Four dollars per gallon? --Who Killed the Electric Car?—A Review
By Richard W. Crockett
How would you like to have a vehicle that would accelerate from zero to sixty in 3.6 seconds, have a range of 300 miles at 70 miles per hour and never cost a dime for gasoline even when making periodic bathroom and latte stops at a gas station? Imagine an automobile that could operate for an equivalent fuel cost of 50 cents per gallon. The car produced by Saturn called EV-1, didn’t get gas mileage because it didn’t use gas. Plug it in at night and drive around all day without emitting any hydrocarbons, hydrocarbons that assault both your pocketbook and the environment. California Air Resources Board (CARB) passed a mandate in 1990, which required zero exhaust emissions for a percentage of vehicles sold by any manufacturer selling vehicles in California. The percentage was to begin at 2%, but over time increase to 5%, and later increase to 10% of cars sold by any single manufacturer. With a population of 30,000,000, when California does things like this the manufacturers pay attention. Between 1996 and 2004 in California, GM, Ford, Toyota, and Honda manufactured and tested Electric cars and light trucks, which would have zero emissions and help them with their compliance with the 1990 mandate. But eventually they were all pulled off the road and run through the crusher or in Honda’s case through the shredder, except one, which is deliberately disabled at the insistence of GM and resides in the Peterson Automotive Museum in Los Angeles. The cars were a technological success, and there was a demand for them with universal satisfaction among their users. Why did this happen? Most of us who have lived the major portion of our life in the second half of the twentieth century have heard folklore about mysterious 200 mile per gallon carburetors that were allegedly purchased by the oil companies and never made it to production. These fanciful stories while somewhat plausible always remain suspect. But what if you could see the case of these tactics laid out in gory detail to be watched at your leisure? Well, I know what. It will make you furious the next time you encounter a gas pump.
The story of a schizophrenic automobile industry successfully designing and demonstrating the technological success of an electric car and then strangling their newborn baby in the metaphorical crib is laid out in a DVD, Who Killed the Electric Car? Sony Pictures Classics in 2006 produced the documentary, which is narrated by Martin Sheen with brief appearances by Tom Hanks, Ed Begly, Mel Gibson and others. If it came out this year it would, with the help of high gas prices, win an academy award for documentary films. I rented my copy from Netflix, but I am sure it is available other places as well. The special features on the DVD are excellent with the filmmaker’s conclusions laid out in a crisp and clear manner.
There was both compliance and resistance to the California zero emissions mandate. The compliance occurred during the period from 1996 to 2003 when the Saturn EV-1’s, Honda EV Plus, Toyota EV version of RAV4, Ford EV Ranger applications and others were successfully produced and tested. The resistance occurred in parallel time with the auto industry working to torpedo the project’s success. Unbelievable? American corporate capitalism works in mysterious ways. You don’t want to believe all of that baloney about the unfettered market place and supply and demand in a perfect world. It is hooey. Follow this.
At first was an attempt to blame the battery technology for the disappearance of the electric car, which in its primitive form would only take the car for a range of 60 miles. This was GM’s Delco. Then Stanford Ovshinsky, a battery engineer got into the picture. His battery jumped the car’s performance to a driving range of 300 miles. Today lithium-ion battery technology is available. GM resisted use of this product at first, according to the video, but eventually bought Ovshinsky’s work, but censored him when he advertised the battery’s performance. GM then sold it to Chevron-Texaco. Now figure that. What do you suppose oil companies want to do with the battery technology? Bury it, maybe? And why would GM sell it to an oil company unless they want to bury it too? Not because they have a burning interest in preserving the idea. Chevron-Texaco lobbied against the electric car. Oil companies feared the long-run effects of the car on their oil business, and no doubt its impact on the value of their oil reserves and the car companies feared short-term losses, or so it has been argued. In a confidential 1995 memorandum, the tactics of the car manufacturers are revealed. The Auto Manufacturers Association hired a PR firm to oppose the California mandate requiring zero emissions in its original form. The oil Companies for their part supported and financed an organization called Californians Against Utility Company Abuse, so named to give “green” cover to Oil Company self interests. No doubt they were worried about a shrinking market and the prospect the owners of electric cars would “refuel” by plugging in at home in their own garage. The group would show up at public meetings and argue that municipal or other public support for infrastructure in the form of electric charging stations along public roadways was a waste of taxpayers’ money. They specifically opposed allowing utilities to add a surcharge to cover the cost of construction of recharging kiosks.
Also the Feds got into the picture. Andrew Card, Bush Administration Advisor, had been CEO of the Automobile Manufacturers Association, before working for Bush. Immediately following his appearance in the Bush Administration the Feds sued the state of California, interfering with the development of the electric car. Further, the Feds’ commitment to electric car technology may be compared to their commitment to the SUV gas-guzzler. In 2002 they provided tax incentives for the purchase of vehicles, $4,000 for the purchase of an electric vehicle, (to make them look good) but in 2003, $100,000 for the purchase of a 6,000 lb vehicle, the gas guzzling Hummer. Of course this incentive had nothing to do with being “green” and, as Leslie Stahl on CBS’s 60 Minutes pointed out, a tax credit of that size was enough to pay for the Hummer.
The car companies also introduced a “mechanical rabbit,” you know, like at the dog races. This is the rabbit the dogs will chase, but can never catch. The rabbit is the Hydrogen fuel cell. As it stands, while the fuel cell has some appeal, it remains less than fully developed. The fuel cell car is expensive, has a short range; the fuel is unavailable and it too is expensive and there is no fueling infrastructure, plus they don’t do well in cold weather. And safety could be an issue, since hydrogen is the substance that ignited the Hindenburg in the colossal fiery disaster at Lakehurst, New Jersey in May of 1937. Some say that its practical appearance is 10-15 years out. But its utility for delaying progress on the electric car is immediate. The hydrogen fuel cell also had an important ally at a crucial point in time. Alan C. Lloyd who acknowledged a commitment to hydrogen fuel cell technology was chairman of CARB at the time of a crucial meeting on April 24, 2003, where his management of the meeting resulted in allowing opponents of the electric car additional time to make their presentation and restricted presentations of supporters of the vehicle to three minutes. Much was made at that meeting of the prospects of the hydrogen fuel cell technology. It is shown that Lloyd had accepted the chairmanship of the California Fuel Cell Partnership only three months prior to the meeting. The vote was to lift the zero emissions mandate, doing so by loophole.
The video claims that every gallon of gasoline when burned turns into nineteen pounds of carbon dioxide. I’ll leave it to the physicist out there to let us know if this claim violates the law of the conservation of energy, or some other law of physic since a gallon of gasoline only weighs 7-8 pounds. While the physics of the DVD may remain an open question, the political analysis is very good. For me, the question which screams out at the viewer is, “What ever happened to the Sherman and Clayton Antitrust Acts? Do we not have an antitrust division in the Department of Justice? Isn’t it time to enforce some of the practices revealed in the video, which appear to be actions in restraint of trade? Check out the documentary DVD, Who killed the Electric Car? You will be amazed, and it may even help you to understand why you have to pay so much to drive your car and simultaneously enrich OPEC.