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From out of its past, Chevy presents the car of the future

I've been hearing a lot lately about the new electric car from General Motors, the GM Volt. It will go 40 miles without any gas, then uses a four cylinder gas engine to recharge its own battery, giving it a range of 640 miles, and can be plugged in any outlet. Its top speed is 120 mph. It is scheduled to go into production at the end of 2009, for a 2010 rollout.

Sounds like a dream, xcept for the $35,000 price tag. But wait a minute. Didn't GM already design and manufacture an electric car? Wasn't Tom Hanks always telling David Letterman how much he loved his? Wasn't it called the EV-1?Wasn't there some kind of controversy? Didn't I see a documentary about this?

Yes. The car was named the EV-1. It was first produced by GM in 1996. It couldn't be purchased, only leased. More than 1,100 EV-1s were in private hands in Arizona and California. Its drivers loved it. Then, in 1999, GM abruptly stopped production, and forcibly recalled the car over the protests of its drivers. Chris Paine's 2006 documentary "Who Killed the Electric Car?" eventually found the EV-1s crushed and dumped in the desert: One environmental insult following another.

Why did GM not only discontinue the car but decide to obliterate all traces of it? Conspiracy theories abound. I cannot untangle them. The punch line is provided by Wikipedia. GM Chairman and CEO Rick Wagoner said in 2006, "the worst decision of my tenure at GM was axing the EV1 electric-car program and not putting the right resources into hybrids. It didn’t affect profitability, but it did affect image." And GM R&D chief Larry Burns told Newsweek in 2007: "If we could turn back the hands of time, we could have had the Chevy Volt 10 years earlier."

Yes, and look at the beautiful 100% electric Tesla Roadster, already on sale, which goes 244 miles on a 3.5 hour charge. If you lived in South Bend, you could commute to Chicago every day using no gas. You would have to save a lot on gas money, however, to meet the $110,000 price tag.

Meanwhile, It's as if the EV-1 had never existed. Its unmarked desert grave acts as a symbol for the failure of Detroit to break loose from its lockstep with Big Oil, and create a vision for the future. The Big Three felt no urgency. Indeed, GM vice chairman Bob Lutz, who now hails the Chevy Volt as his swan song and finest moment, once told a group of auto writers that global warming was "a crock of s***." Lutz today boasts the Volt is “the last thing anybody expected from GM.”
Not if they remembered the EV-1.

Chris Paine's 2006 documentary "Who Killed the Electric Car?" tells the story of how the EV-1 was an instant success before it was an instant failure. If GM's recall was a success, not a single car survives. Even today, you won't find it remembered in the coverage of the forthcoming Volt, which is a considerable improvement on the EV-1 but nonetheless its child. It is sad to disown a parent.

On NPR over the weekend, as part of its package of electric cars, a commentator suggested they would be the perfect, inexpensive, non- polluting way to tour the USA. Who more poetically evoked drving across America than Jack Kerouac in On the Road? So, she suggested naming a car in his honor. I, too, was inspired to poetry.

I bought me a brand new Pontiac
Which was great on my sacroiliac.
But just moving my ass
Took three gallons of gas,
So I traded it in on a Kerouac

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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