Who Killed the Electric Car?

(system) #1

North Americans love murder-mysteries. Evidence Exhibit 1: an episode of CSI airs almost every night of the week. Whodunit? What was the motive? Will the perpetrator be apprehended? Was there a cover-up or conspiracy? And most importantly, was it Colonel Mustard in the kitchen with a knife?!

If a coroner’s report were distributed for this "death-umentary," it might read something like this: Deceased: Electric-powered EV1 Emergency Contact (Relation): General Motors (Parent) Lifespan: 1996-1999 Cause of Death: Unknown. Suspicion of foul-play.

Who Killed the Electric Car? attempts to answer two broad questions about the demise of the EV1 and other electric vehicles—who is the murderer, and why does it matter? Here, I will also consider why this topic is relevant today.

EV1s were reportedly fast, fun, quiet and reasonably priced. Users apparently liked the cars but were forced to return them upon expiration of the 3-year lease. Despite consumer groups calling for continued production, GM literally crushed the EV1 while Honda shredded its own electric model.

GM claims the EV1 lacked sufficient customer demand because of the car’s limited range (70-120 miles per charge). Advocates and fans counter that GM did not market the cars effectively and that, in fact, there was adequate demand for continued and increased production. You will have to watch the film to see which of the usual suspects--automakers, Big Oil, aloof consumers, hydrogen fuel-cells, the California Air Resources Board (C.A.R.B.), battery technology or the government(1)--is deemed guilty. Spoiler alert: the producers directly contradict GM by claiming batteries were not to blame.(2)

The film presents three reasons why the EV1 story is important. First, burning fossil fuels creates greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. Every gallon of gas we burn produces roughly twenty pounds of CO2.(3) Second, pollution from car exhaust contributes to asthma and poor lung development. Third, we are dependent on oil that is imported from politically unstable regions of the world. Clearly, there is much more at stake than corporate profits and consumer satisfaction given that these risks are substantial and supportable.

But that was then, and this is now. The 90s are far behind us. The EV1 may have suffered a mortal wound, but GM healed perfectly. It kept the tactical advantage in electric technology and remains the world leader in this important area. Massive government tax credits for SUVs did not distort the market by artificially creating unsustainable demand. We are now in the midst of global cooling, and tax payers are not being asked to bail out the very corporations that refused to invest in green technology in the 1990s despite active consumer campaigns.

Unfortunately, those satirical statements reveal why this film is relevant today. During this time of economic uncertainty, major industrial changes are occurring quickly, and the ramifications demand careful scrutiny. The film begs corporations, consumers and the government to consider their influential roles in shaping the world of tomorrow.

GM purchased Hummer one month after closing the EV1 line in Lansing, MI. Now the Toyota Prius is the industry leader,(4) not the EV1, and GM is struggling to find a company willing to buy Hummer.(5)

Should the government step in and require tax payers to shoulder the burden for this and other costly business errors? There are no easy answers when the ripple effect could potentially be a tsunami. Personally, I hope GM survives long enough to bring us the Volt; after all, not everyone can drive a Tesla Roadster.

Regarding the government, it seems to me that one of its legitimate roles is to protect citizens when the market is not adequately doing so. This is why we have laws forbidding lead-laced petroleum and statutes requiring all vehicles to be designed with seatbelts.

Manufacturers resisted change until federal laws mandated changes. Two actions--tax credits to increase consumer demand for electric vehicles and the enforcement of a gradual increase of emission free vehicles--would have been important steps in protecting the environment and public health. Should Congress include these guidelines in the current restructuring plans? And just how much influence should the government have in the business sector? These are pertinent questions in a world where the federal government can fire a corporate CEO.(6)

Consumers must also consider the importance of their purchasing behavior. I have heard people say they will not buy a hybrid vehicle because the batteries are environmentally damaging or because the next generation of hybrids will be even better.

In the U.S. context where the government has not enforced strict fuel economy standards or offered significant incentives for drivers to purchase fuel-efficient automobiles, the primary motivation automakers have for investing in new technology is consumer demand.

Consequently, if we continue buying inefficient vehicles, we are voting for a world with few alternatives. While I am an advocate of walking, riding bicycles and using public transportation as much as possible, I do support purchasing the most efficient automobiles possible. We need to reward incremental improvements with our dollars (or move to Europe and drive a 74 MPG Ford Fiesta).(7)

At this point some might argue,“Electric cars may lower petroleum imports, but they can’t help the environment. We would just need more coal or nuclear facilities to meet the increased electricity demands.”

This is why I still advocate walking, cycling, carpooling and public transportation. However, at a recent Andrews University presentation, Peter Sinclair of The Climate Project claimed 84% of cars and light trucks could be recharged at night on spinning reserve, or the current slack in the system, requiring no additional power supply. Fact or fiction—what do you think?

-------------------------- Notes:

1. According to the film, the 2002 tax credit for electric vehicles was $2,000 whereas the 2003 tax credit for large SUVs was $100,000.

2. Retrieved April 1, 2009 from http://gmfactsandfiction.com/gm-killed-the-successful-ev-1-electric-car-program/.

3. Susan Trumbore, Scientific American, February 12, 2008. Retrieved from http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?id=experts-weight-ratio-co2-fuel on March 30, 2009.

4. If Warren Buffet is right, GM’s competition will soon include models from BYD, a Chinese manufacturer (Trading Markets. March 25, 2009. Retrieved April 1, 2009 from http://www.tradingmarkets.com/.site/news/Stock%20News/2239608/).

5. Tom Krisher, The Detroit News, March 29, 2009. Retrieved March 30, 2009 from http://hosted.ap.org/dynamic/stories/G/GM_HUMMER_MIOL-?SITE=MIDTN&SECTIO....

6. John Crawley, Reuters, March 31, 2009. Retrieved April 1, 2009 from http://uk.reuters.com/article/marketsNewsUS/idUKN3036560520090331.

7. Global Auto Shows. Retrieved March 30, 2009 from http://autoshows.ford.com/247/2008/07/30/green-fuel-efficiency-ford-fies....

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/1579