Saturday, July 08, 2006

Who Killed the Electric Car?

by Alex Stroup
Yesterday I saw the new documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? It is mostly about the life and death of GM's EV-1 all electric car but touches on the larger issue of altnernative fuel cars. While the movie admits that the market failure of the car is complex and has many causes it is obviously slanted towards blaming the car and oil companies for actively fighting campaigning against them. Normally, I am somewhat suspicious of such conspiracy theories (as one guy in the movie says "GM would sell you a car that ran on pig shit if enough people wanted to buy one") but it makes its case reasonably well. The interests the oil companies have in resisting all-electric cars is obvious but why would GM resist production if there was a profitable level of demand?

The movie never really makes the case that demand was sufficient for a major auto manufacturer to continue mass production (at its peak, GM was making only 4 EV-1s per day). So it is easy to accept that GM simply wasn't making enough money to continue production. But it is how they behaved towards the cars already built and in the hands of consumers that is eyebrow raising. They had never allowed outright purchase of the cars but only leased them. As the leases ran out, GM refused to release or sell the cars, repossessed them and then destroyed almost every single one of them (a few disabled ones ended up with auto museums). This despite more than enough demand for the vehicles already constructed and an offer of $1.3 million to buy the last 70 or so temporarily stored in a lot in Southern California. Ford, Chrysler, Honda, and Toyota, all did similar things with their full-electric models (remember the Th!nk? or the electric Rav-4?)

To be completely honest, I think the movie needed to lay more blame at the feet of consumers. I can't really begrudge a person making $1000 a month needing a car, any car, to get to their job so they buy a 22-year-old gas guzzling, smog belching beater. But at a certain point of income altruism is affordable and what responsibility do we have to make that choice?

I drive a Civic Hybrid from Honda. My wife and I were one of the first dozen or so to own one in Northern California and the fuel economy was the primary reason. Not because it saved us money (with the premium paid for the car the savings on gas will take many years to kick in) but because it was overall better for the environment (I know, there is some debate as to whether the total savings are better, but I am still of the opinion that it congegrates the negatives into areas easier to cope with than just spewing it into the air).

Other than a few very minor details the Honda Civic Hybrid is indistinguishable from the standard Honda Civic. And yet I know many people who could easily afford to pay the $1-2,000 extra for the Hybrid that still choose to buy the standard model. Not because they have any good reason to reject the hybrid technology but just because they don't care enough.

If, when given essentiallly identical options the average consumer still doesn't take the more fuel efficient version, that is a tough hill for the auto manufacturers to fight. Still, recalling and destroying the electric vehicles that were made is essentially unconscienable as presented. Nobody currently from GM is interviewed in the movie, though, so there may have been valid legal or regulatory reasons for it. One of their official bloggers did address it to a degree but not sufficiently in my opinion.


Blogger jaydro said...

I haven't seen the film, but I did read that blog you linked to, and it doesn't mention that I believe GM had a legal obligation to continue to support those cars with parts etc. after they ceased manufacture. This has been known as the "ten-year rule" in auto manufacturing, but the only info I can find on it is a reference claiming they can find no evidence that it actually exists in the US. But if there is such an obligation, one would imagine that is exactly why GM chose to lease-only such a limited production vehicle, knowing that this would enable them to fully control the extent of their obligation to provide long-term vehicle support.

7/09/2006 01:58:00 AM  
Anonymous patrick said...

Watched "Who Killed the Electric Car" recently (great documentary), then i heard that GM and Tesla are making another run at the electric car (yay for progress!) hopefully development of this technology can continue forward uninterrupted by the powers that depend on oil consumption.

2/28/2008 06:01:00 PM  

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