GENERAL Motors Corporation's high-voltage electric-car program has run out of energy.
But GM's decision to delay mass production of the Impact could ultimately mean good news for eco-minded consumers, because it is triggering an unprecedented industry-wide effort to develop more commercially viable electric vehicles, or EVs.
It has been just three years since GM rolled out its tear-drop-shaped concept car. With 875 pounds of batteries crammed inside, there was not room for much more than two passengers. But the Impact quickly became the center of international attention - especially when GM promised to put it into production by the mid-1990s.
That promise helped convince California legislators to enact strict new Clean Air regulations which will require most carmakers to begin selling a small number of so-called "Zero-Emission Vehicles" (ZEV) by 1998. In practice, EVs are the only way to meet that standard.
But the Impact has run head-on into some hard realities. According to one well-placed GM insider, "The problem is low volume and the fact that some of the [planned] technology doesn't work."
The first sign that something was wrong came several months ago when Rockwell International withdrew as the supplier of Impact's lightweight plastic body panels.
Soon, the program began to sputter. Revised estimates cut projected sales by at least 60 percent, making it all but certain that GM could not turn a profit. So the project was short-circuited by company executives trying to reverse GM's financial crisis.
After boasting it was the leader in the race to develop a marketable electric car, GM is more than a bit embarrassed. Looking for the bright side, it plans to build 50 "proto-demo" vehicles next year.
"The project is not dead," insists Frank Schweibold, the Impact program's director of finance and planning. "We think we may be a little ahead of the game."
Perhaps, but half the Impact team has already been reassigned, and workers have been advised their assembly plant in Lansing, Mich., will not begin production as had been planned in a couple of years.
GM cannot completely shut off the Impact program. Unless California lawmakers back down, the ZEV law will take effect Jan. 1, 1998. GM and its rivals have barely five years to begin mass-marketing their first EVs.
Chrysler Corporation is just beginning production of its first 100 Te-vans. These are battery-powered versions of Chrysler's popular minivans. But they will cost more than $100,000 apiece. Ford has named its first official EV dealer, and early next year, it will launch a pilot fleet of 100 Ecostar electric utility trucks.
The Te-van and Ecostar are not likely to find their way into the hands of many private motorists. Price is only one reason. Batteries pose the biggest problem.
Even with 875 pounds of lead-acid batteries, the Impact carries less energy on board than contained in two gallons of gasoline. Electric cars typically need six to eight hours to charge. And the batteries must usually be replaced every few years, at a cost of up to $3000.
Car makers around the world are looking at a variety of alternatives. The Ecostar will use an unusual sodium-sulfur battery pack. These cells have far more power than the lead-acid cells used in the Impact, but the power pack must be kept at a high temperature to generate current.
A number of other promising alternatives are being studied by the United States Advanced Battery Consortium, a Big Three joint venture. The Ovonic, or nickel-metal-hydride battery, packs in twice as much power as the familiar NiCad, and can be recharged relatively rapidly.
EV engineers also need to develop more efficient electric motors, reliable computer control systems, and strong yet ultra-light body materials.
The Big Three are preparing to address those and other issues in what may become the most wide-ranging joint program in the history of the US auto industry.
The scope of the new consortium has yet to be finalized and approved by federal antitrust regulators. At the very least, the car makers will work together to develop key EV components, cutting their cost. It is possible they may even join forces to produce one or more electric vehicles.
"Everything is on the table," says Alexander Trotman, Ford's recently-named president of worldwide automotive operations. With one exception: Mr. Trotman says the new consortium will strictly bar the Japanese. "We're going to be very parochial about this."