Tuesday, 12 June 2007

Film Review(ish): Who Killed the Electric Car?

GM Killed The Electric Car
Originally uploaded by vaXzine

Sometimes I wonder if I'm too cynical. Then something will happen that makes me realise I'm not nearly cynical enough.

'Who Killed the Electric Car?' is the tale of the humble EV1, manufactured by General Motors, and first made commercially available in 1996 in California. By 2005 not one was left on the road. Not because they were faulty, or that no-one wanted to drive them. The film sets out to uncover the reason for their untimely demise.

Electric cars actually date back as far as 1890, which was a bit of a surprise to muggins here who associates 'electric vehicles' with milkfloats rather than snazzy little motors. They were even picking up speeding tickets by 1903. They were eventually superseded by the rise of the internal combustion engine, but have ticked along quietly in the background ever since.

So, fast-forward to 1995 when the California Air Resources Board (CARB) introduce a 'Zero Emissions Vehicle (ZEV)' mandate, designed to encourage car manufacturers to increase the market share of zero emissions vehicles over the years to come. General Motors released the EV1 for lease from 1996, and the future of this car seemed rosy.

But meanwhile, there was increasing unrest in the oil industry. Electric vehicles mean you don't have to buy petrol. Yes, they use energy, but the oil chiefs aren't going to have the same stranglehold over privately used vehicles that they had. Plans are hatched, and, lo and behold, CARB's ZEV mandate is relaxed a bit. And then repealed when legal action is threatened. Oh, look, Federal Government's been dragged into the equation. General Motors don't seem desperately upset about the lowered incentives to produce electric vehicles. After all, they've bought the Hummer brand, so they'll probably be able to cope. Hmmm...

Ok, so the oil companies get panicky about the threat to their industry, and throw their weight around to try to damage the reputation of electric vehicles, and to reduce the incentives for their production. So far, no big surprises. What I found quite shocking about the film was the fate of the existing EV1s. They were never actually sold to customers in the first place; they were simply leased. So, around 2004, when happy customers wanted to renew their leases, they were told that it wasn't possible, and that the cars were being recalled. Customers who refused to co-operate had they vehicles towed away. And the fate of the cars? Not to be recycled for parts as one company spokesman claimed. They were taken into the desert and crushed. Enthusiastic drivers managed to track down an enclosure of 78 cars that had yet to be destroyed, and offered $1.9 million to buy them from General Motors. But such was the company's desire to obliterate the cars from the public consciousness, they declined.

Apart from being incredibly wasteful and unnecessarily spiteful, this move struck me as very naive. Did GM really think that destroying the cars would remove awareness of them altogether, so that people would remain unaware of the potential of electric vehicles? Did it not occur to them that web-based campaigns would spring up, and that video footage would be retained and circulated? Or that a DVD might even be made, which I stumbled across, watched, and now you're reading about? Corporate secrecy is increasingly difficult to maintain in the internet age.

So, what now? Who did kill the electric car? The film concludes that a number of parties were implicated; in fact, all but the batteries themselves were declared in some way guilty. But the potential for exploitation of a market niche hasn't disappeared. There is still demand for the vehicles, and an even more significant necessity. As one of the participants said: "The electric vehicle is not for everybody; it can only meet the needs of 90% of the population." Whilst that may be a bit of an exaggeration, but there are certainly a lot of journeys that could be carried out using vehicles of this sort. There are various hopeful lines of development for the future, but I think I've talked enough already.

Watch this film. Or, at the very least, watch the trailer and read around on the website. Have a think about the oil industry. Read about Peak Oil. And use your consumer powers wisely.


Dina Baxter said...

I wouldn't exactly call the electric car dead, per say, just... Severely disabled. What with the growing popularity of hybrids, rapidly rising oil prices and the American car industry's desperate need for a competitive edge (right now it seems to be hiding under a table begging Japan and Germany and... and everywhere else for mercy), there might be hope yet for the return of fully electric cars. Fingers crossed, eh? That might be putting too much trust in the market and not giving enough credit to the stubborn evil of men, however. And, oh yeah- not nearly cynical enough. Not even close. Crushing cars seems to be on the benign end of corporate spite.

Custard. said...

Or the whole question of making cars or computers that don't break after a few years. They'd sell, but put the companies out of business after the first few years....

Hello, by the way. Good move - it's much easier to leave comments on Blogger.

Ginger said...

Hi Dina. Thanks for leaving a comment. Thanks also, Custard., although I did kind of prompt you in this direction!

A couple of further interesting points were raised in the film. One was that the introduction of commercially available electric vehicles in the US prompted the industry elsewhere to follow suit, so that by the time General Motors abandoned the idea, some Japanese companies were successfully producing hybrid cars.

The other thing was that they discussed the idea of hydrogen fuel cells quite a bit and concluded that it wasn't worth the effort. By the time these cells had been improved to make them really usable, the same investment of time and money into electric vehicles would keep them consistently ahead in terms of performance. Maybe it's a cunning ploy - chase something you know will never provide a viable threat to your existing technology. Hmmm...

It's a real shame that the UK's ailing car manufacturing industry hasn't adopted this kind of R&D side. I reckon the UK would be a great place for electric vehicles - I imagine that a greater proportion of UK journeys fit into the battery range of these cars. And it would be a good spot to market to Europe as well.

Maybe I should see if I can by Rover for 50p!

Ginger said...

This is timely:


patrick said...

Watched "Who Killed the Electric Car" recently (great documentary), then i heard that GM and Tesla are making another run at the electric car (yay for progress!) hopefully development of this technology can continue forward uninterrupted by the powers that depend on oil consumption.

Ginger said...

That's good news. I hope they become more prominant - I'm really worried that the rise of biofuels is going to do far more harm than good in the long run. :(

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