Who's Resurrecting the Electric Car? 

Forget those poky little golf cars — the battery-powered muscle car is just around the corner

Wednesday, Jul 12 2006

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More puzzling still, in 2006, nearly all of General Motors’ research and development goes toward cars and trucks with internal-combustion engines; GM no longer has any research arm dedicated to electric vehicles. Its only alternative-fuel venture at the moment promotes corn-based ethanol, a fuel that, due to modern agricultural practices, takes as much energy — in the form of petroleum — to produce as it yields. This remains true even after some reliable experts, such as former Shell Oil analyst and geology professor Kenneth Deffeyes, reported that world oil production has already passed the peak predicted by geologist M. King Hubbert. “It’s real and it’s here,” writes Deffeyes in his book Beyond Oil. “Business as usual is not an option.” Meanwhile, for the past two decades, the U.S. Congress has so stubbornly refused to raise the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards for U.S. automakers’ fleets that, as Al Gore points out in his movie An Inconvenient Truth, the Chinese now require car companies doing business in their country to meet fleetwide efficiency standards one and a half times as stringent as our own.

Only California has managed to hold the auto industry to account for its profligacy, and then only in the name of clean air, not fuel efficiency. California alone of the 50 states has the authority under the Clean Air Act to set its own emissions standards. And when the state Legislature passed a 1990 law requiring that 2 percent of any single automaker’s fleet consist of zero-emissions vehicles, it was presented only as a matter of reducing smog. The standard was to take effect in 1998; consequently, in 1996, General Motors unveiled the EV1 electric vehicle, which had been a decade in the making. Only five years later, however, the auto industry vanquished California regulators in court, the California Air Resources Board backed off its idealism, and the motive for what the auto industry considered a costly experiment dried up. Shortly thereafter, GM began reclaiming and destroying every EV1 it had ever produced. Paine’s Who Killed the Electric Car? also tells the story of an earnest team of early adopters, the kind of people to whom 5,000 potential customers is a decent market share. Among them is Cocconi, who, in addition to designing the drive system for the Impact, worked with GM on its 1987 Sunraycer, which won an international race for all-solar vehicles in Australia that year.

Electric Car is no Fahrenheit 9/11; it spreads blame among both cultural and market forces, and, while it’s not the filmmaker’s intent to exonerate the car companies, it’s entirely possible to conclude at the end of the documentary that GM had little choice but to discontinue its overpriced niche-market cars. But even if you let the company off the hook, you still emerge with the feeling that if the big carmakers were about anything but short-term profit — if they had stuck with the technology until short-range lead-acid batteries, and later NiMH batteries, could be replaced with long-range lithium ions, for instance, Californians could by now be speeding down the 405 in tiny cars fueled by solar-powered charging stations. It is not, however, the kind of risk entrenched behemoth corporations take in the United States.

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They do, however, take California laws to court, and as Paine’s film opens around the country, automobile manufacturers and petroleum consortia are currently engaged in beating back California’s new law requiring a 30 percent reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions in automakers’ fleets by 2016. It was looking bad for the state until last month, when the Supreme Court decided to hear Massachusetts v. EPA, a case brought by environmentalists, states and local governments to force the EPA to regulate carbon dioxide from cars and trucks as a pollutant. But even in the unlikely event that air-pollution foes win both battles, Detroit may not ever be the place to look for fast, efficient, alternative-fuel vehicles. As S. David Freeman, former general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and current president of the Harbor Commission, opines in the film, “Clean cars are too important to be left to the auto industry.”

It’s the truncated promise of the EV1 that Gadget and Wilson, Holmquist, Cocconi and Tesla Motors CEO Martin Eberhard seek to resurrect, not by mass-producing cars by the thousands but by tailoring automobiles to the needs of a dedicated few and hoping their spark lights a fire. Eberhard has $40 million in backing for his San Carlos–based company from the likes of PayPal co-founder Elon Musk, eBay’s Jeff Skoll and Google’s Sergey Brin; he even had Democratic gubernatorial candidate Steve Westly shilling for his car on the campaign trail. (Eberhard plans a public unveiling of the Tesla Roadster this week.) And Paine’s documentary stands to spread their influence even further — maybe even beyond the two coasts, where nearly all electric-vehicle drivers live.

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