The Untold Story of Motorola’s Secret 1990s Corvette EV Project: Who Killed the Electric Corvette?
Motorola’s decision to cancel its electric Corvette project would have fateful consequences for the company, the auto industry—and the planet.
From the outside looking in, it appeared that the ragtag group of Motorola engineers was successful. In less than a year between 1992 and 1993, the company's director of automotive technology Sanjar Ghaem and his crew had gone from dreaming about electric cars to setting a new speed record and building two advanced, fully-functional EVs—the Corvette conversion and an experimental race car—that were legitimately fast. They’d caught the attention of OEMs like Toyota and GM. They were light years ahead of the “glorified golf cart” conversion that Ghaem first built in the 1970s using an old Renault.
But internally at Motorola, resistance was starting to grow.
[Editor's note: This is the finale of a three-part series laying out the never-before-told story of Motorola's amazing electric Corvette project. Part I can be found here, and Part II is here. If you haven't read both, you'll want to catch up before continuing.]
“After the Corvette became more visible in Motorola, many people started getting involved. I really didn't know who or what they were before and after meeting with some of them, but it didn't seem like they were there to help. And they definitely didn't seem like car guys,” Bob Gerbetz, who built the cars’ motors, told me.
Motorola was going through larger changes at the time, with a new CEO installed in 1993 and the retirement of former Motorola Automotive VP John Pelland, who had been one of the EV Corvette’s biggest early supporters. As projected costs for bringing the Corvette into the next stage of development began to mount, the new management made it clear they were skeptical about the whole vision for electric cars as the future.
The Electric Corvette Can't Outrun Fate
Still, Sanjar Ghaem was ready to show off the project to the company’s new COO, Chris Galvin. After the electric Corvette was finished, it was trucked from Arizona to the Motorola campus in Illinois to be unveiled for executives as a surprise finale in a presentation about the automotive engineering group’s latest efforts. “I’ve got something to show you, but it’s not here, it’s out in the parking lot,” Ghaem recalled telling the suits as he led them to the red convertible hidden under a cover. He insisted that Galvin take it for a spin.
After a short drive, Ghaem recalled the COO returning with a look of excitement on his face. “Why did you build this?” he asked.
“Because this is the future,” Ghaem recalled saying.
“The future? How far in the future?” Galvin asked.
“Fifteen to 20 years,” Ghaem said proudly.
Ghaem said he remembers Galvin smiling, but shortly after, the electric Corvette and EX-12 race car projects were both unceremoniously canceled.
Ghaem tried to convince Motorola executives that the project was viable and that electric vehicles were worth pursuing, but his pleas fell on deaf ears. Leadership simply thought that 15 to 20 years was too long a timeline to invest in, and that battery technology wouldn't mature enough in that span to make EVs a reality.
Complicating things was the fact that Ghaem's main partner-in-crime and fellow engineer Ken Gerbetz left Illinois as the Corvette was being completed to pursue a master's degree in Boston. "Maybe if I had stayed there, I would have been able to get buy-in to continue the program in some form," Ken said. "Knowing the senior management as I did, I would have scaled back the proposed program and focused it on an AC drive/hybrid system using the Orbital engine," referring to the pair's original plan to build a hybrid demo car with a low-emission two-stroke engine backing up an electric drive unit.
Bob Gerbetz doesn’t remember the project’s demise being so genteel. “Next thing we know, we're sitting in a meeting getting a lecture from some Motorola people via the old teleconference screens that made you feel like you're at the movies,” he said. Bob recalled Motorola executives saying they didn’t want testosterone dictating product development, but the truth was company leadership just didn’t believe in EVs; Bob said he remembers them saying no one would ever buy a hybrid car, let alone an electric one.
"Some new people took over and pretty much killed the whole automotive technology group, shut down our hybrid program, took away access to the Corvette, took away all our test equipment, and shut us out of our garage," Bob said. "Maybe a little jealousy there too."
And with that, it was over. The team was disbanded and sent to work on other projects in Motorola Automotive, like electro-hydraulic power steering systems.
Gone, and Forgotten
After the Corvette program was canceled, Ghaem, the Gerbetz brothers, Chris Pratt, Edison Ramirez, and Edward Li mostly went their separate ways, although some did stay with Motorola even after Motorola Automotive was acquired by Continental Automotive in 2006. Some of those who moved on threw their expertise behind other EV efforts of the era, like the GM EV1 project.
The cars themselves would get tossed aside, arguably indicative of upper management’s real feelings toward electrification. The EX-12 race car was officially the property of Arizona Public Service, so it stayed with Don Karner and Tom Brawner. The Corvette, however, was stashed in the back of Motorola’s Illinois campus museum. That was fine for a short while, but soon after Motorola downsized the museum. It was a place for only small gadgets and trinkets, certainly nothing as large as a car. The museum’s curator asked Sanjar Ghaem if he wanted it, and he declined since, ever the practical man, he already had a Corvette himself.
So the museum curator bought the car off Motorola for a song and ended up driving it around the Chicagoland area for years. Eventually, it fell out of his hands and into the oddball collection of a man in northern Illinois named Larry Brosten, who stashed it in a warehouse where it sat until I received a fateful tip about it in the summer of 2022. An unceremonious end for a truly special artifact.
The Big Question: Will It Run?
Unlike the GM EV1, where the uncrushed vehicles that made it to museums were disabled, never to run again, the electric Corvette emerged from Motorola intact. Bob Gerbetz said that with modern battery technology, the Corvette would likely run again. And not just run, but really fly.
“Unless the controller or motor are damaged, which is unlikely, the Corvette will provide more than 400 horsepower if a new set of modern batteries is installed,” he said. “The motor can actually be modified and converted to an AC synchronous motor with a bit of redesign and fabrication of some new hardware. The AC synchronous version would be capable of a lot more than 400 hp. That was one option for the next phase of the program, the next phase never happened.”
Gerbertz went on to explain how they stress-tested the Corvette’s powertrain in the workshop despite never having the opportunity to max it out in the car itself.
“The Corvette motor and controller were tested at Ohba's Soleq test facility in a back-to-back configuration, with the motor driving another motor working as a generator and the power was recirculated to and from an industrial battery bank with enormous capacity. The battery bank was huge. We only needed to provide the motor and generator losses from the battery bank because we were recirculating power. The motor absorbed power from and the generator delivered power back to the power buss,” he said. “So we could run at high power for hours in the lab, much longer than we could run even with today's best available car battery bank. This is how we know the Corvette will work with a good set of the best currently available batteries.”
The result? Gerbetz said that if the onboard motor was converted to the AC synchronous setup, it could produce 350 horsepower continuously, peaking at a whopping 800 horsepower. It would be decades before a production electric car approached that figure again.
“The Corvette has somewhat limited space for batteries, but if you work at it you can probably find space for around eight cubic feet of battery packs while keeping driver safety in mind. That's around 60 kWh of battery space. The higher 500-800 horsepower range may be a bit of a stretch for a small 60 kWh battery pack,” Bob said.
Motorola's Huge Miss
From a bird’s eye view, Sanjar Ghaem and Ken Gerbetz were thinking long term, estimating what the market would look like in the future. They saw new emissions control regulations, like the then-new CARB regulations that were starting to establish standards to make vehicles more efficient. Meanwhile, Motorola simply saw the bottom line. They wanted a return, fast; back in the mid-1990s, there wasn’t an immediate need for electrified transportation.
Or was there? Just a few months after the Corvette and EX-12 programs were canceled, the Toyota Prius concept would debut in Japan, going on sale in 1997 and growing into the defining hybrid vehicle of the 2000s. GM’s Impact concept became the iconic EV1 coupe and hit the market in 1997, and though its brief run is now the stuff of legend, it proved modern electric cars were possible (albeit expensive) to build at scale. Spurred on by CARB regulations, a number of automakers closed the millennium with an electric or hybrid project that had moved past engineering drawings or impractical concepts on an auto show turntable and made it into consumer’s driveways—albeit sometimes in a limited form.
Fast forward to today and electrification is the story of the auto industry, an unstoppable force of change that has car companies scrambling to adapt and could’ve cemented Motorola’s place at the center of it all.
The key word there: could’ve. Motorola was facing much bigger problems than the question of investing in EVs in the mid-1990s, starting with losing its position as the market leader in cell phones to Nokia in 1998. The company peaked at 150,000 employees worldwide in 2000, then had to lay off a full third of them when the first dot-com bubble burst a year later. It struggled to find its footing through the 2000s before selling its automotive arm to Continental AG in 2006 and eventually splitting into two separate companies after the 2008 financial crisis. Its pioneering phone business was swallowed up by Google and later sold to Lenovo, while Motorola Solutions now mainly focuses on enterprise businesses like emergency radios and dispatch software.
It’s debatable whether a massive firm like Motorola could’ve pivoted to become an EV leader—certainly, it wasn’t equipped to build a wholly new car from scratch. But just look at a company like Sony, who recognized how the tech needed to build an EV matched up pretty well with its own areas of expertise, built a concept car, and just this year announced a full production partnership with Honda to make it a reality.
Brainpower certainly wasn’t an issue, as these were innovative, smart people. Like everyone I talked to, Bob Gerbetz spoke highly of Sanjar Ghaem in particular: “Sanjar understood what could be done when you give people resources and just let them do what they're good at,” Gerbetz said. “He always hired smart and motivated people, agreed on what had to be done, set aside money to pay for whatever the job needed, and then sat back and watched amazing things happen.”
Gerbetz said Ghaem had even more wild ideas in development at the time, like an EV drive unit the size of a credit card. “He also had great insight into what was actually possible versus what existed at the time. If he wasn't canceled by Motorola, we would surely have complete EV drives, motor and controller that fit into one hand,” Gerbetz said. “What we did was really nothing compared to what was and what still is possible.”
In a parallel universe, it’s not hard to imagine Motorola at least trying to team up with GM and get electric cars off the ground in a big way 25 years ago, instead of snuffing out a promising project because the quick-turn investment case wasn’t obvious. Motorola didn’t just drop the ball with the electric Corvette project, but more so threw a priceless Faberge egg on the ground. The company was on the cusp of a home run, and instead, it just decided to go home.
So it was that Motorola built a little piece of the future and buried it before anyone found out. At least we know it now.
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