2006-08-28

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?

1 Comments:

At 4:29 PM, 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.

 

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