It Ended Before It Began

19 Jul, 2006 By: Jeffrey Rowe

Documentary investigates the untimely death of the electric car

Although it may be true that Video Killed the Radio Star (the first music video by the Buggles broadcast on MTV in the 1980s), what is responsible for killing the electric car? That’s the question raised in a movie I recently saw, titled Who Killed the Electric Car? It's a documentary that investigates the birth and death of the electric car, specifically, General Motors' EV1 (electric vehicle), as well as the role of renewable energy and sustainable living in the future. Being shown at select theaters around the country, it's a thought-provoking film, but not without fault. I found the documentary very timely considering my last column discussed the MIT Vehicle Summit and its intent to use myriad innovative power sources and drivetrains to develop high-efficiency automobiles.

The Movie

Who Killed the Electric Car is a controversial movie that attempts to introduce the good aspects of electrical vehicles and it does make some good points, but it often trips over itself and relies on conspiracy theory, unfounded allegations and a few conspicuous errors. Faults aside, the film addresses some compelling issues that should concern us all.

Most prominently, it forces us to see that our extensive consumption of fossil fuels is dangerous in several respects. We rely on unstable Middle Eastern countries to sustain our economy, and it’s no secret that burning oil also contributes to global warming.

However, Who Killed the Electric Car ignores the realities of the free market. Instead, it downplays technology shortcomings and relies too much on overly speculative conspiracy theories. Instead they should have looked more closely at why the market chose not to accept and embrace electric cars in volume sufficient to warrant their mass production.

The film blames automakers, oil companies, the federal government, the California Air Resources Board and consumers as parts of a enormous plot that led to the downfall and death of the GM EV. Of course, pointing fingers at General Motors and oil companies is easy compared to the more basic admission that consumers perceived that electric vehicles were introduced before their time. Surprisingly, no blame is pointed at battery technology, although battery shortcomings are to a large extent what kept electric vehicles from being ready for market.

Technology and Reality

Were GM's 800 EV1 buyers (actually lessors) really worth a $1 billion investment? Technology aside, American consumers voted with their wallets against electric vehicles. The last private lease expired in August 2004. Consumers were not interested in driving a two-seat vehicle that could operate for only about an average of 100 miles miles (for the entire two-generation fleet) before it had to be recharged for several hours. When a car isn't profitable, it gets axed, no matter how good it is. Just about any car company would kill any vehicle that only sold 800 units -- of course, that does not include Bentley, Rolls and Ferrari.

Then there are the hard economic factors of electric vehicle production. For example, Toyota's RAV4 EV cost more than $100,000 each to build, a whopping $70,000 more than its $30,000 sticker price, after incentives. The cost of its $30,000+ battery pack, like any mass-produced component is scalable by volume, but who's going to make up the difference until then? Interestingly, Chevron owns the rights for producing the RAV4 battery packs, and the company will not allow them to be produced or brought into the United States. On one hand, the film derides GM for recalling its EV1 fleet , but on the other, it doesn’t mention that Toyota sold and leased more RAV4 EVs than GM built of its EV1 -- and that those Toyotas are still driven by customers today.

Who Killed the Electric Car rightly chastises Americans' ongoing demand for huge, inefficient SUVs as personal vehicles, but at the same time, devotes little attention to hybrid cars. The movie notes that electric vehicles received a maximum $4,000 federal tax credit in 2002 but that some big SUVs, vans and pickups were deductible up to $100,000 as a business expense in 2003. The film unfortunately mocks the potential for fuel cells and other alternative energy sources, and presents electric cars as the only viable path toward vehicular perfection -- hardly a balanced view of all available alternatives.

On the conspiracy side, there's the ironic “coincidence” that the month after GM bought the Hummer brand from AM General, GM canceled the EV1 program. Based on the timing, the implication to me, the layman, is that GM was simply happier selling vehicles that ran on gas.

New Possibilities

Don’t get me wrong. Even with their current inherent shortcomings, I think EVs are a great idea for certain requirements and circumstances. Check out the following Web sites to investigate some of the possibilities:

Although a couple of years old, AC Propulsion offers state-of-the-art high-performance electric vehicles. Its tzero out-accelerates a Ferrari (and is priced like a Ferrari, too) and gets more than 300 miles per charge. Coincidentally, this is the same company that designed the EV1 drivetrain for GM. The tzero shows that electric vehicles have the advantage of having instant torque at the press of the accelerator, thus the acceleration advantage.

Some automakers, such as Ford Motor Company and Toyota Motor Corporation, are looking into PHEVs (plug-in hybrids), but none are planned for production as of yet. It’s commonly known that the nickel-metal hydride batteries used in today's hybrids weigh down a vehicle and make it less efficient when it's being driven by the gasoline engine. However, lithium-ion batteries, expected to replace nickel-metal batteries by 2010, are lighter, smaller and more powerful and could make plug-ins practical.

PHEVs could be profitable if automakers put them into high-volume production, but battery technology must improve dramatically and costs must come down before a plug-in hybrid could realistically be put into production.

In the End

Getting back to the movie -- it clearly highlights problems with contemporary American business and our oil dependence. The conspiracy theories put forth in the film aren't believable, and the movie's misinformation is its undoing. It's just not believable that a car company would recall all its cars, crush them and kill an entire line just because a safety standard changed. Even with its faults, though, I highly recommend this movie. If nothing else, it will get you thinking about a lot of things that affect all of us.

Are electric cars the only solution? No. But they do provide a viable alternative for certain types of drivers. However, it’s as much a matter of business acumen and market acceptance as it is pure technology.

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