A compelling auto industry whodunit: Who Killed the Electric Car?

Electric vehicles have been around since the beginning of the 20th century. One hundred years ago they even outnumbered gas-driven cars.

However, mass manufacturing, cheap, abundant oil and automatic starters ensured that gas-driven cars triumphed over electric cars.

One would think that mounting air pollution and global warming would have already spurred a resurgence of electric-powered vehicles. But that hasn’t been the case.

Chris Paine’s fascinating documentary “Who Killed the Electric Car?” narrated by actor Martin Sheen shows how big business and the Bush administration have undermined the re-emergence of the electric car.

California state legislators in 1990 required car companies to build and sell electric cars that produced zero pollution. By 2003, 10 percent of cars in California were to be electric. General Motors’ sleek, space-age-looking Electric Vehicle 1 (EV1) was the first successful prototype.

Suited for short distance travel within an urban environment, the EV1 was fast, quiet and easy to maintain, according to test drivers. The car cost the same to operate as ordinary gas-driven cars, but the principal fuel, electricity, cost much less than gasoline. Improvements in battery technology allowed EV1s to travel more than 100 miles without recharging.

Other auto companies quickly followed suit with their own electric vehicles.

Nonetheless, corporate opposition to electric cars began to grow. An oil-industry-funded front group pressured public utilities and city councils to abandon a small utility surcharge to fund construction of recharging stations for electric cars. They also paid for editorials in the print media arguing against the electric car.

Fearing that auto companies would not comply with the 2003 mandate, the state’s Air Resources Board, which was responsible for enforcing the mandate, softened its demands. If car companies did not want to build more EVs, they would have to demonstrate that there was insufficient demand.

According to interviews with former auto company employees, executives and test drivers, GM and other car companies discouraged demand by emphasizing the limitations of the electric car and building few models.

For instance, GM was only building four cars a day and that number was subsequently reduced. As a result, cars were difficult to get and waiting lists grew. “I don’t think GM tried hard to get electric cars out rapidly,” admitted former board member Tom Everhart.

Car companies even hired a public relations firm to counter “greater consumer acceptance of electric vehicles,” according to an auto industry document. Then they sued California.

The Bush administration joined the lawsuit. To divert attention away from EVs, car companies began promoting hydrogen-powered vehicles, an unproven and expensive technology. The Air Resources Board caved in to the pressure and killed its electric car mandate on April 24, 2003.

In the aftermath of their victory, auto companies made sure their EVs disappeared from California’s smog-shrouded road network forever. They seized the EVs and sent them to scrap yards to be shredded into scrap metal. Test drivers who wanted to buy or lease their electric cars were turned down.

Why did the auto and oil industries and the Bush administration kill electric vehicles in California?

The auto companies, which profit from after-sales service, feared that their profits would decline as electric cars require fewer spare parts and less maintenance. Oil industry profits would dry up if electric cars caught on. The Bush administration is dominated by former oil and auto industry executives, and it is only too willing to do those industries’ bidding.

“Who Killed the Electric Car?” is a compelling, well-made documentary that sheds light on the destructive powers of capitalism to impede technological change and measures that would benefit the environment.

tpelzer @ shaw.ca

Who Killed the Electric Car?

Directed by Chris Paine

Produced by Dean Devlin/Plinyminor, 2006

90 minutes