The General Motors CEO who killed the original electric car is now in the electric car business

The car of the future past.
The car of the future past.
Image: AP Photo/Nick Ut
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Rick Wagoner, the former CEO of General Motors who resigned under pressure in 2009, is back in the car business, joining the board of ChargePoint, which maintains a network of charging stations for electric cars.

This would normally be an uneventful appointment—industry veterans often advise promising startups—save for Wagoner’s history as the executive who killed GM’s first electric car.

In 1996, GM rolled out the EV1, an innovative battery-powered car. It was introduced in response to a 1990 California law requiring car makers to produce zero-emissions vehicles in order to continue selling conventional automobiles in the state. GM produced 1,117 EV1s, but made them only available for lease. While limited by their small size (just two seats) and a range of less than 100 miles, the car was popular among environmentalists and celebrities like Tom Hanks and Mel Gibson.

As GM was promoting its foray into renewable vehicles, it was simultaneously lobbying to weaken the California law. When the auto industry succeeded in watering down the regulations in 2001, GM, under Wagoner, soon after terminated the EV1, citing limited demand.

But GM just didn’t stop making the cars, however; it recalled the vehicles and destroyed them, over the objections of their drivers, who offered to buy them from GM. In the documentary, Who Killed the Electric Car?, released in 2006, director Chris Paine contends GM sabotaged the EV1, fearing electric vehicles would undermine its conventional business. GM denied that accusation.

Only a handful of EV1s survived and the only fully intact one is in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, DC.

As hybrids like the Toyota Prius demonstrated the market for alternatives to gas-powered cars and Tesla has shown there is a market for electric cars, GM has rejoined the race—the all-electric Chevy Bolt is already on sale in some parts of the US and will roll out nationwide this year.

Wagoner—who left GM after decades of  bad decisions forced the company into bankruptcy in the financial crisis, and required a huge government bailout— told Motor Trend magazine that killing the EV1 was his worst decision.

Wagoner’s new venture is probably risk-free, as any doubts about the long-term viability of electric cars have safely been put to rest. If you need proof, consider that Tesla is now more valuable than Ford—and GM is in its sights.