Why Is This $500,000 Electric Car Collecting Dust In Rolla, Missouri?

Hey kid. Yeah, you. Want to make a cool half-mill? Well, there's a car covered in dust and chiaroscuro dongs sitting out in the open on a college campus. A very valuable car; a GM EV1. One of the ones that was supposed to have been destroyed. All you have to do is go to Rolla, Missouri and grab it up.

Of course, just like fencing a Picasso or some long-dead royal's bejeweled sceptre, unloading your EV1 haul for a cash payout will be harder than D.B. Cooper's landing. The only remaining units of General Motors's 1990s experiment in zero-tailpipe-emissions motoring have been well documented and accounted for. Among these, one car may or may not have been sold back in 2008 for around $450,000, or approximately 367 tons of organic parsnips in Davis Dollars.

That's where you come in. Imagine what a legitimate EV1 would fetch now. The sky's the limit, kid, if you've got the felony gene and you know your way around last century's electric-car tech. Just don't get caught, because we won't be there to bail you out.

Why Is This $500,000 Electric Car Collecting Dust In Rolla, Missouri?

The legend of the EV1 electric car platform is now mostly known to the public through "Who Killed The Electric Car?" a documentary about GM's battery-powered runabouts through the '90s, especially the part where GM rounded all the cars up — lease only, see — and destroyed them, despite protestation from Californians who wanted to keep them on the road.

But a few EV1s escaped the crusher. Notwithstanding the one that may or may not have been sold privately, a few more were donated to universities and museums, bereft of their powertrains. (Or at least part of their powertrains.) It's inside these archives and institutes of higher learning that tens of cloned EV1s reside, Orphan Black-like, unaware of each others' existence.

Jalopnik alum Joel Johnson happened to be in Missouri when Hardigree sent him an e-mail about a green EV1 that showed up on Twitter recently. Johnson popped over with Michael Schulte of the Kansas City Z Club to poke around the campus of Missouri S&T, an engineering school in Rolla, about 100 miles southwest of St. Louis.

Most of the school's professors had flown the coop for the day, but the two managed to snap some pictures and scrawl their own messages in the EV1's dust—no cocks—and tracked down some names of professors who had worked on the EV1 over the years and were kind enough to respond over e-mail.

Why Is This $500,000 Electric Car Collecting Dust In Rolla, Missouri?

"GM donated the car to us and I was on hand to receive it along with my colleague, Dr. Cox [seven or eight years ago]," writes MS&T professor Dr. Cheng Hsiao Wu. "He and his students worked on the original GM design for a few years. When I took over, I had the original motor taken out and replaced with a DC motor to get it running. As far as I know, that is the first EV1 car that runs out of all the 15 or so EV1s that were donated to the universities by GM."

Emeritus Professor at the school, Dr. Norman Cox adds some context to the collegiate GM EV1 story.

"At the time, some EV1's were given to museums, some (about 20) where given to key universities. A professor at Ohio State, as I recall, loaned the shell of their EV1 to a museum, but used the electric drive for a race car. I believe Brigham Young University also made a race car out of theirs.

As Dr. Wu mentioned, we used the car for senior design projects for a few years. It was great experience for the students. We all (me included) learned a lot from the experience."

Coincidentally, Jim Motavalli, writing for PlugInCars, recently happened upon The Ohio State University's own EV1 during a recent trip to the campus. Motavalli also recounted the story of the last remaining EV1 units. That is, the ones that weren't crushed.

Why Is This $500,000 Electric Car Collecting Dust In Rolla, Missouri?

"As we all know, most of the 1,117 EV1s produced between 1996 and 1999 (and finally taken off the road by GM in 2003) were crushed. You may have heard, they made a movie about it. But a few cars, 40 some say, were spared an early death and sent to universities and research centers—minus controllers for the main drive, brakes, power steering and such. They were supposed to be studied and taken apart by students, not resurrected.

Don Butler, an OSU research director, told me the university’s had the car 10 years. “It’s used primarily for research,” he said. “One of the terms is that we can’t drive it on public roads. We got the EV1 with the inverter disabled, though we were able to un-disable it. But parts of the traction system went into other cars we were working on, including our EcoCar contenders.”

Other colleges with EV1s include Western Washington, the University of Wisconsin, Brigham Young (which built an ultra-capacitor-based drag racing car with John Wayland of White Zombie fame as a consultant) and Penn State. The first two, remarkably, are now driving around."

As for the Missouri S&T car, a lead-acid battery pack now powers it, but the pack isn't always installed for safety reasons, so bring your own batteries if you plan on hijacking it. (That probably explains the lifted front suspension when viewed in profile.)

Why Is This $500,000 Electric Car Collecting Dust In Rolla, Missouri?

Even though part of the deal with GM was that the cars wouldn't be used on the road again, Professor Wu did note that they'd gotten the car running in at least one of Rolla's St. Patrick Day parades. But all the tinkering has knocked the EV1 out of commission.

"Now the drive shift is broken after repeated handlings. An electromagnetic switch is broken and the car cannot be shifted into, say, a drive mode without some hand touching. A replacement part is not available. The project has been stopped for about 1 year already."

But that wasn't all for Missouri S&T's EV1. Professor Wu used the car for a special project: Turning the EV1 into a fully-automated vehicle with "read" and "write" modes. How does it work?

Briefly, a driver [at] the wheel will drive a distance and all the information is then recorded in an on-board computer. That is the “write mode.” When the computer feeds the recorded information back, the car will move without a driver (the “read mode”).

Imagine you order a pizza or a prescription from a pharmacy. For the first time, a driver will drive an automated car and record all information and deliver the item. The next time when you order a product again, the automated car will drive to your home without a driver. A pizza or a prescription in the car will arrive at your home. When your phone rings, you walk out to the street to the car and slide in your credit card to pay, then the product will slide out of the tray for you like a vending machine.

It certainly will have huge commercial applications. The students on the project could run the car for, say, 10 seconds. Then the car will repeat the same distance after the computer reads the same information. The students also tried the braking and the distance monitoring through roof-mounted video cameras and cellular phone real-time communications with a distant monitoring person. They all worked.

Who really killed the electric car? College nerds trying to build the perfect pizza delivery vehicle.