Quantum Leaps - 1999 Chevy Silverado EV2

Jo Borras
by Jo Borras
quantum leaps 1999 chevy silverado ev2

In 1996, General Motors unveiled the first modern electric car: The EV1. Built to prove that GM could satisfy California’s then-new zero-emissions regulations, the EV1 was a quick, efficient, electric two-seater that could be plugged into a standard 110 outlet. By all accounts, the car was well-loved by its owners lessors, but wasn’t profitable enough for GM to make a business case for the development of an EV2. GM halted production after the 1999 model year.

What if they hadn’t stopped there, though? What if, instead of cancelling the EV1, GM had decided to build on everything they’d learned about EVs and doubled down on it, using economies of scale to drive down costs to a level that could have been profitable? What if they had a platform that they already knew they were going to make hundreds of thousands of, every year, standing by at the ready? And, finally, what if that platform had been sturdy enough to carry around an extra thousand pounds of battery without breaking a sweat?

They did, and the 1999 Chevrolet Silverado EV2 is the story of GM dominance that never was.

THIS REALLY COULD HAVE WORKED

Take yourself back to 1999, if you can. At the time, the EV1’s cancellation didn’t seem like particularly big news. After all, gas was still relatively cheap and the dollar still relatively strong, by post-COVID standards, and the need to develop EVs seemed like it could wait a generation or two, still. What was big news in 1999, however, was the launch of the similarly loved GMT800 Chevy Silverado/GMC Sierra pickup and its Gen-III “Vortec” line of small-block V8 engines. The trucks were fantastic, and I remember admiring the Chevy’s reptilian grille – which sat in sharp contrast to the carp-mouthed, jellybean ugliness of the ’97 Ford F-150, in my opinion.

Fast forward twenty-few years, and Ford is stealing the headlines with its all-electric F-150 Lightning pickup, coming to market with a genuine mainstream contender that offers real-world benefits to commercial customers while, at the same time, using the pickup’s beefy frame to carry an extra-large battery to deliver a very practical 400-ish miles of empty-bed range. Meanwhile, Chevy’s electric Silverado challenger is nowhere to be seen (at least, not as I type this).

It didn’t have to be this way. Chevy should have beaten Ford to the electric pickup punch by two decades – and they could have, by taking everything they’d learned building the EV1 and applying it to the 1999 Chevrolet Silverado EV2.

In 1996, the “first generation” EV1 carried 1300 lbs. of lead-acid batteries good for 75-80 miles of range – but, even then, battery technology advanced quickly. By 1999, the “second generation” EV1 had dropped 400 pounds of battery by switching to the then-new nickel metal hydride (NiMH) “Ovonic” battery pack that slashed charging time and bumped the car’s EPA-rated range to 142 miles.

Those are decent numbers, even today. Compare those numbers to, say, the 110 mile range of a 2020 Mini Cooper SE or the 100 mile range on the 2022 Mazda MX-30 EV, and you might say that GM had a winner – but efficiency has never sold well in America, and that was probably even more true in 1999, before the dot com bubble burst. Americans always want more, whether that’s larger vehicles, more powerful engines, or more range from their EVs.

The Silverado EV2 could have given Americans all of that. Consider the dual-motor EVs of today – Chevy could have put EV1 motors at the front and rear of a specially hydroformed GMT800 frame. They already made 40 configurations of said frame, after all, what’s one or two more between friends? That same frame could house those new NiMH batteries with ease – and a lot more of them, too. Especially considering all the space that would be freed up by jettisoning the Vortec V8 and 4L60-E automatic transmission.

Imagine it. A pair of 137 horsepower EV1 motors for a combined 274 hp – that’s four more than the 270 hp rating on the 5.3 Vortec that same year. With all the torque available at zero rpm, an electric Silverado would be just as fun around town as the Vortec with its notoriously snappy throttle tip-in. And if the EV1 could get 140-odd miles out of 900 lbs. of battery, surely a Silverado-based EV2 could get to 200 miles with 1500 lbs. of battery.

Even in 1999, nothing needed to be invented to make this happen. Heck, with the $500 million check that the Clinton administration gave GM to subsidize the EV1’s development, nothing really needed to be spent to make it happen. All it would have taken was some forward-thinking marketers, a little ingenuity from the engineers, a clever understanding of how to bring electricity to the job site from the commercial truck guys, and a lot of balls from GM’s top brass.

Alas, one look at the late-90s Pontiac Bonneville or Grand Am and their acres of tacky plastic body side cladding – which were already an industry joke when those cars were launched – will tell you that none of those things existed at GM.

A STEP TOO FAR

Back when I was working at Mosler Automotive in the late ‘90s, some of Detroit’s most influential executives (guys like Dave McLellan and Joe Ziomek) were coming to see us because we (well, Warren Mosler and Rod Trenne) were the first people to design a car entirely on a computer. That’s a fact that is so staggering to me that I often forget just how incredible it was that I got to be the one looking over Trenne’s shoulder as a 19- or 20-year-old kid.

Then it hits me: If GM were so far removed from the future on something like CAD back then, I can see why an electric Silverado might be too much of an ask, even from our automotive time-travelling Sam Beckett. This one probably would have taken a whole team of car-enthusiast time travelers to make happen, and at least two or three DeLoreans.

All the same, I think it would have been an incredible machine – one that could have stamped GM’s authority on all things innovative and electric for the next 20 to 40 years. But that’s just me – what do the Best and Brightest think? You know the drill, so scroll on down to the comments and tell us what you think.

[Image: Chevrolet]

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  • ToolGuy ToolGuy on Sep 29, 2021

    @Jo, A) What was the cost of a 26.4 kWh NiMH battery pack in 1999? Here are some estimates of the total vehicle cost (battery was a significant portion): "One industry official said that each EV1 cost the company about US$80,000, including research, development and other associated costs;[81] other estimates placed the vehicle's actual cost as high as $100,000.[6] Bob Lutz, GM Vice Chairman responsible for the Chevrolet Volt, in November 2011 stated the EV1 cost $250,000 each and leased for just $300 per month.[82]" https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/General_Motors_EV1 Take that cost estimate and multiply by 1.7, because you have spec'd out a significantly larger battery. How quickly do your proposed economies of scale kick in? (The NiMH battery was only introduced in 1999.) B) How does the rolling resistance of a 1999 GMT800 compare to a 1999 EV1? What are the respective drag coefficients? C) Are we building this as a K1500 or a K2500? What is the payload rating of the vehicle we started with, and what payload do we end up with? Same for towing capacity. What is the electric-only range when fully loaded? And when max towing? You have created a failed business case *and* a market dud. When TTAC begins in 2002, they are going to write super-harsh reviews of your 'electric pickup' - and they are going to be dead right. [GM has done some stupid things in the past. Not building this was not one of them.]

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    • Scoutdude Scoutdude on Sep 30, 2021

      There are a couple of reasons why the EV1 cost so much per vehicle that wouldn't have applied to a EV Silverado. They only made 1100 so no where near enough to amortize the development cost. Since it was a purpose built vehicle the body and all the light weight components meant that was a large part of that development cost. The EVrado could have sold in much higher volumes maybe 10x as much in a 10 year run. And EVrado could have used much of the same pieces as the gas truck. So cut the development cost in half and sell 10x as many since it was a useful useable vehicle rather than a commuter pod that very few people had an interest in past the 80's.

  • JimC31 JimC31 on Sep 30, 2021

    I do recall when I had this illusion that this might have made sense at the time. I figured the biggest mobile machines in existence are electric drive, and big machines sometimes actually carry around excess weight on purpose(like say farm tractors,) that EVs should 'trickle down' from there. That's of course completely wrong, you had to start as small and light and aerodynamic as possible. Tesla's EV semi has laughable range for its job. This? In 1999? Not a bloody chance.

  • Jeff S Corey--We know but we still want to give our support to you and let TTAC know that your articles are excellent and better than what the typical articles are.
  • Jeff S A sport utility vehicle or SUV is a car classification that combines elements of road-going passenger cars with features from off-road vehicles, such as raised ground clearance and four-wheel drive.There is no commonly agreed-upon definition of an SUV and usage of the term varies between countries. Thus, it is "a loose term that traditionally covers a broad range of vehicles with four-wheel drive." Some definitions claim that an SUV must be built on a light truck chassis; however, broader definitions consider any vehicle with off-road design features to be an SUV. A [url=https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crossover_(automobile)]crossover SUV[/url] is often defined as an SUV built with a unibody construction (as with passenger cars), however, the designations are increasingly blurred because of the capabilities of the vehicles, the labelling by marketers, and electrification of new models.The predecessors to SUVs date back to military and low-volume models from the late 1930s, and the four-wheel drive station wagons and carryalls that began to be introduced in 1949. The 1984 [url=https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jeep_Cherokee_(XJ)]Jeep Cherokee (XJ)[/url] is considered to be the first SUV in the modern style. Some SUVs produced today use unibody construction; however, in the past, more SUVs used body-on-frame construction. During the late 1990s and early 2000s, the popularity of SUVs greatly increased, often at the expense of the popularity of large [url=https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sedan_(automobile)]sedans[/url] and station wagons.More recently, smaller SUVs, mid-size, and crossovers have become increasingly popular. SUVs are currently the world's largest automotive segment and accounted for 45.9% of the world's passenger car market in 2021. SUVs have been criticized for a variety of environmental and safety-related reasons. They generally have poorer fuel efficiency and require more resources to manufacture than smaller vehicles, contributing more to climate change and environmental degradation. Between 2010 and 2018 SUVs were the second largest contributor to the global increase in carbon emissions worldwide. Their higher center of gravity increases their risk of rollovers. Their larger mass increases their stopping distance, reduces visibility, and increases damage to other road users in collisions. Their higher front-end profile makes them at least twice as likely to kill pedestrians they hit. Additionally, the psychological sense of security they provide influences drivers to drive less cautiously. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sport_utility_vehicleWith the above definition of SUV any vehicle that is not a pickup truck if it is enclosed, doesn't have a trunk, and is jacked up with bigger tires. If the green activists adhere to this definition of what an SUV is there will be millions of vehicles with flat tires which include HRVs, Rav4s, CRVs, Ford Escapes, Buick Encores, and many of compact and subcompact vehicles. The green movement is going to have to recruit millions of new followers and will be busy flattening millions of tires in the US and across the globe. Might be easier to protest.
  • Sckid213 I actually do agree that most Nissans are ultimately junk. (I also think many BMWs are also). I was talking challenging the 3 in terms of driving dynamics. Agree all were failures in sales.
  • THX1136 More accurately said, we are seeing exponential growth in the manufacturing capabilities in this market. Unless, of course, all those vehicles are sold with customers waiting until more a produced so they can buy. Indeed, there are certainly more EVs being purchased now than back in 2016. Is demand outstripping manufacturing? Maybe or maybe not. I sincerely don't know which is why I ask.
  • ToolGuy The page here (linked in the writeup) is ridiculously stupid https://www.tyreextinguishers.com/how-to-spot-an-suvLike, seriously stupid, e.g., A) Not sure that particular Volvo is killing the planet as quickly as some other vehicles we might choose. B) A Juke is "huge"??? C) The last picture shows a RAV4 Hybrid?
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