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Movie: “Who Killed the Electric Car?” “Who Killed . . .” is the latest of the adult documentary films now showing in movie theaters. Previous examples of the genre included Michael Moore's “Fahrenheit 9/11" and Al Gore's “An Inconvenient Truth.” Who Killed is showing at only one theater in my area. Attendance at a Sunday afternoon matinee was about 50, quite good I should think.

The movie provides a reasonably comprehensive review of alternatives to gasoline fueled transportation. The focus is on California where the California Air Resources Board (CARB) enacted regulations that would have required all companies selling vehicles in California to supply a percentage of no-emission vehicles. Auto companies responded by developing battery powered electric vehicles. GM's EV-1 is the best known model, but Ford, Toyota and Honda also made such vehicles. GM went so far as to build several hundred vehicles and lease them through their Saturn division in California and Arizona. The EV-1 was a two passenger sports model with good acceleration and a range of about 60 miles with initially supplied lead acid batteries. Later better batteries were offered increasing range to about 100 mi before recharging.

In the end, all auto companies withdrew their electric vehicles. The EV-1s were shredded.

The major force behind withdrawal of the EV-1 appears to have been the oil industry. They saw themselves as losing significant profits to the electric utility industry if electric cars succeeded. Therefore, they pulled out all stops to discredit the project. In particular they pointed out that the electricity would have to be generated using polluting processes. Hence, electric cars did not eliminate pollution. They merely moved it somewhere else. In effect a longer tail pipe.

Oil companies hired public relations firms to resist electric vehicles at every turn. When power companies tried to install recharging stations to allow recharging away from home, agents hired by the oil companies ridiculed the idea as a waste of public funds. They successfully blocked funding for recharging stations through rate payers. Lack of a recharging network helped limit utility of the vehicles.

The auto companies may have been able to make money making electric vehicles, but in the end they worked hard to make sure they did not succeed. They have a vested interest in the manufacture of internal combustion vehicles and especially in large vehicles, which they find very profitable. Although EV-1 was offered for lease, only four were made per day in a high cost facility with exotic materials. Moreover, GM was very selective about who could have an EV-1. Most went to celebrities. Their advertizing was extremely limited and certainly not the style with good looking models enjoying life in their “new” vehicles.

The final straw was CARB, which feared what would happen if no manufacturer met the zero emissions requirement. In the end they backed off, gradually extending and relaxing the requirement. Instead, they bought the auto industry's promise to develop a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle.

Once CARB bought into the hydrogen fuel cell program, the auto industry cancelled its electric vehicle program. GM maintained that demand for the vehicles was too small. The public did not buy them. And their range was too short to appeal to many buyers. These points are disputed.

The movie reviews each aspect of the situation. A few points–

1. The oil industry has considerable influence from its deep pockets, but not many employees and somewhat limited voting reach. The auto industry has strong grass roots power from its plant sites and their suppliers in almost every state and large numbers of union employees. In essence a coalition formed with the auto industry co-operating with the oil industry.

2. The auto industry has a long history of using its political influence to water down and delay implementation of unfavorable legislation. This buys them more time to undermine support for the objectionable rules, and usually leads to their ultimate demise.

3. The hydrogen powered fuel cell vehicle has been promised in about 15 years for as long as people can remember. The 15 year times span seems not to be shortening. Hence, electric cars and hydrogen powered fuel cell vehicles may be delaying tactics–designed to allow auto manufacturers to continue making highly profitable, big vehicles for as long as possible.

4. The movie lists 5 major hurdles the hydrogen powered fuel cell vehicle must overcome to succeed. A. Cost reduction from the present $1MM. B. Suitable storage capacity for hydrogen to give acceptable range. C. No advances in competitive technologies. (I forget the other two.)

5. Vehicles of the EV-1 type with batteries for 100 mi range probably would be acceptable for many urban drivers. Especially those with more than one car where one is used either for short commutes or for local errands. Plug in recharging is very attractive, especially when filling the gas tank can cost over $30.

6. Meanwhile hybrid vehicles are our best alternative. They still burn gasoline, but especially when plug-in models become available, some may function as virtual electric vehicles.

7. The inventor of the much improved NIMH batteries appeared several times. He sold his company to GM, expecting them to adopt his batteries for the EV-1 electric vehicle. Eventually they did, but now GM sold its controlling interest in the company to Chevron/Texaco. One suspects these batteries may not be developed aggressively.

Overall, this is a very good example of the power of special interest groups to throw sand in the wheels of democracy when their financial interests are threatened. And of course the result is that US energy policy is essentially described as allowing the oil companies to maximize their profits. This leaves us defenseless against possible economic disruptions caused by reliance on the unstable Mideast for oil.

Quote from the movie “This issue is far too important to be left in the hands of the oil companies.” Government should take a position and provide leadership.

Anyone with doubts about the ability of special interest groups like the auto industry to use their power behind the scenes to make life difficult for any perceived competitors should rent the movie “Tucker.”
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