Who Killed the Electric Car? –- by Seán Kinane

08/16/06


Who Killed the Electric Car? A new film by that name attempts to answer that question. It is currently playing at the Tampa Theatre. Last night after the film there was a discussion featuring an engineer involved in the design of a popular electric car. WMNF’s Seán Kinane reports.

The EV1 was a fully electric car produced by General Motors in the 1990s. This new film puts forward theories about why there are none remaining on the road, despite its popularity. Donald Lasell helped GM design, develop and test drive the EV1 electric car. He spoke to the audience about how inexpensive it was to drive the EV1

“And I documented daily, especially with Nickel-Metal, how many kilowatt-hours I was using. And I was averaging about 20-22 a day. And this was mainly off peak. … Off peak at that time was 3 cents a kilowatt-hour, that’s 60 cents a day. And I was averaging at that particular time over 100-120 miles a day.�

So, why would a car that is fast and quiet and produced no emissions be taken off the road? According to Lasell, one reason is because GM caused the EV1 to fail through intentionally poor marketing such as dull advertisements and discouraging people from signing leases.

“It never made it. Why? Well, you saw some of the ads that were running. You saw the lease agreement; the lease agreement was kind of scary. I like to say ‘They brought the horse to water and they encouraged it not to drink.’�

A General Motors board member interviewed in the film had a similar opinion, saying, I don’t think GM tried hard to get [EV1] cars out. GM would only lease the EV1 to customers; no one was permitted to purchase the car. According to the film, the cost of the lease ranged from $250-$500 per month. Eventually GM recalled all of the popular vehicles from their drivers, who described the car as “quiet�, “sexy� and “fast� in the film.

In the audience was a man who had leased two different EV1 vehicles. He explains how difficult GM made it to lease the car and how battery life improved dramatically when newer models switched from lead acid batteries to Nickel-Metal Hydride batteries.

“That’s my story. I mean they did the exact same thing to me. It was such a struggle to get the ‘97. I didn’t know where to get it. It was jumping through hoops. I never had a car company qualify how difficult that you don’t want this car. They took me in and qualified me that – ‘are you sure you want it, are you ok?’ I’m a software engineer, I just drive to work, I drive back, that’s it. The 97 I didn’t think would be enough at first. But once you get it you realize that even the 97 was enough. The 99 – I drove from San Diego to Fontana on one charge, 115 miles. How long does it take to plug? I don’t know, I plug it in, like your cell phone, you wake up in the morning, there it is, it’s ready to go.�

In 1990 California passed the zero emissions vehicle mandate, which directed all car companies to produce some cars that didn’t run on hydrocarbons. The EV1 was a response by GM to that mandate. But the automobile manufacturers fought the mandate. The film describes a 1995 memo in which the automobile manufacturers association hired a PR firm to create a political climate to destroy the zero emissions vehicle mandate. They also filed a lawsuit that eventually had the support of the oil corporations and the Bush administration. The film chronicles this battle, which culminated in a hearing in front of the California Air Resource Board, or CARB. CARB overturned the mandate, to the delight of auto and oil companies and to the displeasure of environmentalists and EV1 drivers, who soon had their leases terminated and their vehicles recalled. Not long after, all of the EV1 cars were destroyed by GM, as Lassel explains:

“When it was all over, crush ‘em, shred ‘em, make it go away. What they were implying there [in the film], I‘m prone to agree with them. I love that car.�

But the EV1 is not the only electric car that has has been discontinued by General Motors. An initiative of Al Gore called the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles, led GM to produce a car called the Precept. Lassel describes how efficient the Precept was and why it was cancelled.

“General Motors, when I was with them, did a demonstration vehicle called the Precept. It was a five-passenger sedan and it got 103 miles per gallon average highway and city, fully loaded. This is with luggage and all, a diesel. A real car; the technology exists today. Where is it? Well, fortunately or unfortunately, depends on your perspective, Bush was elected. And the very first program he canceled was PNGV, Partnership for a new Generation of Vehicles.�

The film “Who Killed the Electric Car?� described seven suspects who may have played a part in that transgression. Those seven are: Consumers, Oil companies, Car companies, the government, the California Air Resource Board, electric car batteries, and the hydrogen fuel cell.

Lassel was asked what types of innovations consumers might expect to improve auto efficiency in the near future.

“I’m a composites engineer and my specialty is carbon-fiber composites. And the technology, in my opinion, is to put more carbon fiber into your cars, get steel out, put carbon fiber in. Recycle the carbon fiber as many times as you can and when you’re done, landfill it. And what you’re doing is you’re taking carbon dioxide, carbon, out of the environment and putting it in the ground as a noble element.�

But he still feels that electric cars and other zero emission vehicles (or ZEVs) are an important answer to fuel efficiency, followed closely by other types of vehicles which reduce consumption of fossil fuels.

“In my opinion, ZEV [zero emission vehicle] is top of the heap, that’s the best way, it’s the most fuel-efficient vehicle ever ?? in the world, ever. Battery electric, and then hybrid-electric and actually in my opinion - before the Prius is the new one that’s coming out, the plug-in hybrid-electric. That’s where you’re more battery-powered than you are running on a hydrocarbon.�

Who Killed The Electric Car? is currently playing at Tampa Theatre.
To see the trailer of the film, visit sonyclassics.com –slash- whokilledtheelectriccar.

For WMNF News, I’m Seán Kinane

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