Thursday, October 19, 2006

Who Killed the Electric Car?

Keywords: Electric car; Henry Ford; California smog; EV1; zero emissions; oil; car manufacturers; battery; electricity; hydrogen fuel cells; greenhouse gases; Imbrecht; plug-in car.

I slipped away to the movies this afternoon, all by myself. I’d missed seeing when it was showing around town a few months ago, but this matinee was an extra opportunity. I can’t say I exactly enjoyed it, but I hadn’t expected to do so; most documentaries are not entertaining. Yet I think everyone should see it, for you'll feel as shocked and appalled as I did.

The plot is easily summarized: initially expected cars to be electric, and at first most of them were. One can’t help concluding that the world would be better if all cars had stayed that way. California has reached this same conclusion ahead of other states because of the that blanketed the southern part of the state. As the dangers of became urgent, the state enacted legislation that would have required car manufacturers to produce autos with . Suddenly, in the early 1990s, new electric cars began appearing on California highways. General Motors produced a stunning, quiet, fast, clean, zero-emission auto called the — which became the star of this movie (see photo of one being charged).

Everyone who drove that car loved it. Yet under pressure from the car manufacturers, the government agency that was supposed to protect the air by upholding the high new standards failed to do so. They caved in, relaxing the legislation that the resisted. Everywhere, the EV1 gradually began disappearing, though at first no one realized what was happening. All further leases on the cars were terminated, and the beautiful machines were being taken away to be ground up or smashed. Protesters mounted a vigil, attempting to shame GM for this, but all their complaints and even their civil disobedience were ignored. By 2003 every single EV1 had been seized.

The movie doesn’t assign the “murder” of this car to any single culprit, but finds several suspects guilty: the government, the auto industry, California’s , the petroleum industry; and even , who failed to give the innovation enough support to make it profitable in the short run.

You get mad when you see this documentary. It’s horrible. It reveals the way the industry failed to promote the car, obviously trying all along to prove it unprofitable. Yet even in the end, there were buyers who begged for the opportunity to buy every car that was being confiscated and destroyed. To publicize the tragedy, the protesters held a formal funeral in a cemetery to mourn the passing of these beautiful machines.

The film exposes the avarice and mendacity that led to this tragic abandonment of the car by the company that had invested a billion dollars to develop it. The industrialists’ bad decision will damage the lives of billions of human beings by spoiling the world's climate. It is easy to understand their thinking: there’s still a lot of in the ground. So long as there is money to be made from it, every technology that might render the combustion engine obsolete threatens the oil industry and must, therefore, be suppressed. Just as the whole network of inter-urban had been trashed early in the 20th century, the new electric cars were now aborted before their potential could even become a real challenge to the investors. I am not a great believer in class struggle, nor do I assume that corporate interests always work against human well-being — but in this case, the narrator does not have to spell it out. We see selfish motives that are utterly transparent, beyond disguise.

The EV1's most obvious shortcoming was its limited range. It had to be recharged after driving fifty or sixty miles. Yet even this was not necessary, for already a better battery had been created that would go 100 miles; GM never installed that battery into EV1s but instead used a weaker one.

The filmmakers expose the hype that is constantly generated nowadays by the oil interests in favor of cars. When owners of electric cars go for a ride in these hydrogen models, they hate them. Besides, they are far from being ready for mass production, and they may never be as efficient as the electric auto.

Yet when I came home, I had to wonder whether there was more involved. The script never tries to address one important question: Would there have been enough electricity to run a fleet of EV1 cars? Certainly, there were no greenhouse gases emitted from the electric cars directly, but what about the power plants that would have fueled them? Electrical generators are, I presume, powered by fossil fuels. Presumably if all the drivers in California adopted electric cars, there would be a huge need for additional electricity, just as the sale of correspondingly diminished. Would that have been an environmental disaster in its own right?

I turned to Google for answers but found nothing conclusive. Perhaps someone reading this blog can inform me. However, I did find some provisional answers in a 1995 article by Charles R. Imbrecht, the chairman of California’s Energy Commission. When he wrote the article, the state was still gearing up to go for electric cars in a big way, and he was completely optimistic. He explained:

“Twenty years ago about two-thirds of all California's electricity
came from burning oil. Today, less than one-percent of
electricity comes from burning oil. In the process, we have
created an industry for renewable energy and advanced power
generation that has made California, as some call it, the ‘energy
laboratory of the world.’

“This ‘portfolio approach’ of many sources for electricity
production is being extended to our transportation sector, which
consumes about one-half of all energy used in California....

“Using electric vehicles will make the electricity system more
efficient. During off-peak hours when less electricity is
consumed, such as over-night, many power plants have to be either
shut down or scaled back. The Energy Commission estimates that
most electric vehicles will recharge during these off-peak hours
when electricity is available and less expensive to produce than
during peak periods.

“California currently has enough excess capacity (the power not
used during off-peak hours) to handle the demands of charging
millions of electric vehicles. Even by 2010, EVs will only
consume 3.2 percent of the total electricity produced.”

I want to know more about the sources of electricity that supplants the gasoline. Still, if Imbrecht is right, the overall effect of electric cars on the environment would have been distinctly positive. And the people who told the history of their beloved EV1 were, at the end of the show, happy and optimistic. The charming spokeswoman for that car throughout the film stated, in the end, that she is now working for a “plug-in” car that is going to be the car of the future. And there’s also the hybrid car – a mongrel engine that combines gasoline and battery power. Soon hybrids will be able to go 150 miles on a gallon of gas. Not bad!

One of these days, perhaps the lovers of electric cars will hold a different ceremony: not a funeral but, rather, a christening — a triumphant celebration of newness, a victory over the life-threatening forces of greed. I hope I’ll be invited.


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