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<nettime> Who Killed the Electric Car? Important New Movie
Ronda Hauben on Wed, 5 Jul 2006 23:38:03 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Who Killed the Electric Car? Important New Movie

There's an important new movie out about the fact that there were 800
electric cars dotting the roads in California in the 1990s and now
they have all been crushed by their producer. And the technology that
could have helped to take the auto industry into the 21st century was
rejected by the auto companies. The film is "Who Killed the Electric
Car. Here's the url of a review I did for OhmyNews


Powerful Interests Stifle Innovation 
Government, business conspire to kill electric car technology


General Motors Corporation and its offspring parts operation Delphi
are currently laying off more than 50,000 unionized workers in the
U.S. The companies claim that their North American operations are not
profitable, and GM claims that it has to do the layoffs since it is
losing market share for its cars.

Given the problems that GM claims it is having in its North American
operations, the newly released film "Who Killed the Electric Car?"
offers a helpful framework from which to view the automaker's current

The film tells a little-known but significant story about corporate
America and the U.S. government's failure to support innovation. Few
in the U.S. or elsewhere know that GM had produced and leased 800
electric cars, which dotted the roads of California in the second half
of the 1990s.

This was a new and functioning technology, the charged-at-home battery
operated automobiles. The EV1 proved not only a viable technology
but also a joy to the drivers. Yet, by 2006, all the cars, with the
exception of a few hidden away in some museums, had been sent by GM to
a crushing station in the Arizona desert.

By this time, though, a set of activists who had leased the cars and
had come to love them, were monitoring what GM was doing. The fact
that GM chose to destroy the cars rather than welcome the support of
and enthusiastic reception by their users, highlights the disdain with
which GM treated a new technology that could have revolutionized its
industry and the corporation.

The film was released June 30, 2006, for viewers in New York and
California, and will be shown throughout the U.S in the coming months.
It raises some serious and important questions about the nature of
corporate-government collusion in the U.S. when it comes to the
ability of a society to transition to a new technology. This was
similar to a problem that plagued the former Soviet Union. The story
of what happened when a functioning electric car was introduced in the
U.S. helps to show the forces at play that are hostile to a society's
ability to embrace a new and needed technology.

The story starts in California in 1990. Plagued by high levels of
smog that were very damaging to the health of its residents, the
California Air Resource Board (CARB) adopted a regulation called
the Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) mandate. This government entity
set a series of goals for automakers selling cars in the state. It
required them to produce a percentage of cars with zero emissions. The
regulation would require that automakers sell 2 percent ZEV's in 1998,
5 percent in 2001 and 10 percent in 2003.

In January of 1990, GM introduced a car powered by a battery at the
Los Angeles Auto Show. The car was later called the EV1 (Electric
Vehicle). By December 1996, GM made cars available on lease for
US$400-$500 a month. Later the lease rate was reduced to $250-$300 a

By 2000, GM was leasing 800 of the EV1s it had produced. Those leasing
them found them enjoyable to drive and that they needed much less
maintenance than older model cars. The batteries could be charged in
one's garage overnight. There was no need to purchase gasoline or to
do maintenance like oil changes. Though GM did not yet mass-produce
the cars nor provide favorable publicity to let people know that they
were an option for drivers, there were a number of people who learned
of the cars and were willing to go through the hurdles put up by GM to
be able to lease a car.

The reluctance of GM to advertise the cars and offer them to drivers,
however, is part of a larger story. The California regulations were
an incentive for GM and other automakers to invest in and develop new
technology. The state of California subsidized each EV1 leased in
California. The automakers, however, did not welcome such incentives.
Instead, they formed a trade organization, the American Automotive
Manufacturing Association (AAMA) and set out to try to stymie the

In March 1995, the AAMA circulated a confidential proposal to develop
a "grassroots education campaign" to repeal the CARB ZEV program.
Andrew Card was then the president of the AAMA and would subsequently
become chief of staff in the George W. Bush White House, when the U.S.
Department of Justice would join the GM and DaimlerChrysler lawsuit to
end the CARB ZEV requirements.

In January 2002, GM, DaimlerChrysler and several auto dealerships
sued CARB in U.S. District Court in Fresno, California, to repeal the
ZEV mandate. In October 2002, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a
"friend of the court brief" supporting the auto companies. The auto
companies claimed that California could not require zero emissions, as
this was an interference with the right of the federal government to
regulate fuel economy standards.

Also, the Bush administration gave support to fuel cell vehicle
technology, providing big financial incentives for research. Such
technology, however, will take many years to develop, while the
electric car technology was already functioning.

In 2002, Alan C. Lloyd, the chair of CARB, was named chair of the
California Fuel Cell Partnership. This meant that Lloyd had a conflict
of interest with regard to providing support for electric cars, as he
headed an organization promoting a competing technology. Yet, Lloyd
chaired the April 2003 CARB meeting, which decided to revise the ZEV
mandate. Automakers no longer had the incentive to produce electric

With this change in the regulation, GM announced that it would not
renew the leases on the EV1 cars. It reclaimed the vehicles and towed
those it had trouble reclaiming because of opposition to the removal
of the EV1s from operation.

The disappointed former lessees of the cars used the Internet to form
a group of activists hoping to save their cars from destruction. They
offered to buy the cars and release GM from any obligation to repair
them, or other liability, but GM refused the offer.

In March 2005, the cars were loaded onto trucks, despite the efforts
of some of the activists to block the final trip of the cars to the

The film is important since it documents the powerful forces that
came together in the U.S. to thwart the development and adoption of
a vitally needed new technology. It sets out to understand how an
automobile that didn't pollute and that didn't rely on oil could be
destroyed by the company that successfully produced it. Though not a
typical detective plot, the film offers the viewer a cast of suspects
to consider when trying to understand how the crime was committed.

Not surprisingly, GM, the Bush Administration, and Bush's former Chief
of Staff, Andrew Card, are among the suspects. So is Alan Lloyd,
who presided over the hearing where the ZEV mandate was butchered.
Another suspect is the oil industry. The film documents how the oil
industry bought up the battery technology that made the EV1 work, not
to develop it, but to suppress it.

The film offers other suspects. It fails to indict the press, however,
and the fact that there was little media attention to the fight by
the activists against the destruction of an important new technology.
There was little media attention to the question, "Why was GM gutting
a potentially highly profitable component of its operations?"

GM and its offspring Delphi are currently the subject of various
federal government investigations about their questionable accounting
practices, which have misrepresented expenses and unsold cars, thus
inflating profits. The opportunity that GM had to pioneer a new and
desired technology was thrown into the crusher.

At a time when the U.S. government is occupying Iraq in order to
control its oil, among other geopolitical aims, the promise of an
automobile not dependent on oil is all the more desirable to the many
Americans who oppose the war in Iraq.

Just as the Bush administration conducted a disinformation campaign
to deceive public opinion about its reasons for invading Iraq, so GM
has conducted a disinformation campaign to deceive public opinion
about its reasons for destroying the electric car it had produced and
successfully put into operation.

The film helps to highlight the great need for media that will shine
a light on corporate and government plans to subvert the public
interest. In the absence of functioning mass media doing the needed
investigative journalism, it is a welcome event to have the production
and showing of a film like "Who Killed the Electric Car?"

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