Friday, November 30, 2007

We Need Electric Cars - Where Are They?

Who Killed the Electric Car?

Who Killed the Electric Car? is a 2006 documentary film that explores the birth, limited commercialization, and subsequent death of the battery electric vehicle in the United States, specifically the General Motors EV1 of the 1990s. The film explores the roles of automobile manufacturers, the oil industry, the US government, batteries, hydrogen vehicles, and consumers in limiting the development and adoption of this technology.
It was released on DVD to the home video market on November 14, 2006 by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.

The film deals with the history of the electric car, its development and commercialization, mostly focusing on the General Motors EV1, which was made available for lease in Southern California, after the California Air Resources Board passed the ZEV mandate in 1990, as well as the implications of the events depicted for air pollution, environmentalism, Middle East politics, and global warming.
The film details the California Air Resources Board's reversal of the mandate after suits from automobile manufacturers, the oil industry, and the George W. Bush administration. It points out that Bush's chief influences, Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, and Andrew Card, are all former executives and board members of oil and auto companies.
A large part of the film accounts for GM's efforts to demonstrate to California that there was no demand for their product, and then to take back every EV1 and dispose of them. A few were disabled and given to museums and universities, but almost all were found to have been crushed; GM never responded to the EV drivers' offer to pay the residual lease value ($1.9 million was offered for the remaining 78 cars in Burbank before they were crushed). Several activists are shown being arrested in the protest that attempted to block the GM car carriers taking the remaining EV1s off to be crushed.
The film explores some of the reasons that the auto and oil industries worked to kill off the electric car. Wally Rippel is shown explaining that the oil companies were afraid of losing out on trillions in potential profit from their transportation fuel monopoly over the coming decades, while the auto companies were afraid of losses over the next six months of EV production. Others explained the killing differently. GM spokesman Dave Barthmuss argued it was lack of consumer interest due to the maximum range of 80–100 miles per charge, and the relatively high price.
The film also explores the future of automobile technologies including a deeply critical look at hydrogen vehicles and an upbeat discussion of plug-in hybrid electric vehicle technologies. Similarly to and in conjunction with films such as An Inconvenient Truth, the cinematic value of the film is rapidly becoming eclipsed by its motivational effect on a diverse group of newly activist, environmentally minded supporters.

The film features interviews with celebrities who drove the electric car, such as Mel Gibson, Tom Hanks, Alexandra Paul, Peter Horton, Ed Begley, Jr., a bi-partisan selection of prominent political figures including Ralph Nader, Frank Gaffney, Alan Lloyd, Jim Boyd, Alan Lowenthal, S. David Freeman, and ex-CIA head James Woolsey, as well as news footage from the development, launch and marketing of EV's.
The film also features interviews with some of the engineers and technicians who led the development of modern electric vehicles and related technologies such as Wally Rippel, Chelsea Sexton, Alan Cocconi and Stan and Iris Ovshinsky and other experts, such as Joseph J. Romm (author of Hell and High Water and The Hype about Hydrogen). Romm gives a presentation intended to show that the government's "hydrogen car initiative" is a bad policy choice and a distraction that is delaying the exploitation of more promising technologies, like electric and hybrid cars that could reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase America's energy security. Also featured in the film are spokesmen for the automakers, such as GM's Dave Barthmuss, a vocal opponent of the film and the EV1, and Bill Reinert from Toyota.

The Suspects

The last half hour of the movie is organized around the following hypothesized culprits in the downfall of the electric car:
ConsumersLots of ambivalence to new technology, unwillingness to compromise on decreased range and increased cost for improvements to air quality and reduction of dependence on foreign oil. Although these allegations are made about consumers by industry reps in the film, perhaps explaining the film's "guilty" verdict, the actual consumers interviewed in the film were either unaware an electric car was available, or dismayed that they could no longer obtain one.
BatteriesLimited range (60-70 miles) and reliability in the first EV-1s to ship, but better (110 - 160 miles) later. Research says the average driving in a day is 30 miles or less, though the electric car is not for everyone; that is only 90% of all Americans that can use these in their daily commute. Towards the end of the film, an engineer explains that, as of the interview, lithium ion batteries, the same technology available in laptops would have allowed the EV-1 to be upgraded to a range of 300 miles per charge.
Oil companies
Fearful of losing business to a competing technology, they supported efforts to kill the ZEV mandate. They also bought patents to prevent modern NiMH batteries from being used in US electric cars.
Car companies
Negative marketing, sabotaging their own product program, failure to produce cars to meet existing demand, unusual business practices with regards to leasing versus sales. The film only explains this behavior once, saying that electric cars needed fewer expensive repairs and would hence not make the car companies as much money over the long term as gasoline-powered cars. The film also describes the history of automaker efforts to destroy competing technologies, such as their destruction through front companies of public transit systems in the United States in the early 20th century. It also, in one interview, mentions that automakers introduced important safety and emissions innovations including seat belts, airbags and catalytic converters only when forced by government legislation.
GovernmentThe federal government joined in the auto industry suit against California, has failed to act in the public interest to limit pollution and require increased fuel economy, has promoted the purchase of vehicles with poor fuel efficiency through preferential tax breaks, and has redirected alternative fuel research from electric towards hydrogen.
California Air Resources Board
The CARB, headed by Alan Lloyd, caved to industry pressure and repealed the ZEV mandate. Lloyd was given the directorship of the new fuel cell institute, creating an inherent conflict of interest. Footage shot in the meetings showed how he shut down the ZEV proponents while giving the car makers all the time they wanted to make their points.
Hydrogen fuel cellThe hydrogen fuel cell was presented by the film as an alternative that distracts attention from the real and immediate potential of electric vehicles to an unlikely future possibility embraced by automakers, oil companies and a pro-business administration in order to buy time and profits for the status quo.
The Verdicts
The movie's conclusions:
Consumers — Guilty
Batteries — Not Guilty
Oil companies — Guilty
Car companies — Guilty
Government — Guilty
California Air Resources Board — Guilty
Hydrogen fuel cell — Guilty
CriticismsThe film has been criticized for some of its suggestions.

From General Motors
General Motors (GM) has responded through a blog post entitled Who Ignored the Facts About the Electric Car? by Dave Barthmuss of their communications department. He does not address the movie directly, since he claims not to have seen it, but tells GM's side of the story, about their big investment before and since the EV1, the limited market in spite of their efforts, and how they maybe could have handled the decommissioning better. A quote:
Sadly, despite the substantial investment of money and the enthusiastic fervor of a relatively small number of EV1 drivers — including the filmmaker — the EV1 proved far from a viable commercial success.
He notes investments in electric vehicle technology since the EV1: two-mode hybrid, plug-in hybrid, and fuel cell vehicle programs. The filmmakers suggested that GM did not immediately channel its technological progress with the EV1 into these projects, and instead let the technology languish while focusing on more immediately profitable enterprises such as SUVs.
Unlike the movie, GM is bullish on hydrogen, according to Barthmuss:
Although hydrogen fuel cell technology was cast as a pie-in-the-sky technology by the moviemakers, GM is making great progress in fuel cell research and development and is on track to achieving its goal to validate and design a fuel cell propulsion system by 2010 that is competitive with current combustion systems on durability and performance, and that ultimately can be built at scale, affordably.
Critical rebuttal of GMThe movie pointed out that General Motors' customer survey may have served to lower demand. GM called interested customers and emphasized drawbacks to the car that were disputed by EV1 drivers. CARB officials have been quoted claiming that they removed their zero emission vehicle quotas in part because such surveys purported to show that no demand existed for the EV1s. Critics interviewed in the movie contend that the cost of batteries and electric vehicles would have been reduced significantly when mass production began, due to economies of scale.

From Edmunds.comKarl Brauer, editor-in-chief of, a popular auto market web site, wrote his own criticism of the movie, contrasting the interpretations in the movie with his own in a rumor/fact format. For example, regarding how GM negatively marketed the car, he said:
Rumor: There were 5,000 people who wanted an EV1, but GM wouldn't let them buy it.
Fact: There were 5,000 people who expressed interest in an EV1, but when GM called them back and explained that the car cost $299-plus a month to lease, went between 60 and 80 miles on a full charge, and took between 45 minutes and 15 hours to re-charge, very few would commit to leasing one (not too surprising, is it?). The film likes to quote a figure of 29 miles as the average American's daily driving needs, but that is a national figure and the EV1 was only sold in California and Arizona, primarily in Los Angeles. Anyone wanna guess what the average L.A. resident's daily driving need is? I'm betting it's higher than that national average ...
Toronto Company Has Electric Car But Our Government Won't Let Them Sell It
June 22, 2007

Toronto-based company, ZENN Motors, has taken the lead in the production of electric cars. Don't believe me? If you too thought the dream of the electric car was dead after watching the excellent (albeit depressing) documentary Who Killer the Electric Car it's time to think different. I took the above photo of the ZENN earlier today outside the Isabel Bader Theatre while attending the ideaCity 2007 conference. This is the real deal friends. The car is slick and I want one. It seemed that everyone else who saw the car today wants one too.
The problem, however, is that we can't buy one. Although the car is now available for sale in 48 US States, no Canadian government has approved it for sale in Canada. In fact, Queens Park refused to even entertain the idea until Al Gore cornered Dalton McGuinty earlier this year and insisted that he make it happen.
The sad fact is although the Premier recently unveiled a number of initiatives to reduce greenhouse gases, he failed to take the lead on the electric car issue, wiltering under pressure (as every other provincial government has done) to the powerful petroleum lobby.
When you consider that motor vehicles contribute somewhere in the neighbourhood of 2/3 of our greenhouse gases, this is simply unacceptable. There is huge pent-up demand for these types of vehicles. Enviro-conscious consumers (growing by the numbers every day) are desperate for a cost-effective, realistic solution to help them curb vehicle emissions and the ZENN electric car, at a retail price of approximately $14,000 has the potential to be it.
Unlike hybrid-vehicles, the ZENN electric car eliminates the need for petroleum completely and outside of high-end, impossible to get models like the Tesla Roadster is the best solution on the market. And from a Toronto-company to-boot! And if that's still not good enough consider the noise reduction that could result if electric cars were widely adopted. These vehicles are essentially silent.
Here's the pitch I found on the company's web site:
The ZENN, a Zero-Emission, No Noise, and 100% electric vehicle travels at a regulated maximum speed of 40 km/hr and provides a range of roughly 60 kilometers on a single charge. In addition to remarkably low operating costs (energy equivalency of .96L/100Km or 245 MPG), using a ZENN in place of a conventional car can eliminate over 6 tons of CO2 from the atmosphere each year.

Some may balk at the fact that the car only goes a max of 40k. But it's important to realize this isn't a shortcoming of the technology. In fact, the ZENN could go a lot faster, but the speed is "regulated" by the government to ensure that it's not widely adopted by consumers. Why? Because that's the way the petroleum lobby wants it. (I wish I could make this stuff up but unfortunately that's the way our world works)
Despite that, there may still be a silver lining. During a morning session today at IdeaCity ZENN Motor Company Founder and CEO Ian Clifford hinted that Al Gore confronting Dalton McGuinty resulted in huge progress and they expect the ZENN could be approved for sale in Ontario before the end of the year. Looking forward to 2008, the company is hard at work on a new model that will come equipped with an even better battery and other significant improvements.

That's not to say that the existing battery or model is deficient by any means. There are over 100 of these cars on the road in the US and it continues to rack up awards. The photo above shows just how easy the charging process is. The car takes a regular plug that simply plugs in to a regular wall socket. Every charge will add only about 35 cents to the average electricity bill so given the high price at the gas pumps these days, the ZENN not only presents obvious environmental benefits but economic ones as well.

For more reading, check ZENN's web site which has lots of links to previous media coverage about their electric car.

Documentary about GM killing of the electric car. (2 min 14 sec)

[under construction]