"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
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 atmosphere.
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 scrapped.
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
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 crushed.
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
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.