Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of September 4, 2006
So who killed the electric car?
Some fingers of blame point to the oil industry
By SUZANNE ELSTON
Every now and then, if we're paying careful attention, we get a glimpse of how innovation can dramatically change the future. I'm not talking about how the newest generation of cell phone can improve our social life, but actually witnessing the possibility of a world that was previously unimaginable.
For me, that moment came in the parking lot of Michigan State University in 1997 when I had the rare opportunity to drive General Motors delightful electric sports car, the EV1.
Sleek and silent
Fast, sleek and silent, driving the EV1 was like slipping out of a dream and into the future. From the minute I first slid into elegant leather seats and keyed in the five-digit run code, I knew that I was experiencing something unique. I waited for the sound of the car's engine revving to life, only to realize, rather sheepishly, that there was no engine noise. The only indicator that the car's fully electric engine was running was the single digital display monitor.
As I shifted into drive and headed out of the parking lot, a muted hum, akin to a very distant sewing machine, rose and fell with the speed of the car. The only other sound that the car made was a beeper alarm that was triggered by the turn signals. The car ran so quietly, the alarm had been installed as a warning to pedestrians.
Once on the main road, I hit the accelerator and the car surged effortlessly to 100 km/hour, a speed I could have maintained for an hour and a half before the car's battery pack would need recharging. The car performed beautifully on its self-sealing, puncture resistant tires, installed because there was no room to carry a spare tire in the tiny two-seater. I turned up the car's fine stereo system, sat back and enjoyed the ride.
I was ready to buy the car right on the spot, but unfortunately, I couldn't. Nor could anyone else. The EV1, General Motors' beautiful, functional and environmentally-sound sports car, was never sold. Introduced in 1996 on a lease-only basis, the car was only ever available in California.
Sadly, I'm one of the few people outside of California who actually had a chance to drive the EV1. When I test drove it in 1997, it was explained that the car's limited distribution was because the design engineers still had to work on how to improve the car's battery function in cold weather. I was assured that it was only a matter of time before the EV1 would be made available in more rugged climates.
It never happened. Yet despite the tiny market where it was available, the EV1 was a resounding success. Anyone lucky enough to lease one, loved it. While its two seats and very limited cargo space disqualified it from being a family vehicle, there was a huge market for the EV1 as a commuter car.
In 2000, one year after the company purchased the Hummer name brand, GM vice-president Harry Pearce announced that there was "no particular need" for the company to continue building electric cars. In 2003, the company started recalling all leased vehicles, claiming that it could longer provide parts for service. Those unwilling to relinquish their magical electric cars got home visits from tow trucks sent to impound the vehicles.
Activists who offered General Motors US $1.9 million to buy the cars outright were soon dismayed to discover that the entire fleet had been crushed, thus ending one very bright and shining moment in automotive history.
Not surprisingly, the demise of the EV1 had nothing to do with the car's functionality and everything to do with the oil industry that stood to lose billions of dollars if the idea of the electric vehicle really took off.
Ironically, the annihilation of the EV1 comes at a time when the price of gas and concern about the impact of climate change has even the most stalwart SUV owner starting to think about fuel efficiency and alternatives to the gas-guzzlers that currently clog our highways. Sadly, their concern is too little, and way too late, to save the magical EV1.
In July, Sony Pictures Classics released the film, Who Killed the Electric Car? While it's unlikely that the film will come to a theatre near you, Sony's website about the film has some pretty amazing information. Check out Who Killed the Electric Car? at www.sonyclassics.com.
Copyright © 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 -- Western Catholic Reporter
Our mission: To serve our readers by bringing the Gospel to bear on current issues in the Church and in secular culture through accurate news coverage and reflective commentary.