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 They were eventually superseded by the rise of the internal combustion engine, but have ticked along quietly in the background ever since.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 And then repealed when legal action is threatened.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.