Save the world? Drive electric!

Thursday, 26. February 2009     0 comment(s)
Alexandru Luta
International Politics of Natural Resources and the Environment research programme
The less people know about how sausages and laws are made, the better they sleep at night, Otto von Bismarck is said to have quipped. The documentary ‘Who Killed the Electric Car?’ draws its power from the stupefied sense of outrage 19th century Prussians probably did not get to experience much. Director Chris Paine presents the history of the EV1, marketed for the first time by the US car manufacturer General Motors in 1996. The car ran entirely on battery power and thus produced literally no exhaust. Still, by late 2005 the entire fleet of these wonder cars was gone. Paine’s documentary seeks to explain the political mechanics behind the disappearance of these automobiles.

The story begins with the California Zero Emissions Vehicle mandate of 1990, demanding that 10% of all cars sold in California in the year 2003 emit no pollutants. Car manufacturers coped with this act by adopting a two-pronged strategy: attempting to produce such cars on the one hand, while litigating for the abolishment of the act on the other hand. As mentioned already, electrical vehicles became a reality already in 1996, but in spite of this legal action against the mandate continued until, with the support of the US federal government, the Zero Emissions Act was repealed on April 24, 2003.

In what turned out to be a major victory for Detroit, manufacturers wrested a memorandum from the state of California entitling them to build and sell electric cars in accordance with demand. GM then proceeded to prove this demand non-existent through a marketing campaign that consisted in placing phone calls to potential customers who had been waitlisted for leases, and explaining the vehicles’ limitations to them. Customers who did not relent in their intent to buy subsequently had to face a puzzling application process – inquiring even about their medical history.

In fact, the limitations of the EV1 and cars like it are minute: they are the same size as a regular car; they were just as powerful as them and accelerated much faster than their gas-driven counterparts. Their limited range – still much superior to the average needs of commuters – was due to GM’s initial refusal to install more efficient batteries into their cars. With more modern NiMH batteries the car could go for up to 260 km without recharging. Charging them fully indeed took a lot of time, but it could be done overnight with equipment that could easily be installed in owners’ garages.

The death blow to electric cars came once customers’ first leases expired. Not a single electric car had actually been sold under the EV1 and its sister programs – car manufacturers retained ownership of all vehicles. GM withdrew all EV1s from circulation, without offering willing customers the option to renew their contracts, and destroyed the vehicles. Although, as the documentary points out, there is “no precedent of any car company rounding up every one of a particular kind of a car and crushing them as if one of them might get away”, GM chose not to listen to its customers and did just that.

It is certainly odd in a market economy for one company to confiscate, destroy and discontinue a product enthusiastically backed by consumers, but even the most hard-nosed skeptic should smell a rat once confronted with video footage of GM’s competitors Toyota and Honda removing their own electric vehicles from their users and shredding them in junkyards. In a further odd move, GM purchased controlling shares of companies manufacturing electric car batteries, only to eventually sell those shares to fossil fuel giant ChevronTexaco, which proceeded to silence previous owners’ attempts to market their batteries and to shut down production lines. This should also raise eyebrows faster than you can say “conflict of interest”.

The documentary holds that electric car was stealthily assassinated because interested parties put their weight behind opposing it and quashed it before word about these vehicles’ performance ever reached the general public. Meanwhile, the Earth’s polar icecaps are still melting. Rational actors, it seems, do not always produce rational outcomes. Just how much more achievable would the goal behind the letter of the Kyoto Protocol be if the world boasted a fleet of electric vehicles instead one of fossil fuel driven ones? According to the International Energy Agency, 17% of total carbon dioxide emissions in 2006 stemmed from road transport. Of course, using an electric car would shift emissions from this statistical category to that of electricity production, but, even when drawing on electricity produced at the dirtiest of power stations, electric cars outdid all internal combustion engines in terms of ultimate energy efficiency.

Probably the most relevant point here is that cars are driven in all of the world’s countries, so switching to electric cars would actually elicit emissions cuts from developing countries as well, which currently do not face any commitments under the Kyoto Protocol. Simply giving consumers the possibility of driving better cars would go a longer way towards achieving relevant emissions cuts than what decades of strenuous environmental diplomacy have achieved to this day. The fact that Mitsubishi and Subaru are announcing opening up production lines for electric cars in 2009 shows that the now troubled US car manufacturers may have botched things a bit when they discontinued the production of electrics. The superpower seems to be losing its edge in more ways than one. Complacency is no way to run a world.

In the photo: General Motors EV1 from Wikimedia Commons, "Rmhermen".

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