GM EV1 & Tesla Model S: Looking At 20 Years Of Electric Cars

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GM EV1 and Tesla Model S electric cars, at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Worcester, MA, Oct 2013

GM EV1 and Tesla Model S electric cars, at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Worcester, MA, Oct 2013

Last week, we were struck by a single photo that captured electric cars across two decades.

The image, showing a GM EV1 and a Tesla Model S on the Worcester Polytechnic Institute campus, was posted on Facebook by Tesla Motors [NSDQ:TSLA].

More than anything we've seen in a while, that photo showed how much progress electric cars have made in less than 20 years.

From EV1 to Model S

The GM EV1, the most advanced electric car in the world when it launched in 1996, was a sleek two-seat coupe with a very low drag coefficient and--according to its loyal drivers--delightful power and acceleration.

The range provided by its 18.7-kilowatt-hour lead-acid battery pack was given at 70 to 100 miles. But each one cost General Motors far more than it could ever recoup from lease payments.

When California lifted the zero-emission vehicle sales mandate the EV1 had been designed to meet, GM took back the EV1s and crushed them--as documented in Who Killed The Electric Car?

Fast forward to June 2012, when the very first Tesla Model S was delivered.

Tesla's all-electric luxury sedan seats five, can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in less than 5 seconds, and delivers an EPA-rated range of 265 miles.

Chelsea Sexton

Chelsea Sexton

Veteran's perspective

To get a sense of what has changed over those years--and what hasn't--we reached out to electric-car advocate Chelsea Sexton, one of the stars of that EV1 documentary.

We asked her to compare the EV1 and the Model S, the best-known and most iconic electric cars of their times, and to reflect on the intervening years.

"It's not really fair or productive to try to compare the EV1 and Model S as vehicles," Sexton riposted, "though many do so anyway."

"But the EV1 was never positioned as a luxury or long-range vehicle," she said, "or even as a sports car--though its acceleration hit that mark for some."

The most visible improvements since the EV1's day, Sexton said, have been in vehicle technology. All cars, including plug-in electric vehicles, are "quieter and more comfortable, and vehicle accessories and infotainment have come a long way in general."

Range mostly unchanged

But aside from Tesla's Model S, she said, the current crop of electric cars "looks a lot like the last one."

Specifically, their EPA-rated ranges--62 to 103 miles--haven't changed much.

In fact, they're lower than either the first-generation Toyota RAV4 EV (stated as 100 to 120 miles) or the GM EV1 updated with a larger 26.7-kWh nickel-metal-hydride battery pack (100 to 140 miles).

And while today's lithium-ion batteries are clearly better, Sexton said, "that's less visible to the buyer since the range is roughly the same."

Prices clearly have improved, "due in part to economies of scale that were never pursued in the last generation," she acknowledged.

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