Who Killed the Electric Car?
How GM Destroyed the Greenest Car I Ever Owned
June 25, 2006
Who Killed the Electric Car?
By Gar Smith / The-Edge
"It blew the doors off any car I've ever driven," Chris Paine grins. "It was super-fast, quiet, tune-up free and fun." It was GM's all-electric EV1 -- a high-performing, low-cost, nonpolluting vehicle. It was fun while the ride lasted but then GM suddenly ordered the cars recalled. When GM seized his beloved electric and destroyed it, Paine recalls, "There was only one thing left I could think to do: Make a film." That film, Who Killed the Electric Car?, is now coming to a movie theater near you.
|EV1s -- Confiscated and crushed by GM.|
"The use of solar energy has not been opened up because the oil industry
does not own the sun." -- Ralph Nader, 1980.
"The electric car is not for everyone. These cars can only meet the needs of
90 percent of the population." -- Actor Ed Begley, Jr.
Who Killed the Electric Car? (an audience favorite at the Sundance Film Festival) recounts how a California law forced GM to build an electric vehicle that became so popular that Detroit had no choice but to destroy it.
"There were a lot of emotional films screened at Sundance," a local film buff recalls, "but the one that had the most people in tears was a film about electric cars being crushed."
In scenes that leave many viewers in tears, hundreds of sleek, beautifully engineered EV1s are shown being seized over the passionate protests of the car's users (including actors Peter Horton and Amanda Peet, who was handcuffed and arrested for trying to save her beloved EV1).
Who Killed the Electric Car? reveals how the California Air Resources Board's (CARB) 1990 Zero Emissions Mandate required automakers to make 2% of new cars sold in California emissions-free by 1990 (rising to 10% emissions-free new cars by 2003).
Faced with the unexpected and growing popularity of the electric car concept, oil and auto company lobbiests were dispatched to Sacramento to undercut California's Zero Emissions Mandate.
GM eventually ordered the EV1s recalled. The confiscated vehicles were secretly trucked to a test-track in the Arizona desert where they were crushed and shredded. GM spokespersons denied they had destroyed the EV1 fleet, but filmmaker Paine, using a borrowed a camera and a hired helicopter, managed to capture the stunning images of GM's electric vehicle "killing grounds."
The-Edge Meets the Filmmakers
The-Edge caught up with Paine at San Francisco's W Hotel where he was preparing to show the film at the SF International Film Festival. He was accompanied by Wally Ripple and Chelsea Sexton, two principals from the film, and by executive producer Dean Devlin.
"Electric cars aren't futuristic," says Chelsea Sexton, a former GM marketing whiz and a major presence in the film. "We had electric cars in 1996." Cindy disputes GM's claims that the cars weren't popular. "We sold all the electrics we made and we had a waiting list --100 percent sales? That's pretty good." There wasn't another GM car in history that sold every model built. No wonder. The cars didn't need mufflers or oil changes and a routine maintenance consisted of "replenishing the windshield washer fluid and a tire rotation."
The first EV1s were issued low-performance nickel-hydrid batteries. The range and reliability soared when these were replaced by lithium batteries.
Sexton cautioned against demonizing her former employer. "GM is a company of many factions," and there are still a lot of good people there who support efficiency.
Wally Ripple, formerly the head engineer of GM's EV1 project, is now the principal engineer for AeroVironment, a firm that designs systems for electric an hybrid vehicles. Ripple has 23 US patents to his credit, is the recipient of 13 NASA New Technology Awards and is working on a book entitled Global Warming: What's Left and What's Right?
Ripple recalls the famous remark by a former Detroit CEO once stated, "What's good for GM is good for America." Ripple has an update: "What's hurtful to GM is hurtful to the world." If Detroit hadn't abandoned the electric vehicle, Ripple laments, "we would now be three steps ahead of Toyota."
The EV1, as good as it was, was built with "1980s technology," Ripple says. If the EV1 was built today, it would be "even faster and more fun." Efficiencies and costs have improved, electric engines are now kicking out "four Horsepower-per-pound, and batteries are 10 times more powerful." Wally claimed "a lot of people inside GM would like to see [the EV1 revived]." If GM's leadership remains obstinate, he adds, "I'd like to see Porsche get interested."
How They Killed the Electric Car
As a Carter energy specialist concludes in the film, "GM killed the electric car." From a profit-filtered perspective, it was a no-brainer. The electric car threatened the status quo and Detroit realized it could make more money building Hummers.
One of the most chilling moments in the documentary shows a series of ads that were created by GM, supposed to "sell" the EV1. It is evident that the print and TV ads were designed to accomplish just the opposite. One print-ad that ran in every major US magazine featured a two-page black and white photo of a cornfield. An EV1 was shown on the right hand page at a distance, driving out of the picture. The left-hand page (and the entire ad) was dominated by a large, grotesque, scarecrow that looked like it had be designed for a summertime horror flick.
A TV ad designed during the same period was also filmed in black and white. It began with ominous synthesized music and a strained woman's voice asked odd questions about "fire," and "sparks" while the camera pans over a pavement stenciled with the outlines of peoples bodies. Eventually the camera winds up focused -- briefly -- on a single electric vehicle.
"What did that remind you of?" Dean Devlin asked. The-Edge replied: "Hiroshima."
"Exactly," Devlin nodded. "The shadows left behind on building walls and roads after people were vaporized by the bomb blast."
Devlin know a thing of two about the successful use of film imagery. In addition to being the former owner of an EV1 (like Paine, he also now drives an electric Toyota RAV4), Devlin has some impressive film credits. Despite his youthful good looks, Devlin's resume includes producing such hits as Independence Day, Stargate, and Godzilla. And as if that's not impressive enough, Devlin also co-wrote all three films.
Devlin shared a story his father told him about receiving a visit from a gentleman who had been part of GM's advertising department. He opened an attache case filled with prototypes for advertising campaigns designed to promote the popularity of electric vehicles.
"Why these are brilliant," Devlin's father replied. "Why is it we never saw any of these?"
"You tell me," the disappointed marketing man grumbled.
But that was yesterday. Today, the reality is that, despite Detroit's efforts at sabotage, electric cars are taking off around the world. Especially in Europe and in the UK where new laws promoted by London's "Green Mayor" Ken Livingston ban oil-burning engines from the streets of Central London.
And in the US, electrics, hybrids and plug-in hybrids are once again becoming popular options for American drivers. Honda initially sold 7,000 hybrids in the US. Eight years later, "they are selling at a premium and there's a waiting list." Paine mentioned some friends who own an electric vehicle and have hooked it up to rooftop photovoltaic panels so that the car is "solar-charged and off-the-grid."
But if Detroit refuses to build efficient gas-free vehicles, do we have any options? After all, small manufacturers can't supply a market as large as the US motoring public. Leaning forward in his chair, Rippel had an observation that quickly morphs into a solution.
Contrary to popular belief, he points out, "Boeing doesn't make jet engines." Similarly, "Detroit can handle building and design but it's not good at novelty." Ripple envisions electric system manufacturing companies springing up in Massachusetts, New York and, especially, in Silicon Valley. These decentralized suppliers would build the new generation of electric motors that are needed and they would then ship them to Detroit's assembly lines. This concept is not without precedent. "After all, GM doesn't build the XSR," Ripple grinned.
The-Edge asked Ripple if the advent of Peak Oil -- the disappearance of cheap, recoverable oil -- will presage a split in the historic marriage of the oil and auto industries. Ripple was not optimistic. While there's a fortune to be made replacing 200 million vehicles that run on a vanishing fuel resource, Ripple said, there are still 1 trillion barrels of oil to be extracted and the oil companies realize that the exhaustion of cheap oil means that "most of the dollars lie ahead" -- when the price of oil hits $100 a barrel.
By that time, Paine predicted, other nations will have converted to electric vehicles and "the US will become Protectionist City," legislative punitive tariffs to protect US automakers by preventing the import of "cheap Chinese electric cars."
Ironically, China purchased four of the EV1s. Were they also repossessed and crushed in the Arizona desert? Nobody knows what happened to them.
Asked for an assessment of George Clooney's new all-electric two-seater, the response was unanimous: "We love the Tango!"
For more information, see:
How GM Destroyed
The Greenest Car I Ever Owned
By Darell Dickey
(Written in 2004) -- The two well-polished cars in the photo represent a significant percentage of all production battery electric vehicles on the road today. Kim and I used to "own" them both. "Own" is in quotes because the 1997 GM EV1 on the left was never sold. It was leased.
|More than 26 million internal combustion vehicles on California roads consume upwards of 50 million gallons of gasoline per day. The two pollution-free, electric cars in this photo were powered by rooftop solar panels. The photo was taken one month before GM took back the EV1 and had it destroyed. Credit: Darrel Dickey|
We were fortunate to secure one of the final two-year leases on this first modern production EV. We took delivery of the car on November 27, 2001, and had driven it 11,743 miles before we were forced to return the car to GM on November 25, 2003. This is the car that Kim and I fought over.
This car commuted 40 miles every day on about 10 kWh of power from the socket ($1 of electricity -- if we actually purchased our electricity. In the summer of 2003, we began generating our own EV "fuel" from our roof-mounted photovoltaic system. At peak solar hours, we can feed 2.5kW back into the meter. The system is producing an average of ~13 kWh/day -- more than enough to fuel the 40-mile-per-day commute in our EV. We now truly have "free fuel").
Generally, this car was charged in our garage for about 1.5 hrs/day, during off-peak hours, while we slept. When our lease ran out, we had no choice but to give it up.
GM would not extend the leases nor allow the vehicles to be purchased for any price. As far as I know, this is the only time in history that perfectly good cars were taken off the road by the manufacturer -- especially painful when these are among the very few cars that are part of the solution.
Of the 1,150 EV1s that were ever made, there are only a small percentage still on the road -- most leases have expired. There is only one on the road in California that I'm aware of. The last private lease expired in August of 2004.
This is a two-seater that is capable of astonishing, quiet acceleration. (If you have broadband, you can watch a short clip here.) 0-60 mph, this is the quickest car I have ever driven. When pushed hard, bystanders typically only hear the front tires squealing on the pavement. I have NEVER had more fun driving a vehicle than what I experienced with this great car. That the car is quiet and pollution-free is just icing on the cake.
If you don't think electric cars can perform, you have not driven an EV1. (While immature and inherently unsafe, the experience of beating Camaros and Mustang 5L's onto the freeway is still great fun.)
After GM removes these from the road and offers a few of them to universities and museums, they will crush the rest. The crushing has already begun.
The Rav4EV on the other hand, was the only production EV to ever be offered for sale -- even if it was for only eight months. We have purchased the Rav4EV, and plan to NEVER give it back. I fully intend for our 3-year-old to eventually take her driving test in this car.
Today there is no way to purchase or lease any production electric vehicle from any manufacturer. The reason? It all depends on what conspiracy theory you want to pursue. The California Air Resources Board now says that EVs are not needed -- favoring Fuel Cell R&D instead.
Some Relevant Quotes that Make Me Smile (or Cry)
"Petroleum refining is the number one consumer of energy in California's manufacturing sector. In 1997..., [t]his consumption amounted to 15 and 28 percent of the state's total manufacturing sector's electrical and natural gas consumption respectively."
-- California Energy Commission
"There seems to be a general impression that for passenger transportation in and around our cities, the electric automobile is the best. It has the great advantage of being silent, free from odor, simple in construction and gearing, capable of ready control, and having a considerable range of speed."
-- Scientific America, August 1899.
"Let this be our national goal: At the end of this decade, in the year 1980, the United States will not be dependent on any other country for the energy we need to provide our jobs, to heat our homes, and to keep our transportation moving."
-- President Richard Nixon, January 30, 1974.
"If you're one of those people who puts solar panels on your house or drives a battery powered car, you might as well vote for Gore."
-- Dick Cheney, Oct 3, 2000.
"If sunbeams were weapons of war, we would have had solar energy centuries ago."
-- Sir George Porter, August 26, 1973.
For more information, go to the author's website at: http://darelldd.com/ev/
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