Who Killed the Electric Car?

Posted on December 26, 2006

GM EV-1This was going to be another simple movie review but I think it needs to be much more. Therefore, I will start out by saying that you should see “Who Killed the Electric Car?” as it is a great documentary. I never heard much about the GM EV-1 prior to this documentary and had always thought electric cars never made it back in the mid to late 90s because they took too long to charge and the technology wasn’t up to par. After watching “Who Killed the Electric Car?” I think I may have been very wrong.

Turns out that the battery technology was up to par and could take cars from 60 - 100 miles on one charge (nickel metal hydride batteries). Charges also took about four hours and could be done overnight when electricity is cheapest. In fact, in the film it is said that estimates state that 20 - 30 million cars could be charges in a given night without having to increase capacity at all. What I thought was even more interesting was that the car could be charged to 85% capacity within an hour which is pretty convenient.

No, you won’t be going cross country in an electric vehicle but for everyday driving 90% or more of the population would be set with an electric. However, with the advances in battery technology that have been made since the EV-1 was killed, the original EV-1 could now go more than 200 miles on one charge (lithium ion batteries) making electric vehicles even more compelling. Mix that with the fact gasoline is over $2.50 a gallon in most areas and the equivalent amount of electricity to one gallon of gas costs just $0.60 you can start to see why people are upset that the car manufacturers killed their electric vehicle programs.

What really upsets me about the killing of the electric car is that powerful organizations like the car companies and the oil companies combined with the government to kill an advance in technology. This country was built on innovation and if we start killing innovation we won’t remain the top nation in the world.

What’s worse is that the electric car was killed and we have since dumped a lot of money into the research and production of cars powered by hydrogen fuel cells. By most accounts hydrogen fuel cell technology won’t be ready for decades and is far less efficient than powering a car with batteries (the electric car’s power source). It looks like hydrogen fuel cells are a step back in technology from the battery powered cars.

There are a lot of conspiracy theories that make up the lore of the electric car and, as much as a love a good conspiracy theory (or two), I don’t want to get into any of them. (Seriously though, why did they have to shred the EV cars that they made when people were willing to buy them? That move was super shady at best.) I also don’t want to get into the environmental implications or the dependency that we have on foreign countries’ oil (which is a large national security risk) even though they are a big part of the story.

The bottom line and the point of this piece: A fantastic technological innovation that would have been very beneficial to the human race was killed and was then replaced by a lesser technology that won’t be ready for decades and even then may not be feasible.

That type of thing should not happen in America and all citizens should be outraged by it. There is good news though. Hybrids have picked up speed with the Toyota Prius leading the charge. Demand for hybrids has been high as well which seems to refute GM’s claims that there was no demand for the EV-1s (GM didn’t market them very well). Hybrid technology is also moving forward.

Plug-in hybrids are on the horizon which will significantly change the game. Fuel efficiency will be increased to around 150mpg since the first 60 miles of any given day will be completely powered by electricity. These cars will also offer the flexibility consumers want since the car will fail over to gasoline once the electricity is gone (i.e. if you forget to charge the car overnight or simply run out of charge you are covered).

There are also some really interesting companies that have jumped into the mix and aren’t large car manufacturers. Tesla Motors is one of these companies. They manufacture slick roadsters that are powered by electricity and are as sleek as any gasoline powered roadster you can buy. They are also just as fast and get about 250 miles to the charge). Look for more disruptive innovators like Tesla to come out and challenge the large car manufacturers.

For those of you that aren’t ready to give up the gas just yet I urge you to try TerraPass. TerraPass allows you to calculate your CO2 emissions over the course of year and offset them by sending some money to TerraPass which they will invest in clean energy projects. Most people can get away with a year of guilt free driving for only $50.

The future of alternative fuel sources for automobiles is still looking bright regardless of the murder of the electric car. We should all focus on fostering innovation and creating a better electric vehicle and forget about who did the killing. Ultimately the consuming public will decide what happens so if a good product can be produced at a fair price and we can educate the public about the benefits cars will be sold and in large numbers (most consumers won’t buy just because you tell them to hate GM or that there are evironmental impacts - they need to see the value).

For GM’s side of the story please check out “Who Ignored the Facts About the Electric Car?” by Dave Barthmuss of GM Communications over on the GM FastLane Blog. It seems like a lot of PR spin and Mr. Barthmuss admits to never seeing the film but it is worth a read and I do applaud GM for joining the conversation. Perhaps Mr. Barthmuss or someone from GM will comment on this piece and start a dialogue. Its wishful thinking but you never know!

Side Note: I have started a petition aimed towards Fuji Heavy Industries (the parent of Subaru Motors - my favorite car company). The petition asks Subaru to make a plug-in hybrid available. I would prefer an Impreza plug-in hybrid but would be psyched if they would make any model available as a plug-in hybrid. Please sign the petition if you feel so inclined.


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16 Comments so far
  1. Marc Geller December 26, 2006 8:59 pm

    It does make one crazy when you learn about the electric cars produced and then destroyed by their makers. I am one of the lucky few hundred who still drive an electric car produced by Toyota, the RAV4 EV. Hell of a good car. Top speed of 80mph, a range of 100-125 miles, 115 mpg equivalent. My car has 42,000 miles on it and the batteries are good as the day I got the car. And I know people with 100,000 miles on the original battery and still going strong. With the solar PV on my roof, this is a true zero- emission vehicle. These cars, which use no gasoline, should be available today for purchase. www.pluginamerica.com is a group working for plug-in hybrids and electric cars. Join up!

  2. John Zeratsky December 27, 2006 10:55 am

    Marc, that’s cool! I have a Honda CRV (very similar body to the RAV4) and I’d love to replace it with a hybrid or electric version of the same car.

    While the monetary cost savings (price of electricity vs gas) are nice, I do wonder about the environmental cost of electricity production vs gasoline production. I don’t have any sources to offer here, but I remember hearing that the environmental impact was similar under current conditions… although that’s the catch: “current conditions.” Electricity can be produced by green techniques, while gasoline cannot. We’ll find ways to produce cleaner electricity — we probably won’t find ways to produce (much) cleaner gasoline.

    Great post, Eric.

  3. Jay Draiman December 27, 2006 10:50 pm


    In order to insure energy and economic independence as well as better economic growth without being blackmailed by foreign countries, our country, the United States of America’s Utilization of Energy sources must change. Our continued dependence on fossil fuels could and will lead to catastrophic consequences.

    The federal, state and local government should implement a mandatory renewable energy installation program for residential and commercial property on new construction and remodeling projects with the use of energy efficient material, mechanical systems, appliances, lighting, etc. The source of energy must by renewable energy such as Solar-Photovoltaic, Geothermal, Wind, Biofuels, etc. including utilizing water from lakes, rivers and oceans to circulate in cooling towers to produce air conditioning and the utilization of proper landscaping to reduce energy consumption.

    The implementation could be done on a gradual scale over the next 10 years. At the end of the 10 year period all construction and energy use in the structures throughout the United States must be 100% powered by renewable energy.

    In addition, the governments must impose laws, rules and regulations whereby the utility companies must comply with a fair “NET METERING” (the buying of excess generation from the consumer), including the promotion of research and production of “renewable energy technology” with various long term incentives and grants. The various foundations in existence should be used to contribute to this cause.

    A mandatory time table should also be established for the automobile industry to gradually produce an automobile powered by renewable energy. The American automobile industry is surely capable of accomplishing this task.

    This is a way to expedite our energy independence and economic growth. It will take maximum effort and a relentless pursuit of the private, commercial and industrial government sectors commitment to renewable energy – energy generation (wind, solar, hydro, biofuels, geothermal, energy storage (fuel cells, advance batteries), energy infrastructure (management, transmission) and energy efficiency (lighting, sensors, automation, conservation) in order to achieve our energy independence.

    Jay Draiman
    Northridge, CA. 91325

    P.S. I have a very deep belief in America’s capabilities. Within the next 10 years we can accomplish our energy independence, if we as a nation truly set our goals to accomplish this.
    I happen to believe that we can do it. In another crisis–the one in 1942–President Franklin D. Roosevelt said this country would build 60,000 [50,000] military aircraft. By 1943, production in that program had reached 125,000 aircraft annually. They did it then. We can do it now

  4. Sherry Boschert December 28, 2006 1:12 pm

    John Zeratsky, you almost have it right. Even using the current U.S. electrical grid (roughly 50% of which is powered by coal), driving on electricity is CLEANER than driving on gasoline, not equivalent in emissions. Don’t just take my word for it — see my FAQ page at www.sherryboschert.com, which lists every study I could find on the subject. (There are a couple of new ones I haven’t added yet.)

    And for more info on plug-in hybrids, and the stories of the people who are helping to get them into drivers’ hands, see my new book, Plug-in Hybrids: The Cars that Will Recharge America (New Society Publishers, November 2006).

  5. Terry February 8, 2007 9:30 pm

    An article “Hybrid Cars: What’s All The Fuss About?” can be found at http://www.sohoindex.com/hybrid-car. This site also has lots of other articles related to Hybrid Cars.

  6. […] lots most of the day and drivers of plug-in hybrids (for more on plug-ins and plug-in hybrids see this post) do the same. However, the plug-in hybrids will have generated and stored energy through breaking […]

  7. […] plug-in hybrid initiative is also moving ahead. As long time readers know I am a big fan of plug-in hybrids. They are the bridge that will get us toward a petroleum free driving future. It’s good to […]

  8. Alain De Mol June 22, 2007 4:40 pm

    Electric car is the Future, children are OUR future. So give them A Future !!!

    If GM doesn’t want to make ‘em anymore, let new business start up.

    Oh well, you have elections next year, choose wisely :)

  9. CarZeky July 18, 2007 9:07 pm

    EVs do not contribute to the bogus California “electricity crisis” which was created by speculators and out-of-state brokers who bought up our generating plants. A typical EV holds at most 25 kwh of power, the energy equivalent of about two-thirds of a gallon of gasoline, on which many people can commute to work for an entire week (about 140 miles). EVs place pollution control at the generating plant and dramatically lower our total energy usage –
    EVs ARE CLEAN AND USE LESS ENERGY. For more informations visit the website http://www.hondazone.com.

  10. Hilma August 30, 2007 7:21 pm

    I am hoping that countries like Japan which do not have oil companies having such a high influence on the government and manufacturing will again lead the way. I hope Japan floods the American market, because there will be such a demand for them.

    It usually takes a good swift kick in the pocketbook for Detroit to innovate environmentally. Seems to me that the automobile makers are feeling a little pain, as sales of gas guzzlers slump and the demand for hybrid vehicles grows.

    Hydrogen power cars exist, but they are not for sale prototypes, abiet fully functional. They say it is the distribution system of the hydrogen cells that won’t be available for 20 years. The car technology is here today.

    It gas stations or other places could make money distributing hydrogen, why would that take 20 years. Money is always an incentive to hurry things along. If the demand is there (aye there’s the rub) distribution centers could pop up like mushrooms.

    By the way, does anyone know if a car with hydrogen cels is more explosive than a car with a gasoline tank?

  11. Tom Hendren September 30, 2007 6:39 pm

    It has been a while since someone wrote, so I am including a research document.

    Below are comments about electricity, gasoline and coal comparisons. You will find it interesting.

    This article was copied from an electric vehicle web site I lost track of. You can research the original by the title or search by a phrase. Some vehicles can drive nearly 250 miles on a charge. Please also check out the Phoenix electric truck, Tesla, Venturi Fetish, Electric cars and more as a search. The truck is KOOL.

    Electric Cars and Coal Power Plants
    Yes, electric cars have no tailpipe emissions. They produce no local pollution or carbon dioxide, but they aren’t entirely pollution-free, especially if they are recharged from an electric power grid that burns significant quantities of fossil fuels like coal.

    So, are they any better than a normal gasoline car? Absolutely.

    For starters, in terms of carbon dioxide emissions, they generate a fraction that expelled by a normal gasoline engine car. For every gallon of gasoline burned, approximately 22 pounds of CO2, an important global warming gas, are created. If a car gets 25 miles a gallon it will emit 22 pounds of carbon dioxide over that distance, as well as other pollutants. By comparison, an electric car may travel the same distance consuming 5 kilowatt hours (kWh) of electric power at a rate of 200 watt hours/mile. Assuming the local grid is 100% coal-fired, roughly 5 lbs of coal would be consumed to create that 5kWh. Depending on the grade and carbon content of the coal, one kilowatt hour creates approximately 1.4 pounds of CO2. That’s 7 pounds of CO2 vs. 22 pounds to travel the same 25 miles. But recall that the power grid isn’t entirely coal-fired; it includes hydroelectric, natural gas, nuclear and a small, but growing segment of renewables.

    But what about other pollutants, aren’t today’s cars significantly cleaner? Yes they are and getting more so all the time, which is good. But so is the power grid, at least in terms of many criteria pollutants, if not CO2. And as more wind and solar electric power is added to the grid, and older, more polluting power plants are decommissioned, the grid can get cleaner, though it will still take citizen awareness and pressure, especially in the light of the fact that hundreds of coal-fired plants plan to be built around the world in the come decades, to ensure the very best technology is used, including carbon sequestration if we plan to continue to utilize coal.

    Electric Car Economics

    If you can travel 25 miles on 5kWh of electric power, that means it cost you something like 40 cents to cover the same distance (@ 8 cents/kWh) it takes a gallon of gasoline at $2 and $3 a gallon at current (2006) prices. And if you recharge your electric car from solar panels, like many EV owners in California do, your per mile costs are even less and the payback period on your solar panels dramatically shorter because now you’re replacing not relatively cheap grid power, but increasingly expensive gasoline. In the process, you’re helping the environment and saving yourself a lot of money for decades to come.

    Electric Car Battery Pollution

    But what about all those batteries and the pollution they cause, especially when the cars are recycled?

    Well, it turns out that if the batteries are NiMH, the nickel has economic value, like the lead in conventional starter batteries. They can and are being recycled, but even before they reach that point, there is a strong probability that EV batteries will find a second life as electric power storage for the grid. While they’re useful life in cars may end at 100,00 or 150,000 miles, they still can perform useful roles in providing businesses and homes with electric back-up or peak-shaving services. Only after that will they end up being recycled.

    Lithium ion batteries don’t currently appear to have the same commodity metal value as nickel, but they too can find useful second lives and their manufacturers contend that when properly disposed of they will not present any environmental hazard, certainly not like that associated with older, heavy metal chemistries like lead and cadnium.

    The end.

  12. Used Cars November 12, 2007 6:02 am

    With Oil prices increasing all the time, here a litre of unleaded petrol is over £1. I think more people will make the switch to hybrid’s or biofuel.

    There is a lot of advertising here for the Honda hybrid engine. I think most people are still worried about the reliability and range of a electric only car but I think it should be used by people who live and work in a major city where range is no so important. Maybe used by Companies for their employees.

  13. Ken (the NASCAR man) December 26, 2007 4:13 pm

    It’s pretty sad that we are all not driving electric vehicles…and deep down everyone knows we should be! The oil companies would be able to adjust and profit from the new technology if they REALLY wanted to but it’s easier to keep the auto industry paid off so they can keep printing their money. And Ethanol is a joke. 400 pounds of corn needed to produce 1 tank of Ethanol fuel??

  14. Champion Electric Company January 7, 2008 4:48 pm

    If you look at the golf cart companies there is a similar parallel to the history of electric street car production. Golf Carts slowly moved into primarily battery powered golf carts. The Trojan Battery company rose to the occasion and provided superior deep cycle battery technology for these. The price of batteries came down and shabam! We now electric cars heading down the same road. The buzz is out there and the research and development teams are hard at work. We will see affordable electric cars in a couple more years.

  15. Electric Golf Carts for Sale February 27, 2008 2:25 am

    I don’t think anyone really killed the electric car, its just evolving with more efficient technology to power it.
    You only have to go play a round of golf and they have electric golf carts everywhere. Same technology just smaller.
    So I reckon it won’t be long before we are all queuing up to by one of these new electric hybrid type cars.
    My only wish is that I can use mine on the golf course.

  16. patrick February 28, 2008 1:53 pm

    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 go on unhindered by the corporations that depend on oil consumption.