Aug 26, 2006

Electric Cars

I recently heard an interview on NPR (naturally) with Chris Paine, the creator of the new documentary Who Killed the Electric Car?. I've spent quite some time researching the subject since, and discovered a rather fascinating story that I don't think enough people have heard. The concept of electric cars is not a new one, certainly, but it’s always struck me as rather odd that there hasn’t been much conversation about them in the last few years.

Some indications that we live in a time that one would think electric cars would be on a lot of people's minds:

• It’s not uncommon to hear someone who never passed chemistry talk passionately about ethanol.

• Numerous SUV drivers have suddenly discovered that their one child AND four bags of groceries can fit into a car considerably smaller than the average three-bedroom house and have opted to trade in for a nice Honda Civic.

• Every single living American has made a minimum of four courtesy-laugh-inducing comments that sound something like “This meal’s only $7.00? Why, I pay more for a gallon of gas these days!” over the last few years. (Some people make this sort of comment at least twice daily and ought to be driven from society along with anybody who thinks it’s a good idea to wear a velour track suit outside of yoga class.)

But somehow it's not discussed often. People have their hybrids, but those still rely on some gas, and produce some emissions. I always assumed that the reason there aren't any pure electric cars out there is that car companies have never produced an electric car that was commercially viable. But that was before I'd ever heard of the EV1. There are many commercial attempts at electric vehicles, but GM's EV1 is in some ways the most successful and its story is fairly typical of other attempts, so it's a good one to look at.

Watch the trailer for Who Killed the Electric Car? to get a rough idea of the story of the EV1. Though keep in mind that Chris Paine most definitely had an agenda in mind while making the movie. Or don't keep it in mind. Because I think he's got a good point and if you're going to be brainwashed, there are far worse things to be brainwashed into believing.

The oil industry has one fatty tie to the government. That's been the case for quite some time now. I don't think people should go so far as insisting that President Bush himself actually hand-crushed all the electric vehicles out there (the man has made many a blunder, but I don't blame him for this one) (besides, production of EV1s stopped while Clinton was still president). However, I do think that the ties that the government has (on many levels) to the oil industry are a major factor why we don't see electric cars on our streets today.

GM, of course, doesn't like the movie. GM's Response highlights what one would expect: they put a lot of effort into marketing the EV1, no other car company is producing a pure electric vehicle, demand wasn't high enough for the EV1, parts weren't available for fixing the cars, etc. Though much of the response has more to do with new technologies that GM's working on, because they, of course, want to encourage people to buy their products in any way they can. Their arguments seem weak, and I think GM knows it. But what are they supposed to do? Say they cancelled the EV1 for political reasons?

I realize that the electric vehicle has not been perfected. Hybrids are more viable because they don't require a recharge every 100 miles. Batteries are heavy. I know this. And the EV1 was not a perfect vehicle. That's one of the reasons GM never sold it, but leased it instead: it was a new technology that would be changing rapidly, similar to early PCs, they would be outdated quickly. (Some argue that the lease program indicates that GM planned for the EV1 to fail. I don't buy that one even though they did in fact plan for the program to fail (a good sign of this is their scary commercials (watch)).) However, the EV1 worked and suited the needs of several people and that was in 1996! Technologies are improving rapidly in todays world, and I have no doubt that electric cars could be improved if time were just put into it.

And the thing that really kills me are the reports from EV1 owners that GM would send them information about how bad EV1s were. They'd discuss how hard parts were to find for them (which would be a problem at first, but as more people drove them, more people would provide the parts); they'd discuss how even if exhaust isn't coming out of their car, it's coming out of the smokestack of a powerplant (even though they had to have known that it's still not as bad for the environment...our current power systems didn't have to work any harder because people are driving EV1s and there are alternate sources of power like water and wind that don't hurt a thing); they'd discuss the limitations in range and speed (range is a problem, I'll give them that, but speed is not...GM purposely made the cars slower than they could go, probably for safety reasons). I really can't see any reason GM would've gone through such an effort to squash their own program, a program that I really don't believe is as unprofitable as they claim it is, if there was not a political motivation behind it. More people should be talking about this. We should have some better answers.

Almost all EV1s, except a few which are in musuems and such (including an exhibit in the Smithsonian that suspiciously disappeared shortly after Who Killed The Electric Car? came out, when you'd think interest in it would be at it's height and the musuem would want to promote it...right there in the General Motors Hall of Transportantion...), are now housed at the GM Desert Proving Grounds near Mesa:

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