Who Killed the Electric Car?

Last Friday night, amid a smidge of personal drama, I had an unintentionally private viewing of the film Who Killed the Electric Car?[1]. It had finally made its debut in Bellingham, having been delayed two and a half weeks.

I have to confess that one of my motivations in seeing the film was seeing a couple of people I was more or less acquainted with having worked at AeroVironment. I also drove one of the cars at a ride-and-drive in Phoenix back in 1997 and was duly impressed.

Although its focus is more general, the film primarily targets the rise and fall of General Motors' EV1. Those familiar with the car can skip this paragraph, but it was developed from a concept/prototype built by AeroVironment back in their post-Sunraycer glory days. About half of the weight of the car was a stack of lead-acid batteries, and it featured a modern 3-phase induction motor drive system. The car had a single gear, producing full torque from a standstill to around 30 miles per hour, followed by a constant-power band from there to the top speed somewhere north of 80 miles an hour. GM took AV's prototype and made it into a real car, which was to be leased through a number of Saturn dealerships in Southern California and Arizona. After two years on the market, GM introduced a version with a nickel-metal hydride battery that extended the range from the previous 60-real-world-miles to around 120. A couple of years later, having helped scuttle the California EV mandate, they ceased production and repossessed the cars (at the end of their leases), crushing most of them at their proving grounds in the Arizona desert.

Perhaps the most notable feature of the film is that it managed to stay interesting for the entire hundred and twenty-odd minutes. The title overstates the detective-flick nature of the movie, but the storytelling is about as compelling as an automotive documentary can be. It looks at the blame and/or credit due consumers, available battery technology, the auto manufacturers, the federal government, the California Air Resources Board (CARB), the oil companies, and the rival technology of fuel cells. In the end the verdicts are handed down, with most of the suspects found guilty.

Particularly compelling is the way the film details the systematic dismantling of any evidence that the cars ever existed. Aside from a few models in museums and those donated to technical schools (my alma mater among them), the remaining cars were rounded up and crushed with Stalinesque efficiency. Safety and liability concerns aside, one really gets the impression that erasing the cars from the public consciousness was their primary goal [2].

The film does a commendable job of being understandable to laypeople without glossing over important technical details. My only quibble is that it doesn't address a couple of important controversies that were brewing at the time even among EV enthusiasts, notably the design of the charging equipment[3] and the reliability—or lack thereof—of the cars[4]. It also left out, perhaps due to timing, the hopeful news from a couple of up-and-coming EV manufacturers like Tesla Motors.

Finally the movie left out one key element in the demise of the car (that could, in a pinch, be blamed on oil companies): The EV1 finally got pretty good about the time that gasoline dropped to what is and likely will remain its lowest inflation-adjusted price ever (around 99 cents a gallon in Southern California). At the time the smog situation looked hopeful, global climate change wasn't on most people's radar, and thanks to Enron and their ilk, electricity prices were skyrocketing. All of that added up to tough market conditions for a car the manufacturer didn't really want to sell in the first place.

I would recommend this movie to tech geeks and automotive enthusiasts, and even to the sorts of people who found An Inconvenient Truth enriching. Unfortunately, like the cars, this movie hasn't quite received the buzz that it's due, so it's unlikely it will get the attention it deserves.

[1] That is to say, I was the only one in the theatre for the whole movie.

[2] Even the advertising for the car, though supposedly award-winning, broke one of the canonical rules of automotive advertising, abbreviated as STFC (show the car).

[3] GM settled on inductive charging, which was far more complex and expensive than the competing conductive charging standard (the inductive charge cord had liquid coolant running through it ferchrissakes), but lacked the scary electrical contacts that might be exposed by someone with two screwdrivers and an extra hand and accidentally energized by someone capable of inadvertently emitting a one-kilohertz square wave of the right amplitude.

[4] This has been detailed in a now semi-famous Usenet post. But come on, guys, they we're talking about The General here, building four cars a day. What do you expect from a car model that only ever sold 800 units?


Save the Earth: Don't Recycle?

On his FAQ page, Trevor Blackwell suggests that you can partially offset your personal carbon footprint by landfilling any paper you happen to use, as well as yard waste, kitchen scraps, and the like. Ideologically I'm on the fence on this one. I'm something of a treehugger, but I also get annoyed by the sort of feel-good do-nothing environmentalism that pervaded the popular consciousness in the early 90's. I'm skeptical, so I thought I'd take a look at the numbers.

In 2003, global carbon emissions amounted to 6.8 billion tons. Global paper production amounted to 255 million tons. Even if treated as a pure "carbon equivalent", sequestering all paper produced that year could offset only about 3.7% of global carbon emissions. The carbon content is probably similar to that of cellulose, in other words about half by weight. Still, a percent or three is nothing to sneeze at.

As an aside, I think it's pretty clear that reducing paper use reduces the amount of carbon pumped into in the atmosphere. Paper-grade wood probably costs about $0.10/pound in smallish quantities (i.e. by the cord for firewood), whereas paper costs about ten times that (or so says Froogle), and probably most of that cost is either directly or indirectly related to energy consumption (and hence carbon emissions). So making extra paper to bury is probably a losing strategy when it comes to sequestering carbon.

Therefore Blackwell's argument hinges on two premises: that recycling paper doesn't consume significantly less energy than producing "virgin" paper, and that paper buried in a landfill releases it's carbon significantly more slowly than the forest from whence it came.

The first premise is somewhat shaky. The production process itself uses 60% less energy from scrap paper than from virgin fiber (I can't confirm this statistic on the web from it's supposed source). Curbside collection uses additional fuel, since you have twice as many trucks driving the same distance, albeit less heavily loaded and/or less frequently. But trucking trees from a forest to a pulp mill doesn't happen for free either. I'm going to call the transport energy roughly a wash, and hence the overall energy balance is clearly in favor of recycling.

The second premise is a bit more solid, given that newspapers buried in landfills are typically still legible after half a century. However the time scales for carbon sequestration to be considered successful are somewhat longer (converting the paper to charcoal might be an answer, but that still involves separating it from the MSW).

Trevor's scheme is basically a way to use trees as CO2 collectors while making themselves temporarily useful as TPS reports. I wholeheartedly agree with this general principle, but I'm not convinced the sequestered carbon from a sheet of paper "pays" for the extra energy required to pulp the trees versus shredding, de-inking, and the other steps needed to prepare recycled paper for use in paper production.

Recycling economics are such that for anything (found in MSW) other than Aluminum cans, recycling neither saves much money nor costs much extra. Factoring atmospheric carbon into the question, in my mind, doesn't change the answer much either. Given that recycling can be kind of a pain in the ass, I guess I can get behind people like Trevor not bothering to do it.

For me personally however, I pay for garbage disposal, but not for disposal of recyclables. I loosely fill two or three kitchen bags a month at home, with the majority of my household waste (at least by weight) going into two or three recycling bins. So I'm not about to cough up extra dough (for more frequent garbage pickups) just so that I can sequester at best a small fraction of a fairly trivial amount of carbon.



I hadn’t had the pleasure of drinking a good Hefeweizen in some time. It’s something like the American microbrew equivalent of a gateway drug, eschewed by those who have graduated from the pot of beers and moved onto the harder stuff. But it’s actually quite tasty, particularly that which is brewed in Southern Germany.

It can only be properly enjoyed in the right glass, which I purchased along with the bottle earlier today. The ease with which the bottle slips into the glass is, like South America and Africa, no coincidence. The pour starts with the insertion of the uncapped bottle into the inverted glass. At that point the whole assembly is flipped over, the beer contained by the same principle that prevents the office water cooler from spilling its contents onto the mottled Berber.

In a perfect Hefeweizen pour, the bottle is slowly withdrawn from the glass, emptying its contents as air is drawn in above the ascending surface of the beer in the glass. In my case, it’s important to note that office water coolers typically aren’t carbonated. So in place of a graceful dance of beer and glass, I had a big foamy mess on my hands. I guess I’ll need some more painstaking practice.

But as the old saying goes, its all the same in your stomach, and all the more in your bloodstream. Just don’t fuck it up with a slice of lemon.

FUD of the Day

Courtesy of the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America. Now, why might they want to cast direct-to-consumer sales of wine in an unfavorable light?


Macintosh SE/30

From a Wikipedia article:

Apple had indicated the presence of a 68030 processor by adding the letter "x" to a model's name, but when the Macintosh SE was updated to the 68030, this posed an awkward problem, as Apple was not willing to name their new computer the "Macintosh SEx". Thus, "SE/30" was the name chosen.