Engaging Journeys, Engaged Journalism

Who Killed the Early EVs?

Some people called it a murder mystery, others, an infuriating call to political action. Star of the 2006 Sundance Film Festival, Director Chris Paine’s documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? told this shocking tale in the form of a classic whodunit.

The story began in California, where in 1995—inspired by news of General Motors’ groundbreaking EV1 prototype—the California Air Resources Board (CARB) created the Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) mandate. The regulation required that 2 percent of automakers’ new California cars and light duty trucks be ZEVs by 1998, 5 percent by 2001, and 10 percent by 2003. The idea was that we’d all breathe easier as a direct result, not to mention start saving big time on fuel costs.

The American Automobile Manufacturing Association began a campaign to repeal the CARB ZEV mandate almost immediately, and in 1996 succeeded in softening the earlier deadlines, though the 10 percent mandate for 2003 stuck.


General Motors never made enough EV1s to satisfy public demand. (photo by Jack Snell)

In 1999, General Motors’ EV1 cars were unveiled, available to consumers by lease only. Enthusiastic demand far exceeded supply. But by 2001, GM began laying off its sales team—starting with its most successful sales people—and also shifted production at its Lansing, Michigan plant from EVs to gas-powered cars.

In 2002, GM, Daimler Chrysler, and seven California car dealerships sued the CARB, demanding a repeal of ZEV requirements. During George W. Bush’s first term the U.S. Department of Justice filed a “friend of the court” brief in support of the automakers, arguing that California’s ZEV mandate amounted to an attempt to regulate fuel economy, which it contended was solely the federal government’s prerogative. Also in 2002, Alan C. Lloyd, chair of the California Air Resources Board, was named chair of the California Fuel Cell Partnership, a public-private organization that promotes hydrogen fuel cell vehicle technology.

In his 2003 State of the Union address, President George W. Bush called for hydrogen fuel cell development—rather than continuing the successful electric vehicle experiment—to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil. Citing poor sales, Toyota announced it would discontinue production of the RAV4 EV. (See last week’s Is It Time (Yet) for Electric Cars?) Also in 2003, Alan Lloyd directed decisive CARB votes that effectively gutted California’s EV mandate—votes that led to the literal demise of the state’s fleet of electrical vehicles.

Who Killed the Electric Car? turned out to be just like one of those Agatha Christie mysteries where multiple villains join forces to do the dastardly deed, making it difficult to assign ultimate blame. The film itself weighed the evidence and passed these final judgments about who killed the first round of America’s 21st-century electric cars:.

EV Batteries: Not Guilty

Batteries for EVs were never the problem, according to Paine’s film. Even early underperforming lead-acid batteries for GM’s EV1 powered the car for 60 to 80 miles per charge, more than adequate for most Americans’ driving needs. The nickel metal hydride battery developed by Stanford R. Ovshinsky’s Ovonics company expanded EV range to 120 miles. The newer Lithium-ion batteries offer extended range—250 to 300 miles—and twice the energy efficiency of hydrogen fuel cells.

Does an engine get any simpler than not being an engine at all? (engine compartment of the EV1, photo by Right Brain Photography)

Does an engine get any simpler than not being an engine at all? (engine compartment of the EV1, photo by Right Brain Photography)

The Oil Companies: Guilty

Big oil fought California’s original electric car mandate every step of the way. (There’s a new California mandate, passed earlier this year. For details, see Part 2.) Electric vehicles posed little immediate threat, but that might have changed. As world demand increases for transportation fuel—still mostly oil, at this point—a lack of viable alternatives and market competition increase oil company prices and profits.

The Car Companies: Guilty

In response to California’s ZEV mandate, Chrysler, Ford, General Motors, Honda, Nissan, and Toyota all developed EV programs—and most ended up undermining their own EV success. The film argues that electric cars directly threatened the gas-powered auto industry—by creating competition for more conventional cars, yes, but also by undermining overall industry profitability. Without an engine, EVs save consumers the costs of replacement parts, motor oil, filters and spark plugs. Regenerative braking systems, in which a car’s electronics do much of the work of slowing it down, also save wear and tear on mechanical brakes. Electric vehicles may be a boon for society and for consumers, but threaten corporate profits.

What happened to all of GM's EV1s? It's not pretty. (photo by Plug in America)

What happened to GM’s EVs? It’s not pretty. (photo by Plug in America)

The Feds: Guilty

From Jimmy Carter’s presidency and the OPEC oil embargo until Barack Obama was elected, vehicle fuel efficiency wasn’t a federal priority. Given the Bush administration’s ties to the oil and auto industries, the film viewed its antagonism to the electric vehicle as unsurprising. With the public increasingly alarmed over the Iraq war and the unstable price of oil, eventually the Bush administration signaled an about-face, though ultimately not much changed.

The California Air Resources Board: Guilty

The California Air Resources Board supported the development of EVs but failed to achieve success for its ZEV initiative. The film finds Board Chair Alan C. Lloyd particularly culpable, since his policy decisions ultimately directed the board’s decisions.

The Hydrogen Fuel Cell: Guilty

California’s ZEV mandate was abandoned in favor of a new zero emission vehicle technology, the hydrogen fuel cell, which is far from being a proven technology. Even supporters agree that a practical hydrogen-fueled is decades away. And at this point, most hydrogen is made from fossil fuels. But even if hydrogen can be made from renewable electricity, it would still be delivered as a fuel—instead of via the existing electric power grid—and could be developed as a profitable product controlled by the oil companies.


General Motors has already started to redeem itself with the unique Chevy Volt (above) and the brand-new Bolt concept EV. (photo by Karlis Dambrans)

Consumers: Partially Guilty

The people who actually drove early EVs loved them, but most consumers failed to embrace them due to the love affair between cheap gas and big SUVs. Public opinion was shaped in part by automakers and the media, of course.  Both downplayed the possibility that EVs could be a practical alternative to gas-powered cars.

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