The EV1 will go on sale later this year in Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix and Tucson. It will cost about $35,000 (pounds 22,500) and be similar to the Impact, a test vehicle that GM developed - and almost dropped - three years ago. But a spokesman said: "Fifty Impacts were given out as test cars, and they were so successful we decided to go into production." The company is also producing an electric pick-up truck.
Although the vehicles are in many ways technically advanced, the basic power system is the same as a milk float's. GM has eschewed new types of battery, and has not attempted to tackle the fundamental electric vehicle problem of high weight and limited range. The two-seater EV1 weighs a thumping 1.4 tons, 40 per cent of which consists of 26 lead acid batteries. The range is 70 to 90 miles, after which the car must be recharged for three hours.
It is difficult to see why anyone would willingly swap a petrol-engined $35,000 vehicle for an EV1, according to Garel Rhys, motor industry professor at Cardiff Business School. "Left to market forces, not many customers are going to buy it," he said. "Right now I don't see the electric car taking off except in a few niche markets."
GM's decision seems all the more baffling because the Californian authorities announced before Christmas that they were rescinding a law that requires 2 per cent of all cars sold in 1998 (and 5 per cent by 2002) to be zero- emission - electric. Instead a much more modest target of 3,700 vehicles over three years has been set.
Professor Rhys said, however, that there might be method in GM's madness. First, US cities could decide to penalise petrol-driven cars, or even exclude them from certain areas. Second, he said: "There is a latent fear there could be a breakthrough in electric technology, which means the big car makers want to stay in the market place."
GM's decision could also bring closer the day when electric cars do indeed make commercial sense by helping keep alive research programmes that might crack the weight/range problem. US government funding of electric vehicle R&D, which has been generous, is coming under Republican pressure. But a consortium formed by GM, Ford and Chrysler continues to plug away at new battery technologies. So do univer- sities and specialist companies.
Electric cars should be more commercially attractive in Europe, where average journeys are shorter and petrol is more expensive. Most big car companies have research programmes. Peugeot manufactures an electrical conversion of its 106 and hopes soon to launch the much more advanced Ion. Other companies such as Volkswagen favour hybrids, which can run on electric power in towns and petrol outside them, while Volvo has built a gas-turbine hybrid. In town this is purely electric, but in the countryside the batteries are charged by a small jet engine.
But as in the US, in the absence of a technological breakthrough electric cars will make sense only if governments decide they should. La Rochelle in France already has a scheme to rent out plug-in cars. If such initiatives become widespread, the new silent era could indeed arrive. Otherwise the electric car will remain the quaint exception.