The Soul Of A New Horseless Carriage


The Inside Story of GM's Revolutionary Electric Vehicle

By Michael Shnayerson

Random House -- 295pp -- $25

Huddled in top-secret meetings, planners debate the feasibility of a revolutionary product. Key members of the team have private doubts about whether, given their organization's stodgy bureaucracy, involvement in this scheme might damage their careers. Meanwhile, as outside political pressures nudge the project onward, the organization's spokespeople assert that the idea is loony and undoable.

The perpetual lightbulb or the smokeless cigarette, perhaps? Nope--the object of this intense activity was General Motors Corp.'s electric car, known as the Impact. That project is described in Michael Shnayerson's The Car That Could. It's a masterful account, richly spiced with tales of clashing egos, GM's brush with financial disaster, and its ensuing boardroom coup.

Shnayerson, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, followed the tortuous 1992-95 journey of the Impact--from concept to production. En route, he gained access to secret planning sessions and amassed notes from 275 interviews.

A central character in the narrative is Ken Baker, a star GM techie. He was offered the job of chief engineer on the project--a unique opportunity to create an all-new vehicle. But since he had already led GM's aborted attempt in the 1970s to build an electric version of the Chevrolet Chevette, Baker was leery. He eventually signed on, but not before a lot of agonizing. At 42, Baker's dream of becoming a vice-president would likely be dashed if GM later scrapped the project.

His doubts were well-founded. Baker and his team faced huge obstacles. The prickliest one: how to squeeze 100 miles of driving range from an 850-pound battery pack containing no more energy than one gallon of gasoline. Shnayerson gives lively accounts of infighting as the team struggled to trim the Impact's weight and save every bit of energy. And to the author's credit, he almost always avoids turgid tech-speak.

The Car That Could also explores GM's schizophrenia over the electric vehicle (EV). On one hand, it spent nearly $300 million developing the Impact--a fair chunk of change, even by Motown standards. While some GM brass supported the Impact in hopes that a breakthrough might burnish the company's faded image as a technology leader, GM lobbyists were using every trick imaginable to kill the California antipollution regulations that would have required carmakers to start selling EVs in 1998. They vastly inflated EV cost estimates and allied themselves with the bare-knuckled fighters lobbying for the oil industry. In the end, California's mandate was dropped last year, the victim of Governor Pete Wilson's Presidential aspirations as much as of lobbying. But GM decided to push ahead with the Impact on the hope it would eventually prove profitable.

The book is enlivened by a colorful cast of characters. There's Alan Cocconi, the reclusive young electronics genius. Working in the sunroom of his largely unfurnished home in Southern California, Cocconi hand-soldered the thousands of components for the Impact concept car's electronic brain. And there's Stanford Ovshinsky, the controversial Detroit inventor. Although most of Ovshinksy's various technology companies have been perpetual money-losers, GM formed a joint venture with him to develop promising nickel metal hydride batteries. As Shnayerson recounts, the self-promoting Ovshinsky repeatedly infuriated his new partner by lending experimental batteries to upstart EV companies such as Solectria Corp. in Wilmington, Mass. Solectria used these to win several EV races, grabbing headlines at a time when GM was trying to kill the California mandate.

Even Detroit insiders will learn something new from The Car That Could. For instance, behind the public facade of cooperation on EVs, the Big Three's fierce competition thrived. Ford's engineers used meetings with GM to spy on the Impact's progress. And ironically, the two companies were secretly readying identical electric conversions of a small Mitsubishi minivan. Both projects were conceived as an inexpensive way to meet California's 1998 deadline. It was the low-risk, low-budget approach that scrappy Chrysler Corp. had taken from the outset.

What with its lively writing and telling detail, there's little to fault in The Car That Could. Still, some readers may question Shnayerson's rosy picture of EVs' ultimate chances for success. Unlike so many modern electronic gadgets, such as microwave ovens or compact-disk players, electric cars cost more and offer less utility--because of their short range and long recharge times--than the machines they seek to replace.

The Impact, rechristened EV1, goes on sale this fall in California for about $35,000--Detroit's first all-new electric car in three-quarters of a century. GM has taken a gamble that EVs will take off, sparking the same spiral of improved performance and lower cost that inventions such as personal computers have followed. Depending on how the car is received by consumers, Shnayerson's book may chronicle the beginning of a revolution. Or it may be simply a fascinating tale of the birth of an innovation whose time hasn't yet come.

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