engineer, answered from the passenger side. “Turn the key, then push the `F’ button.”
“The `F’ button. See those three buttons on the dashboard? `F’ is for forward, `N’ for neutral and `R’ for reverse.”
Hmmm. I turned the key. Nothing happened. Pat nodded toward the buttons, but when I pushed “F,” still nothing. “You’re in forward now, but you won’t go anywhere until you press the accelerator,” he said.
I depressed the pedal gently, and we eased across the parking lot. The car was silent. We rolled onto the fenced-in test track. Enough hesitancy, I thought; I flattened the accelerator to the floor. The car took off at an alarming rate. I tensed up, waiting for the lurch of the gear change, but it never came. We just kept going faster and faster.
Only now it was no longer quiet. From under the hood came a whining sound that reminded me of the electric whir of a modern subway. At 70 miles per hour I hopped off the accelerator. The whining vanished. There was just the rush of the wind and the grumble of the tires across the pavement. The speedometer floated down to 69, 68; we hardly slowed. We slipped along like an ice skater gliding across a glassy pond.
That “mule”-industry lingo for a test car-was a conventional GM automobile whose guts had been ripped out and replaced with a system of batteries, motors and high-voltage electronics. It was being used to test components of what is likely to become the world’s first mass-produced electric car-the Impact. The prototype sat in a bay at the mammoth Tech Center under a silky black tarp, its silver body polished for a trip to the White House the next morning. It had been summoned by George Bush for use as a prop during an outdoor press conference, a symbol to backdrop the self-styled “Environmental President” as he cheered on American carmakers in their quest to win the international race to produce a popular electric car.
The Impact is indeed an environmental symbol, one that reflects the auto industry’s response to the public’s growing intolerance for pollution. It is also a symbol of what may be a last-gasp effort by troubled domestic manufacturers to attain a technological edge over their global competitors. GM is in the midst of the most painful restructuring in its history, eliminating tens of thousands of jobs and shutting down 21 plants. The Impact is critical to its long-term success.
At the turn of the century, three technologies vied for supremacy in the nascent auto business: steam engines, gasoline engines and battery-powered motors. Gasoline engines left the others in the dust. By 1924 not a single electric vehicle was exhibited at the National Automobile Show. The Stanley Steamer was scrapped the same year.
It wasn’t until the 1960s that electrics came back. They fit the conscience of the flower-power movement: they used no gasoline from the big bad oil companies and produced no pollution. just plug them in and recharge the batteries. But they were slow and didn’t go far between charges. The gas-station lines of 1979 renewed interest. Economists predicted that if the pump price rose to $2 a gallon, battery power would be cost-competitive for commuter cars, for which speed and range are less critical. GM introduced the Electrovette, which went 40 miles on a charge. After gas prices leveled off, the program was scuttled.
Environmentally, electric cars have always made sense. They do produce a few pollutants indirectly because power plants must generate the electricity needed to charge the batteries. Taking these into account, however, electric cars release 98 percent less carbon monoxide and nitrous oxides, and 25 percent less carbon dioxide than conventional cars, according to Steve McCrea at the Electric Auto Association. Says McCrea, “It’s easier to clean one smokestack than a million tall pipes.”
GM did not forsake the electric option altogether. In 1987 it entered the World Solar Challenge, a 1,950-mile race across Australia for cars powered by solar cells. It backed a team led by Paul MacCready, chairman of AeroVironment, a small, maverick design firm in Southern California. His vehicle, the Sunraycer, outshone the field, finishing two and a half days ahead of the closest competitor (SMITHSONIAN, February 1988).
Maverick inventor goes corporate
MacCready, inventor of the first successful human-powered aircraft, wanted to try the aerodynamics and electrical systems his team had developed on a commercial vehicle. He knew solar cells would never generate enough current to propel a practical car, but strong batteries could. So AeroVironment went to work with GM’s own design skunk works, located a few miles away, and electronics engineers at the Hughes company. Design battles erupted, and the group got nowhere for months. When GM executives caught wind of the stalemate, they put an end to it. Foreseeing a publicity coup, chairman Roger Smith was determined to exhibit an electric car at the Los Angeles Auto Show in January 1990. In six months the California team produced the Impact.
On an Arizona test track before the show, the 2,200-pound two-seater blew away one sports car after another in a series of drag races. Propelled by 870 pounds of lead-acid batteries, an advanced form of the batteries that are under the hood of every conventional car on the road, it had a top speed of 110 mph and went 120 miles between charges. Why such great performance? Its air resistance was one-third lower than that of any production car, and its special tires had half the rolling resistance of conventional rubber. It had a novel box called an inverter that was filled with rugged electronics to transfer battery current to two powerful induction motors, which drove the front wheels much more efficiently than a combustion engine. The test vehicle was completely impractical, of course-its cost was prohibitive, it was unstable in turns, and it would shatter into fiberglass shards in a crash. But it was an aggressive car, and it was electric.
The Impact blew away the audience at the auto show, too. Not only was the car novel and exciting, but it looked like a million bucks. Some consumers were so taken with it that they mailed checks to GM as down payments.
This surprised even Smith, who suddenly found himself confronting a tough decision. Should GM risk serious money on an attempt to turn this delicate, handmade icon into a salable car? Smith’s decision was made easier by the news from California. Increasingly frustrated by dangerous smog in the Los Angeles area, Mark Fischetti, a writer who specializes in technology, business and science, drives two clunkers-one is foreign, one domestic-around Lenox, Massachusetts. the state Air Resources Board had proposed a radical measure: demand that auto companies sell a certain number of pollution-free cars. Smith saw another opportunity to be a trendsetter. In April, just before Earth Day 1990, he announced that GM would produce an electric car.
Analysts didn’t put much stock in that, but the California Legislature did. It passed a law that has shaken the entire auto industry. By 1998, if a company wants to sell at all in California, then 2 percent of its sales must consist of vehicles with no tail-pipe emissions. That means only one thing: electric cars. By 2003, at least 10 percent of the autos sold in the state-now more than 200,000 annually-must meet the standard. The California market was too important to ignore. The gauntlet had been thrown down. Someone would have to turn the Impact vision into reality.
That someone was Ken Baker, a 45-year-old mechanical engineer from upstate New York. “My initial reaction,” says Baker, who ran the Electrovette program, “was, oh God, do I want to get into the electric car again? But I quickly recognized this was a chance to rewrite automotive history.”
Baker paired up with engineer John Williams. “We didn’t know who our customers were or what they would want,” Baker recalls. He put his team-at that point a dozen top managers-on a plane to Los Angeles, and early the next morning they headed out for the suburbs to interview commuters. Each team member drove to work with a willing host. During the ride they discussed commuting habits and how an electric car might fit in. The conclusion: consumers would want the same things from an electric car that they got from their present cars.
- That was no small order. When a driver turned the key in the Impact, a row of batteries produced current. An inverter changed the current from DC to AC and sent it to the two induction motors, each of which turned one of the front wheels. Though straightforward in concept, the car had one major drawback. When all 870 pounds of its batteries were fully charged, they contained as much energy as a gallon of gasoline.
- Presented with this startling comparison, each team member realized the project would be an “unrelenting struggle to optimize every component,” says Williams. Every change in the car’s shape that lowered air resistance would enable it to go extra miles before recharging. Every pound shaved would extend its range.
GM pushed on. In March 1991 president Lloyd Reuss revealed that GM would convert its assembly plant in Lansing, Michigan, which had been producing Buick Reattas, to produce the Impact. But because GM, like other car companies, was struggling financially, Reuss gave Baker a budget one-fourth the size of that usually earmarked for a new-car program. He also told Baker he would not have the usual five years to convert a car from “dream to gleam.” The other auto companies would have to respond to the California law, too. GM had been first with the concept; it had to be first with a car.
As Baker parceled out jobs to the 200 or so people who would be assigned to the engineering project, the designers went back to the drawing board. Literally. They set up a studio at the Tech Center and began to resketch the Impact. Mark Kaski, who had worked in tandem with Aero Vironment, joined the effort.
- Months of redesign had gone by-but months still remained-when I visited the Tech Center last fall. I noticed an earthen smell as soon as I entered the studio. It was coming from a full-sized clay model of the Impact. Several casually dressed artisans chattered away as they shaved and smoothed the clay. Kaski’s reference sketches were plastered all over the walls.
- Kaski had drawn hundreds of shapes for the show car, looking for a vehicle with extremely low air resistance. “Some were wow-ee! Some were just blobs,” he said, constantly sketching as he talked. One influence was a picture of the Bertone BAT made by Alfa Romeo in the 1950s. The BAT was shaped like a long teardrop with high back fins. Kaski adapted a sketch, the team built a clay model, and then they put it in a wind tunnel for tests. The drag coefficient, the measure of air resistance, was very low. After more work, the shape for the show car was set. By then, its drag coefficient was down to an impressive 0.19. The best production cars reached only 0.26.
Back at the Tech Center, though, Kaski and the rest of the design team ran into all kinds of problems. The show car was too low. It sat only five inches off the ground; minimum commercial clearance is eight inches. Engineers needed more room under the hood for the electronics and a bulkier structure to survive a crash. Each stipulation drove up air resistance.
Then came worse news. A study of the car’s road worthiness showed that the various modifications made it 400 pounds heavier. Engineers had to make changes. When they did, Kaski had to redraw. After each iteration, the crowd met in the wind tunnel across the GM campus. It was John Szurpicki, the lead aerodynamicist, who had to keep the conflicting designers and engineers focused on one goal: lowering air resistance. “Every little detail affected drag, and almost all added to it,” he explained, making no effort to mask his frustration.
By the time of my visit, Szurpicki had beaten the number down some by imposing his own design changes, but it was still not low enough. Just yesterday I finished a test, and of course it was way the hell over target,” he said as we climbed up the steps to the wind tunnel. “We just have to keep playing with it.” You 71 never drive in a tunnel like this We entered the control room, which looks out across the center of the tunnel. Through the heavy glass wall we saw three engineers crouched on the floor, poking at a one-third-scale clay model of a 1996 car. We stepped in for just a moment. The model was laughably tiny inside the cavern, which was shaped like a gargantuan hourglass lying on its side. I looked to my left, to one distant end of the hourglass. Giant screens that direct the incoming wind rose seven stories high. Thick walls pinched in sharply to the test section, only 15 feet high and 30 feet wide. To the right, the walls opened again, disappearing into darkness a quarter-mile off. Strain gauges in the floor of the test platform record head-on air resistance, rocking, and lift or sink at each wheel of a scale model placed there; the system is so sensitive that it can detect the placement of a half-dollar on the hood of a 4,000-pound vehicle.
“Everybody out,” one engineer called. We hurried into the control room, and the fans were turned on. The wind built rapidly to hurricane force, howling past us at 130 mph. If you opened the door and stuck your arm out, the wind would just about rip it off. Szurpicki smiled as he told me that.
Engineers at GM’s Delco Remy division weren’t smiling when I found them, hidden away in a nondescript industrial shop located in a neighborhood of churches north of Indianapolis. They were charged with developing the Impact’s motors and batteries, two of the most secretive parts of the program. They had already gone through nine motor designs. Other alterations were under way, too, driven by practical ownership issues. In the show car, the electronics had been placed just behind the car’s nose. They were being moved, according to Bill Wylam, the engineer heading up the Delco Remy team, because insurance experts pointed out that even a fender bender could cause extensive damage.
- Still other changes would be made for safety reasons. The column of batteries, which runs from the dashboard through the center of the trunk, produces 320 volts of electricity, more than enough to kill you. “We have to redesign the battery pack to keep people out of there no matter how hard they try to get in,” said Ron Martin, the man in charge of Delco Remy’s motor work.
- Safety considerations influenced engine design, too. Engineers began thinking seriously about using a single induction motor, instead of the two smaller motors originally planned. If each wheel had a motor, and one were to fail while the car was streaking along, Martin explained, the car could, for an instant, swerve violently to one side because of the sudden loss of torque at one wheel.
The next challenge was to improve motor efficiency and reduce motor weight. “I could make a housing out of magnesium instead of aluminum,” Martin said, pacing around shop benches strewn with windings, “and I would save 12 pounds. But we’d have to spend more research money, and the end product would cost $100 more. I could reduce the horsepower by 25 percent, lowering the weight and cost, but then the car wouldn’t accelerate as quickly, and we’d lose buyers.”
Martin had hit upon the central quandary that confronts GM. Each step to improve efficiency or save weight can add to the final cost or limit performance.
The need to hold down cost influenced Delco Remy’s choice of batteries, too. Batteries have been the bane ofelectric vehicles from the beginning. Numerous chemical combinations have been tried-nickel-cadmium, nickel-zlnc, sodium-sulfur, lithium-polymer. All have a critical fault. They can’t store enough energy to give extended range or they can’t supply enough current for good acceleration or they are outrageously expensive. Lead-acid batteries have always provided the best compromise.
The Impact’s batteries are a high-performance species of the old reliable. They can store more energy, are more compact and require no maintenance. But there is a catch. The entire “corridor” of 32 batteries will have to be replaced every 20,000 miles or so, at a cost currently estimated at $1,500 or more.
Each time Wylam or Kaski or anyone else makes a substantive hardware change, the details are sent to the Parts Fabrication unit back at the Tech Center. There, scores of modelmakers fashion prototype cars by hand. In the process, they prove all design changes, motor configurations and structural adjustments either doable or impossible.
“Parts Fab” is a craftsman’s paradise-an indoor city of shops furnished with every tool imaginable, from 16-foot-high metal presses and computer-controlled milling machines to rows and rows of wrenches, chisels, files, gauges and homemade instruments. Every single part of a car can be made here, to exact manufacturing tolerances, by people who carve wood, stamp metal, cast plastic. The purpose is to fine-tune parts so they fit and operate properly, and to create molds for manufacturing dies that are put out onto the assembly line.
The boss of the modelmakers is Otto Kroll. When I talked to him about the Impact, he was getting impatient. He was already supposed to be building the first prototype cars, but the redesign was pushing that back. “It will take months to build this car,” Kroll said, running his hand over a smooth door mold sculpted in mahogany, as a cacophony of drilling and banging surrounded us. “Almost every piece is new. Now the design is late, and our time will be crunched.”
- Kroll was waiting in particular for the car’s internal design. With such a heavy battery pack, a 2,200-pound car is possible only if its frame is made from aluminum, not steel. The structure would be a spaceframe, a skeleton on which body panels are hung. That approach would cut body weight by 33 percent.
- Aluminum spaceframes have been used widely in aerospace work but not much in the auto industry because it is difficult to ensure strongly welded joints on a production line. GM will use both spot-welds and special adhesives. “We’re developing standards from scratch,” said manufacturing engineer Chris Chisholm. “The question is, can we do it economically at production quantities. Everything comes down to money.”
- As it is for Delco Remy, the Impact is serving as a test program for manufacturing. And here, too, the work is taking place in secret, this time at an independent tool shop a few miles from the Tech Center. Metal shavings crunched beneath my feet as I walked with Chisholm into the shop where Bob Thornton, a veteran GM welding engineer, had built a prototype welder. It cranked out parts that were then pulled, twisted and crushed to test for strength.
The need to keep aluminum welds away from edges was complicating the design task. For example, Kaski wanted the vertical pillars that run along each edge of the windshield, from the hood to the roof, to be very thin to increase driver visibility. But Chisholm needed wider pillars to allow tolerance for the welds.
At the tool shop, people working with the prototype welder were wearing protective clothing. As molten aluminum hit this clothing, it immediately cooled and oxidized, turning white. “If you see a guy walking around here with white stripes on his chest,” Thornton quipped, “he’s been welding aluminum.”
Subsections of the car that have been pieced together in Parts Fab are sent to GM’s proving grounds in Milford, 45 minutes west of the Tech Center. There, Gary Witzenburg, who will be putting the Impact through its paces, drove me around in a `92 Bonneville. We cruised along the top of a ridge that looks out over a valley covered with every kind of road imaginable, from high-speed ovals to serpentine turns to jagged Belgian-block pathways. “Anything you want to do to a car, you can do here,” Witzenburg said as he plunged us over the side of the ridge and raced down an insane chute as steep as the “big hill” on a roller coaster, pancaking at the bottom and banking into a turn.
Witzenburg and his colleagues function much like a pit crew. They assess handling, braking, steering and interior noise and begin to make adjustments, adding bushings to tighten the steering, laying insulation to block noise or adjusting suspension to improve ride. Back at the pit, the crew had just received the first full front-end suspension for the Impact and had attached it to a test vehicle that looked like a stripped dune buggy. One crew-member was hunched over the open front end, another was crawling beneath it. If, after driving it, the crew found that the aluminum struts were weakening, heavier metal would be needed. On the other hand, if the front end turned out to be overbuilt, a few pounds could be saved.
Like the folks at Parts Fab, the pit crew was getting anxious. Witzenburg made no bones about it. Fiddling nervously with some keys in his pocket, he told me, “We can’t wait to get our hands on the real cars.”
The marketing people were anxious to get their hands on some real cars, too. Even if the Impact turned out to be a technical success, it would be a hard sell. No one was prepared to say how much it would cost or when it would be available. Auto analysts predicted the car would run anywhere from $20,000 to $30,000 and be available in 1993 or 94.
What GM did say was that it intended to market the Impact as a second car. When Ken Baker’s team talked with those commuters, they learned that most drive fewer than ten miles to work. Other studies indicate that most second cars are driven fewer than 25 miles a day.
The problem, as analysts see it, is price. “Here I sit in San Francisco,” said Ronald Glantz, head of West Coast research for Dean Witter Reynolds. “I commute a short distance. I’m the perfect target customer. You know what I drive? A clunker. That’s what GM is competing with. Even if someone wants a new car, he’s not going to spend $20,000 solely for commuting.”
The car is likely to sell the first year or two because there are enough people out there with money who want to be the first on the block. But in the long run, convenience will be the prime incentive. Los Angeles, for example, may allow electrics to drive in high-occupancy lanes even if they don’t have any passengers.
GM’s board chairman, Robert Stempel, is not waiting for such carrots to materialize. He has sent his people out to lobby at the local, state and federal levels for everything from preferred parking spaces to discounted electric rates. They are also working to erase inconveniences that might hinder sales. For example, if employers and shopping malls would install public battery-charging stations, drivers could recharge their cars between trips. Los Angeles is already considering a plan to install numerous charging outlets, resembling parking meters, at parking facilities. GM must also distribute spare parts, and train dealers to repair electrics.
The consumer will have to be educated, too. How long does it take to recharge the batteries? Will the Impact cost less to run than a gasoline car; Some quick answers: if the batteries are fully run down, it will take two to three hours to recharge them using 220-volt current, but if you deplete them by only 15 or 20 percent, it will take only 20 to 30 minutes. You would spend perhaps 20 percent less to operate the car, including the cost of replacement batteries. The per-mile cost of electricity used for recharging is roughly one-fifth the cost of gasoline. Maintenance is much less–there’s no oil to change, no need for tune-ups, no muffler to fix. Over the average life of a car, according to Steve McCrea of the Electric Auto Association, an electric vehicle will cost about $5,000 less to run.
Robert Stempel acknowledges that the Impact may sell only as a specialty car. GM will not produce many of them, but for Stempel that’s just fine. “We sell passenger cars, sports cars, vans, light-duty trucks-a vehicle for each lifestyle,” he says. “So why not an electric car for your commuting needs?” (When so many car ads tout safety, some have questioned naming the car the “Impact.” One wag guessed that Ford might come out with the “Whiplash.”)
Even if sales are slow, the new technology spun off from the Impact may be worth the investment all by itself. Lightweight aluminum frames, for example, could enable gasoline cars to get more miles to the gallon. The electrical work will pay dividends, too. The demands of today’s conventional cars for everything rom electronically assisted power steering to electrically heated seats are getting so high that traditional power systems will soon be inadequate.
But the overriding purpose of the Impact program has more to do with prestige than technology. GM won’t be alone in the electric car market. Nissan has unveiled a prototype, and Honda has retained the services of Alan Cocconi, the electronics guru who invented Impact’s inverter. Ford, Peugeot, Chrysler, BMW, Fiat and others have announced their own plans, and Volkswagen has teamed up with Swatch (of plastic watch fame) to produce the “Swatchmobile,” a $6,000 electric-gasoline hybrid just big enough to carry two people and two cases of beer.” “The greatest reward for being first will be in securing an image as the technical leader in the automobile industry,” Baker says.
Stempel thinks GM is leading the electric-car race. But because the public’s initial reaction to such a radical product is likely to be cautious, he sends a strong warning to all of the competitors, including his own team. “If you’re going to be first out, your car had better be awfully good. If you come out first and it’s bad, it’ll kill electric cars for everybody.”
Can Ken Baker possibly have any stronger incentive@ It seems so. “Here I have the President of the United States saying the Impact is of national significance, and the head of General Motors saying the Impact is of corporate significance. But the importance of bringing automotive leadership back to America hit me much earlier. It was the day we went to the Lansing plant, which was then in danger of being shut down. We told the people that they were no longer going to build the Reatta there, but that they would be involved in launching the new electric car. There was resounding applause. Then one of the fellas from the line walked up to me and said, You know, for generations this plant has provided for my family. Thanks for giving me a chance to keep it here.’ That’s what drives me. That’s why this is the chance of a lifetime.”