There’s a story I’ve run into twice now, and it concerns car companies turning away enthusiasts from getting a shot at owning their early modern electric cars.
There were a number of EVs reaching the market in very, very low volumes in the 1990s. These cars almost exclusively went out to corporate fleets, universities, or other institutions. That made sense to me. Early EVs like the GM EV1 or the Nissan Altra EV were a far cry from the production-ready electric cars on the market today. Instead of 830 horsepower in the upcoming GMC Hummer EV, for instance, the Altra EV made 83 HP. They weren’t what consumers wanted.
Or at least that’s what I’ve always thought. The more I read about these cars, the more I hear about people who very much did want a shot at them. And they got turned away, as we wrote when we drove the last surviving, driving Altra EV here in the States:
I remembered this Nissan because it was a particular vehicle (alongside the Honda EV Plus) my environmental mother was obsessed with at the 1998 Los Angeles Auto Show. It was around this time she sat in various Saturn showrooms around Southern California contemplating replacing her Saab with an EV1. But like many early adopters who wanted to do something similarly offbeat, Nissan would turn them down. Most Altras made went to Nissan employees for evaluation, while several were also leased by utility companies and local municipalities.
That struck me as interesting, as I had just been reading something similar about the GM EV1 program, again pulled from this astoundingly old university faculty blog citing the rather glowing book The Car That Could:
With difficulty about eleven hundred EV1’s were produced. They were leased out to gather information about the public’s acceptance of the electric car with its limitations. If GM had set the lease rate at a level commensurate with the cost of production they would not have gotten any takers except a few posturing Hollywood celebrities. Instead GM leased them at a bargain rate to gather information about drivers who were neither already sold on the idea of an electric car nor adamantly opposed to it. The company did not want to lease them to the electric car enthusiasts and so had to try to weed them out. This of course puzzled the enthusiasts who thought the program was a normal vehicle marketing operation. Of course GM was not entirely successful in eliminating the enthusiasts.
It doesn’t make sense for a car company to want people to not want its cars, except for one thing. Car companies exist not to better the environment, not to forward new technology. They exist to make a profit, and these early EVs were in no way profitable. Nissan told us that the battery pack on the Altra EV cost Nissan somewhere between $50,000 and $70,000 to make. There’s no way to turn that into a profit when the car itself is a beige station wagon that barely does highway speeds. Pricing these cars at a realistic cost is a death sentence.
So now I am wondering if there are any Jalopnik readers out there who got steered away from an electric car pilot program in the 1990s or 2000s. People who wanted in but couldn’t get a slot. If that’s you, write us in at tips at jalopnik dot com. If you want to be featured in our EV Ownership Stories series, too, check out the bottom of this post for instructions how.