The Making of an EV Advocate

Design News has a long conversation with EV advocate Chelsea Sexton to learn how she became an electric vehicle champion, and where she sees the EV market going.
Chelsea Sexton became an EV advocate after helping GM launch its EV1. (Image source: Chelsea Sexton)

Long before the Tesla Roadster, Chevrolet Volt, and Nissan Leaf, the first purpose-designed production electric vehicle (EV) from a major manufacturer in the modern era was the GM EV1. Produced from 1996 to 1999, and available for lease only, the EV1 (the only passenger car sold under the GM brand name) quickly developed a devoted and nearly fanatical group of “owners.” They were among the first modern US motorists to experience the excitement of electrical propulsion.

“Mentally, intellectually, the technology appeals to me, but what actually decided the course of my life in this was driving it for the first time,” Chelsea Sexton told Design News. Sexton was working for a Saturn Dealer in California when she heard that GM was looking to hire a dozen GM representatives to help launch the EV1. Although she was working at the dealership to pay her way through college, and GM wanted people with engineering degrees, she applied and was accepted to help launch the car at the end of 1996.

Jack of All Trades

“Initially, it was just meant to be a marketing job, but it ended up being everything but building the car,” explained Sexton. “Yes, it was marketing, but it was also training the dealers, and rating the training, and writing the brochures, and getting them produced, and creating all the public policy and incentives, and teaching the DMV how to register an electric car. We all had contractor licenses because we were getting chargers installed in people’s houses and in public,” she added.

Sexton was quickly drawn into the EV world. “What really drew me to the electric car was the performance. I was not a car person growing up, but I very much became one. I was blown away by the performance!” she said. “My life on that program lasted about six years. The first year and a half or two years were fairly bright and shiny, in terms of enthusiasm. There were small incremental shifts that became clear after the second or third year that they (GM) really didn’t want to do this,” said Sexton.

Crushing Dreams

GM’s EV1 program was discontinued in 2003 and, as the cars were only available through leasing, all of the cars were repossessed by GM. The lessors—many of whom loved their electric vehicles—were given no opportunity to buy their cars. Except for 40 EV1s that were deactivated and donated to museums and technical schools, the remaining almost 1,100 cars were crushed, sadly ending GM’s first foray into EVs.

“When the program ended, I couldn’t imagine going to work on the next Buick, and I left company—but I still never left EVs,” explained Sexton. “I did them independently for a while. I helped start Plug-in America, we did some protesting, we did all sorts of things. But while I had a couple of day jobs to help pay the rent, I pretty much never left EVs in some form since the mid-1990s,” she said.

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