A few days ago, I watched Who Killed the Electric Car?, a documentary covering the growth and decline of electric cars in the 90s. The movie focuses on the GM EV1 as its poster child, interviewing several EV1 drivers, sales personnel, and parts manufacturers. Because I had only a dim memory of the EV1, or even of the concept of electric cars being on the road, I found a lot of the documentary fascinating.
To be sure, the documentary has a clear message: the electric car was killed because it was too reliable (hurting dealer’s repair centers) and too damaging to the oil industry, and thus lost the support of an industry-kowtowing government. Yes, the “murder trial” at the end of the movie actually “convicts” consumers, big oil, car companies, government, the California Air Resources Board (which for some oddball reason isn’t part of the government, I suppose), and hydrogen fuel cells, but quite frankly, I don’t think there’s enough evidence in the movie to support that. Consumers in the movie practically want to have conjugal relations with their EV1s, and hydrogen fuel cells don’t even make an appearance until literally three minutes before they’re convicted. CARB and GM are presented throughout the entire movie as alternatively stupid and evil organizations. Despite the closing segment, the viewer knows who’s truly guilty. Not consumers; not the technology; just the car companies and big oil.
I don’t honestly think that’s fair. There were significant problems with electric cars as they existed at the time of an EV1. The biggest problem, and the reason that I can’t see myself buying an EV1 if they still existed, is that the 80-mile range really isn’t sufficient for a lot of Americans. The movie (and electric car proponents in general) like to point out that 80 miles is well above what the average American drives in a day. That’s true. What it’s missing, though, is the distribution curve. When I used to have a car, I drove on average about 20 miles per day during the week, but on weekends, when I would be out with friends or running errands, I could easily put on three times that number. A round-trip to downtown Indianapolis, excluding any other errands I might need to run, was 40 miles all by itself. Add in summer heat, idling in traffic, and a swing by a friend’s house, and you’re looking at trouble. Similarly, when my sister went to college, her average daily driving during the school week probably came out to only a few miles per day, but on weekends, when she came home, she could easily slap 160 miles on the odometer. Many of my friends over the years have had similar driving patterns. It’s the classic focus on mean without remembering to look at the standard deviation.
Of course, there’s no reason that anyone should have to drive such large amounts. The problem here is one of infrastructure. In Europe, certainly, you don’t have to drive nearly as much, nor do you in vast tracts of the Northeast. Instead, the trains take over, providing convenient mass transit for the medium haul. If the country had a decent rail system, I think that a purely electric car would have a much better shot. Since that’s realistically not going to happen in the near future, any successor to the gas-powered automobile is going to have to handle both short and medium distances.
Thankfully, there are green alternatives in the pipe that can do exactly that. The one I’m most enthusiastic about is the Chevy Volt, a re-envisioned hybrid. The Volt, currently just a prototype, has the ability to drive 40 miles off an electric charge, while gracefully falling over to gasoline, biodiesel, or (blech) E85.
Digression: E85 is a completely idiotic concept in the US until we eliminate the sugar tariff. I’m sick and tired of propping up corn farmers making horribly inefficient, environmentally damaging, and unhealthy substitutes for sugar products just because America’s addicted to growing corn. (End digression)
The result is a zero-emissions electric vehicle for daily chores that transparently becomes a traditional automobile for longer trips. I’m extremely enthusiastic about the future of the Chevy Volt concept, and very hopeful that it will enter production in some form very soon. This is what the EV1 should have been to begin with.
I should also point out that pure electric car technology itself has improved tremendously in the last ten years. The Tesla Roadster, for example, is a brand-new electric sports car that has outstanding performance characteristics and manages more than 200 miles on a charge—a distance that I’d argue is nearly sufficient for everyone. It’s only just starting to roll off the assembly line, so we’ll have to wait and see how efficient it is, but I’m hopeful it will do well enough in its first few markets to expand.
Overall, I have to recommend Who Killed the Electric Car?, if only because it does bring a lot of facts to light about electric cars that I doubt most people know. I wish it were slightly more coherent in its ending, but even with it, I think it’s a good watch.