mad anthony

Rants, politics, and thoughts on politics, technology, life,
and stuff from a generally politically conservative Baltimoron.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Who killed the electric car? It was never born...

A couple days ago, I got some odd looks from coworkers when I started yelling at a movie trailer that was playing using the "Frontrow" feature of an iMac that we have set up for video conferencing via iChat.

The trailer was for Who Killed the Electric Car?, a movie that apparently centers around the GM EV1, an experimental electric car that GM made a limited production run of for testing purposes. EV1's were never sold - they were leased, and the terms of the lease said that the car would be turned in at the end. GM shredded the cars and stopped pursing electric vehicles, much to the dismay of the environmental tree-hugger crowd, and now they've come out with a movie about how it must be a vast conspiracy between the oil industry and the auto industry that killed the electric car.

I read tis book a while ago, so I'm pretty familiar with the EV1 story. The cynical view seems to be that the EV1 was a win-win for GM - if it suceeded, they would look good, but if it didn't they could say they tried and it was impossible.

But the EV1 was still held back by the biggest problem that faces electric cars - battery technology. Until someone comes up with a better battery, electric cars will always face a tradeoff.

There is a point in the trailer where someone - I think Richard Gere - says that electric cars would be perfect for "90% of the population". But I can't imagine that the EV1 would work for 90% of Americans, unless they own another, larger vehicle - the EV1 was a two-seater, had a range of less than 100 miles, and has to be charged. Good luck transporting the kids in a car with no backseat, or hauling stuff back from Home Depot. The problem is that batteries are large and heavy, and it's difficult to make a normal-sized car that can carry it's own weight for any distance. And for those of us who live in the city and don't have garages, it's rather difficult to plug a car in - I can't see myself running an extension cord from my apartment to the street below to plug in an electric car.

The fact that GM dumped billions into the EV1 suggests that they aren't part of a conspiracy to keep oil around, or the wouldn't have developed it at all. At one point in the movie trailer, a GM board member says that "GM invested in Hummer because they knew it would make them money." Surely that is evidence of a conspiracy - a company that wants to make money! Nevermind that that is why companies exist - to make profit - and that GM thought that they could make money selling Hummers not because they would force them down people's throats, but because people wanted them.

There is also a point in the trailer where someone says that there is a huge amount of oil left, and the industry wants to sell it - therefore there must be a conspiracy to keep down electric cars because they want to sell the rest of the oil. However, I think they are confusing cause and effect. It is true that the huge amount of oil that still remains has kept electric cars from becoming popular - but not because of a conspiracy. Oil is still fairly cheap, even if gas isn't as cheap as it used to be, and while it remains affordable it is difficult for consumers to justify spending a ton of money on an electric vehicle and sacrificing cargo space, people space, and the ability to not have to worry about running out of electricity. It's basic supply and demand - people don't need to substitute an inferior good like electric cars when the price of gas is low.

There are several comments that GM was shortsited in not developing the EV1. It is fair to say that GM isn't known for it's recent brilliant business moves, but I don't think that the treehuggers in this movie (including Ralph Nader) are business wizards themselves. My guess is that GM put some thought and ran some cost-benefit analysis and decided the EV1 wasn't worth it. And if electric cars were such a brilliant business move, other companies would probably be behind them - although the trailer focuses on GM, there is one part where they talk to a junkyard operator about "why are you shredding these new cars" - and the cars in question are a Honda EV prototype - which suggests that Honda came to the same conclusions as GM about the viablity of the electric vehicle.

The other problem I have with electric vehicle enthusists is that they frequently act like electric vehicles don't pollute at all. Sure, there are no tailpipe emissions, but modern gas cars have also become incredibly clean at the tailpipe - and the energy that drives electric cars still has to be produced somewhere, in power plants that use coal or nuclear power or hydroelectric power - all of which has it's own environmental issues. Producing power can't be done without any impact on the envirnoment - no human activity, including breathing, can, and to act like electric cars are totally nonpolluting is wrong.


Post a Comment

<< Home