"General Motors (GM) had developed a prototype of 
an electric car with swelling consumer potential. 
It was a sleek, silver car that could drive at 
the same speed as a fossil-fuelled hunk of metal 
- only with no exhaust fumes and no carbon 
emissions." Except, of course, the carbon 
emissions produced by generating the electricity 
in the first place. No doubt a well-designed 
electric car could be considerably more efficient 
than gasoline-powered vehicle, but it would not 
be the panacea this article makes out. --PG

Johann Hari: Big Oil's vendetta against the electric car

The technology could slash global warming 
emissions. Yet it is being left to rot

Published: 05 April 2007

Somewhere out there, in the dusty basements of 
the Chevron-Texaco corporate headquarters, there 
is a technology that can - in one swoop - slash 
global warming emissions, save millions of people 
from respiratory illnesses, and stop us trashing 
the Middle East to seize its oil. Yet it is being 
deliberately left to rot, in the hope we will all 
forget about it.

This sounds like the plot to a bad retro-episode 
of the X-Files, but an award-winning documentary 
released this week on DVD in Britain reminds us 
this technology is real and it is still there, 
waiting to save us. The film is called 'Who 
Killed the Electric Car?'

Its story begins in the smogged-out state of 
California in the early 1990s. The people of the 
Sunshine State were waking up with a cough to a 
crisis: one-quarter of all 18-25 year olds in LA 
County had severe lung lesions or chronic 
respiratory diseases caused by air pollution. The 
state government realised they had to act - so 
they seized on news of a dramatic new technology.

General Motors (GM) had developed a prototype of 
an electric car with swelling consumer potential. 
It was a sleek, silver car that could drive at 
the same speed as a fossil-fuelled hunk of metal 
- only with no exhaust fumes and no carbon 
emissions. You simply plugged it in at night, 
like a mobile phone, and drove off in the 
morning. The electricity costs the equivalent of 
30p for a gallon's worth of travel, as opposed to 
the 4 Brits pay at the petrol pump.

But GM seemed reluctant to push this 
extraordinary product onto the consumer market. 
So the California State Senate decided to give 
them a nudge. They passed a law that said if you 
want to sell cars for California's roads, a 
proportion of them have to be electric cars: 2 
percent in 1998, 5 percent in 2001, and 10 
percent in 2003.

The state senators envisaged a day when electric 
cars would turn the old fossil fuel beasts into 
relics. They argued that since it took a law to 
get seatbelts, airbags and catalytic convertors 
into cars, we also need a law to get toxic fumes 
and surplus global warming gases out of the 

The car companies were immediately and 
irreperably enraged. They began a two-pronged 
strategy: the most grudging and stuttering 
possible compliance with the law, while lobbying 
fiercely alongside Big Oil to have the law 

The first electric cars appeared on California's 
roads nonetheless, and a slew of celebrities like 
Tom Hanks, Ted Danson and Mel Gibson snapped them 
up and plugged them at every opportunity.

But the people working on selling the electric 
cars noted something odd: GM was deliberately 
underselling them. Chelsea Sexton, one of the 
company's electric car specialists, explains that 
the team had to fill in vast questionnaires for 
every customer, only for most to be inexplicably 
rejected: "I had to fill in a resume for Mel 
Gibson listing his accomplishments and 
achievements, because they said he didn't warrant 
a car."

Instead of marketing them with sexy women draped 
over the cars, GM's ads had odd opaque graphics 
and the voice of an elderly woman. Big Oil 
speedily joined this anti-advertisign campaign. 
Exxon-Mobil followed its standard operating 
practice of setting up fake consumer groups to 
spread disinformation about the products, saying 
they were bad for the environment.

This corporate coalition finally succeeded in 
repealing the law - and GM immediately called in 
all their electric cars and sent them to the 
scrap heap. The drivers offered over $1.9m to 
keep the last remaining models - but the company 
preferred to destroy them. A bemused Sexton says, 
"There's no precedent for a car company rounding 
up every particular kind of car and crushing 
them, as if they're afraid one will get away."

Their campaign almost complete, Chevron-Texaco 
came in with a final blow. The biggest drawback 
to the electric car had been its limited range: 
one charge lasted around 60 miles, then the car 
stopped. So the distinguished engineer Stan 
Ovshinsky created a battery that could run up to 
300 miles at 70mph on a single charge - enough to 
get from London to Scotland, and make the car 
extremely popular. The oil companies bought the 
technology. It has not been seen since.

Why? Why would a string of corporations turn down 
cash and scrap a potentially extremely profitable 
techology? Isn't that contrary to everything we 
are taught about how market economies work?

The oil companies had an obvious interest in 
stopping an alternative to fossil fuels. There is 
$100 trillion of oil left in the earth, and they 
plan to mine it - even if doing so will make the 
planet uninhabitable. Anything that could divert 
that cash away from them is a threat to be 

But why did the car companies collaborate? 
Electric cars have no combustion engine - and it 
is in maintaining and replacing those engines 
that makes up a hefty chunk of Detroit's profits. 
A transition to batteries, which require little 
maintenance, would be a disaster for their 
balance sheets.

Besides, marketing clean electric cars would mean 
admitting that their core product is dirty. Tom 
Everhart served on the board of GM for more than 
a decade, and he explains how the conversatiosn 
about the electric car went there: "We said that 
[using the electric car] we can meet the zero 
emissions requirements. Then we said, 'Do we want 
to show we can meet them? That means all our 
other cars...'"

Thatcho-Reaganites are always lecturing about how 
unregulated markets are the best way to stimulate 
innovation. The story of the electric car is a 
parable about how, to the contrary, unregulated 
markets often quickly descend into a corporate 
oligopoly that smothers new technologies in their 
cot. Only tough, democratic regulations - which 
they mock as 'red tape' - keeps markets from 
devouring themselves. The California government's 
regulations spurred innovation, until they were 

Out here in the smog, we have never needed the 
electric car more. The Royal Commission of 
Environmental Pollution warned this week that the 
air pollution in London is now as damaging as the 
low-level radiation Chernobyl survivors were 
exposed to, knocking an average of eight months 
off your life. The daily carnage in Iraq is the 
result of our burning thirst for oil. And more 
important still, global warming is acting like a 
slow-mo carbon bomb dropped on the planet, 
destabilising the climate in ways we cannot 
control and cannot predict.

But however much we cry for it, the electric car 
will remain moth-balled in the vaults of 
Chevron-Texaco - until we change our economic 
system to put the needs of people before the 
unhindered, unhinged preservation of profits.