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Irony and the electric car

Posted at 7:41 PM on January 13, 2009 by Euan Kerr

All the stories on the radio about how the auto industry, and particularly GM, is excited about the possibilities of electric car aka the plug-in hybrid, have been drenched in irony for me today.

Last night I finally had the chance to watch Chris Paine's 2006 documentary "Who Killed the Electric Car?" It's the remarkable story of the EV-1, a electric car made by GM, which was available for a few years in California to a small group of consumers. The vehicles were built in response to a California law which mandated an increasing number of zero emission cars as the state tried to fight its mounting smog problem.

It seems the drivers (which included Paine) loved their vehicles. It seems that GM did not, and company officials went out of their way to talk about how there was no demand for the cars while also pointing out what they claimed were limitations for their products. Adding to the strangeness, none of the EV-1's were for sale, they could only be leased. And then just to ratchet it up a little more, many of them ended up in the hands of Hollywood celebrities such as Tom Hanks and Mel Gibson.

Things got ugly when the state set aside the requirement, and GM declined to renew any of the leases. A lot of celebrities complained, and even got arrested at protests, but almost all of the cars were repossessed and crushed. A few can now be seen in museums, but they have been disabled.

No matter where you come down on the arguments about the electric car, the one glaring fact that is clear is that GM had a huge start on the modern electric car design, and then squandered it. The Japanese hybrids on the road now were built as a direct result of the work GM and other US automakers were doing a decade ago, out of concern that Toyota and Honda was being left behind. However the US automakers set that competitive advantage aside in favor of looking for a practical hydrogen cell powered car.

The new generation of electric cars won't be available until 2010 at the earliest, almost a decade and a half after the very functional and now extinct GM EV-1 cars hit the roads.

January 2009
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