Who killed the electric car

Who killed the electric car - inset

Last night I was lucky enough to get a sneak peak at Who killed the electric car (IMDb page) which is due out in cinemas in Australia on 2 November this year.

I’d heard a bit about the film, and I was keen to see it – it seems to be custom made for someone like me – a technology-junky with an environmental bent – and I wasn’t disappointed.

The film primarily follows the fate of the EV1 electric car, introduced in 1996 to the Californian market by General Motors (under the Saturn brand) in response to California’s “Zero Emissions Vehicle” (ZEV) legislation that aimed to have 10% of cars sold in California having no tailpipe emissions by 2003. Electric cars were the chosen approach to solve the problem because General Motors (GM) had previewed a concept car, called the Impact, prior to the legislation being introduced and seemed the most promising and realistic technology at the time.

If we are to believe the filmmakers, and the many people they interviewed, electric vehicles were a roaring success – with waiting lists for cars like the EV1 numbering in the thousands. (As an aside GM contests in the film that the waiting lists looked good on paper, but that individuals willing to put their money on the table were limited. Given Toyota’s backlog of orders for the Prius in the U.S. I tend to believe that GM are perhaps not completely on the level in this regard.)

And yet GM, and other manufacturers, were not convinced and eventually withdrew the cars from the market. Through the non-renewal of leases, in what seems to me to be an unusual arrangement (it seems all electric vehicles were leased – no-one was able to purchase the cars outright). This meant that all of the cars “sold” to customers were eventually returned to the manufacturer where, contrary to car company claims, the cars were destroyed – even though the cars worked perfectly well and many customers wanted to pay out the residual on the lease to own the cars outright.

After presenting some background, the film steps into a pseudo-murder-mystery mode – looking at the various factors that may (or may not) have been the cause of the electric car’s demise.

I spent most of the film in disbelief, that such a promising technology that even I didn’t know existed (as someone who follows green-tech pretty closely I found that quite astounding) could end up on the scrap-heap. What was most surprising to me is that there seemed to be a significant amount of infrastructure in place to support electric vehicles, which is probably one of the biggest hurdles facing any alternative fuel initiative.

The film goes into great detail about the vested interests and political maneuvering that caused the ZEV program to be revoked. A few minutes were devoted to hydrogen fuel cell technology which has replaced electric vehicles in the U.S. as the “next silver bullet”. The film made a pretty strong case that this re-focusing is a delaying tactic on the part of all involved, when a perfectly good technology already exists, and that hydrogen fuel cells were unlikely to be a realistic for some time to come, if ever at all.

They also suggested that the Japanese car manufacturers, such as Toyota, saw the development of hybrids by U.S. manufacturers (which began to be developed as a “compromise” between the Californian government and car manufacturers) as a potential threat and decided to enter the game and develop their own technology. When the U.S. manufacturers dropped the ball, Toyota and Honda entered the U.S. market and have done extremely well. I couldn’t help but think of the parallels with the lack of government foresight in Australia regarding renewable energy, but I digress.

By the end of the film I was feeling pretty angry about the whole thing – dumbfounded at how far backward things had gotten. (The film also takes a bit of a “bag everyone” approach – no-one comes out smelling rosy really, not even Toyota who are considered by many, including myself, as leaders in this area.) Thankfully the film took a quick detour and had a look at what’s on the horizon – plug-in hybrids, electric vehicles like the Tesla Roadster, conversions of existing cars to all electric drive-trains, and improvements in battery technology.

The inventor of the battery technology that found its way into the second generation EV1 was a highlight, demonstrating some solar technology that looked very interesting. But most of all it showed that the glimmer of a better future that the EV1 represented is starting to find its way out into the world – in new technologies, alternative car companies, and evangelists starting to make a dent in the entrenched industries and vested interests. It just seems such a shame that the momentum created by the EV1 and the ZEV legislation is only just starting to be rebuilt.

I’d definitely recommend the film – certainly got me thinking and inspired me. It demonstrated that with political willpower and strong public support, solutions exist to solve a significant proportion of the issues related to car emissions (namely smog/health issues and global warming).