Monday, June 4, 2007

Who Killed the Electric Car?

Saw the film today. I've mostly been avoiding such documentaries as I tried to gear up for the Frenzy and all but my brother and aunt were raving about it during his graduation so it's been on my list for a while. It's not exactly what I'd call good filmmaking. It's not exactly doing anything fantastic with the form. But it doesn't have to. Like The Smartest Boys in the Room or Fahrenheit 9/11 or An Inconvenient Truth, it's one of those films that really makes you think about the message. You have to be a little careful because such films are presenting only one perspective, as fair or unfair as they try to be, but

In this case, what I think about is why, exactly, we have the technology to produce affordable, efficient electric cars today yet we aren't mass producing them. You'd think the security concerns about reducing our dependency on foreign oil alone would be enough to get the right people interested. But they're not. None of our major automotive companies are interested in pursuing this promising technology.

If there's one certainty, it's that gas prices are going to continue to rise. Oh, they'll dip and fall but it won't be long before it's $4 a gallon, then $5 a gallon. And that's in America where, thanks to a ton of subsidies and sweetheart deals, we've got the cheapest gas anywhere. I travel a lot in Canada, for example, and although the price per unit over there isn't much different that what it is in the states, it's sold in liters not gallons. So you wind up paying nearly 4 times as much at the pump as you would otherwise. I had similar experiences in Europe. Worldwide, a gallon of gasoline is a lot more costly. America has been insulated from this cost for a long time – we're still paying less, adjusted for inflation than we were in 1981 – but the day's going to come when the economic realities are going to make our gas guzzling tank-trucks unfeasible for the vast majority of people. And even hybrid cars with 200mpg (Not that far flung an idea as some plug-in hybrids are getting the equivalent of 180mpg right now.) are going to be an obscene luxury when peak oil hits. Electric cars side-step the issue entirely and can deliver their fuel for pennies on the gallon compared with gasoline.

I suppose the chief arguments against the electric car were in its limited range. And it's true, the EV-1s the film centers around could only go about 60 miles on a fully charged battery. And while you can argue that's fine for most people, it's true that it wouldn't be enough for me to, say, take a trip home or to my cottage up in the Bruce. But those early EV-1s were the first iteration. Their performance was subpar and they were expensive to produce but you could say the same thing about the earliest PCs, cell phones, typewriters, or even automobiles, I'm sure. By the time the EV-1s were recalled, the batteries had been replaced with superior models that gave them a range closer to 100 miles. And even with today's laptop battery technology – the vaunted Lithium-Ion batteries – that number could grow even further. Reportedly, by the film, to 300 miles. Given time and, of course, a research budget, the technology could have improved even further. Faster charging, better batteries, whatever.

The other objection would be the lack of a market. Well, there are still electric cars being driven today – RAV4s, and others from smaller producers – so there is some market there. Again, given time and enough of an advertising budget, that market could have been grown.

What killed the electric car, I think, was a combination of vested interests and short-term thinking on the part of the automotive industry. Yes, there's a lot of money tied up in gas fueled cars and the infrastructure that supports them. But there was also a lot of money devoted to supporting the horse drawn carriage. Innovation often requires a bit of pain and sacrifice as the economy adjusts but, if there's one thing the American economy has proven good at over the years, it's using and adapting new ideas and turning them into money hand over fist. If the auto industry took the lead here, they could develop new technologies and new markets which would spin off ancillary industries and create more profit than they'd be losing. The latest auto sales reports seem to show that people are getting tired of the large and fuel-inefficient SUVs and are looking to smaller and more fuel-efficient cars – my brother, for example, turned his nose up at anythign other than one of Ford's lone success stories, the Fusion, when he was car shopping. Imagine if there were a wide variety of electric cars in development for the past several years, just waiting to feed that demand. Designs that had been worked on from the already impressive EV-1. Built on that success, iterated and improved, and tapped into the current exploding market for small, affordable, fuel-efficient cars. But because the car companies weren't going to make back their initial investment (Which was a lot, although not nearly all that much compared to how much they spend developing new cars, in general. But, at the time, most of them were floundering) they dropped the idea altogether.

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