By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine
Electric cars were once widely touted as the solution to all our pollution ills and energy concerns. Now they're not. A new documentary asks what happened?
The General Motors EV1 had a top speed of 80mph. It had a range of over a hundred miles. It could do 0-60mph in under eight seconds. And it was an electric car.
Not a milk float or a rinky-dink little two-seater runabout, but a normal car, and a milestone in the development of the electric vehicle, something that could swing the battle against air pollution in California.
And yet the ignominious demise of the GM EV1 is charted in a new film, Who Killed the Electric Car? In his documentary, film-maker Chris Paine, says cynical and conspiring car makers and oil firms, as well as apathetic consumers and weak government and regulators, helped end the electric dream in California.
THE GM EV1
Leased: 800 EV1s
Top speed: 80mph
0-60mph: 8 seconds
The development of the car by GM came as California brought in the zero emission vehicle regulation in 1990 which aimed to have 10% of all cars sold by 2003 give off no pollution. The film accuses lobbyists working for the motor manufacturers of getting the regulation watered down until eventually, it was no longer necessary to make electric cars. Indeed, GM was one of two car markers which sued the California regulators to repeal the emission mandate.
GM leased 800 EV1s, starting in 1996, and celebrities like Tom Hanks and Mel Gibson were among its fans. But even they couldn't save the EV1. In 2003, GM scrapped the programme, and insisted the cars be returned. Most were crushed.
Activists and former owners - including Baywatch star Alexandra Paul - picketed a yard where doomed EV1s were being stored. But all efforts to buy the cars were rebuffed by GM. GM said it could not sell the EV1s as this would make it liable for safety and continued maintenance of the cars, which would cost it money.
It and other car-makers argued they had poured hundreds of millions into creating electric cars but saw little evidence of demand from consumers, and did nothing underhand. The lawmakers said other technologies offered a better chance to cut pollution, and changed the regulations to promote fuel cell cars, hybrids and other low emission vehicles. And opponents of electric said increased power generation would cancel out the benefits from reducing petrol use.
In a telling moment in the film, journalist Paul Roberts says the typical American consumer fears being made to drive "small cars and live in houses that are cold - they basically fear they are going to have to live like Europeans".
And yet over in Europe it is not exactly as if the concept of the electric car is alive and kicking. On EVUK, a campaigning website, there is a plea to car manufacturers. "Please - Ford, Nissan et al: don't just force-feed Europeans with worthy but nerdy little eco-shoppers designed to deter mainstream car-buyers."
Instead of the EV1, UK drivers might cast their minds back to the Ford Think, fully launched in 2001. Available to lease for £80 a month under a subsidised scheme, they were city run-arounds, much less ambitious than the EV1, with a short range and a restricted top speed.
When bodies like the Metropolitan Police, who had two, leased a Think, there was much trumpeting of environmental credentials. And yet Ford pulled the plug on the Think just a year after its launch. The company says at its peak there were only 50 cars leased in the UK. They blame lack of demand and problems with batteries for the car's demise.
Ford sold Think back to a Scandinavian firm. The cars were recalled from the lessees and shipped to Norway, where, it's probable they went the same two-dimensional way as the EV1, Ford says.
"We got into the electric vehicle business. We got out of it again. We are a volume manufacturer. For the time being it is a very niche market," says Ford Europe environmental communications manager Adrian Schmitz.
The Ford Think - probably now residing somewhere in Norway
"We are not saying there is absolutely no future for electric vehicles but we were disappointed about the very limited customer acceptance."
Ford is now promoting a bioethanol version of the Ford Focus, and is pouring millions into hybrid cars and long-term development of hydrogen fuel cell technology. Take-up of alternative fuel vehicles varies widely. Ford has shifted 22,000 bioethanol cars in Sweden, and 100 in the UK.
What is here and now is the hybrid - cars like the Toyota Prius and the Honda Civic Hybrid, that have both electric motors and petrol engines. The battery for the motor is powered by energy generated from braking.
But put your foot down on the accelerator and one of these hybrids starts needing petrol some time after 10mph. For the moment, at least, they are definitively city cars.
Fuel economy: 65.7mpg
UK sales: 7,000
Honda Civic Hybrid
Fuel economy: 61.4mpg
UK sales: 2,500
There are still going to be electric cars like the G-Wiz and the Mega City, and there are others being launched, Citroen and Peugeot among them, but for most of the "volume manufacturers" electric is not the future.
As Piers Ward, of Top Gear Magazine, notes, there are image problems for electric cars and a lack of incentive for people to move away from petrol-only cars.
"The problem electric cars face is how many people only make journeys in central London. Cars that can only go 70 miles are not enough to make it a usable car. There are tax breaks for hybrids in the states. In this country you escape the congestion charge but you don't get any tax breaks."
And there is the rub. The UK offers free road tax to cars with very low emissions and road tax of £30-40 for hybrids and alternative fuel vehicles. But this saving of a mere £100 is hardly likely to wow anybody in a showroom.
Why not knock the VAT off to help reduce pollution? A Treasury spokesman patiently explains that European law would not allow this.
So the fight, for the electric and alternative fuel brigade, goes on.
Add your comments on this story, using the form below.
You ask who killed the EV1. Have a look at the photograph; it's truly hideous! As long as electric or hybrid cars look ghastly and are no cheaper to run than a decent diesel, they stand no chance.
What about the new car from Teslamotors, using Li-ion batterys (from laptop technology). Very nice looking two seat Roadster, designed with input from Lotus, 250 miles to the charge (EPA highway). On the expensive side at around $80k, but not too bad a price for a low production car.
J D Baldwin, Giltbrook
Keen to reduce pollution? Ride a bicycle. I just bought a Brompton folding bike and love whizzing past cars in jams, and folding it up to take on trains. It is VERY convenient and I enjoy the freedom and sense of wellbeing I get from riding it. Since most car journeys are short, a lot could be done on a bike and we wouldn't all be getting fatter and fatter as we are these days.
Tony Volpe, Newcastle upon Tyne - UK
"For the moment, at least, they [hybrids] are definitively city cars."
This statement is completely untrue, hybrids' power source is still a petrol engine, they merely use hybrid technonolgy to make more efficient use of the fuel. They can therefore go anywhere that a conventional petrol engined car can, only they tend to do it cheaper and cleaner. They can indeed only go short distances on battery only, but eventually they will need to utilise the petrol engine anyway because that is the only way to recharge the battery.
They are no more a city car than any similar sized conventional car, in fact with a dual power source they outperform many other cars for rapid acceleration when needed. The best fuel economy on my Prius is obtained not on city journeys, but on long distance journeys on A roads where most of the driving is at 50-60mph. Even on sustained 70mph running the hybrid technology gives a significant fuel saving compared to petrol only.
Brian Gooch, Sheffield, UK
Battery-powered cars were always going to fail. They simply have too much down-side: expensive, heavy, short-lived batteries; short range, low power. Add to this the fact that charging them adds to pressure on electricity generation and they were doomed. The long-term answer - which we should be gearing up for now - is cars powered by the hydrogen fuel cell. The hydrogen can be produces in remote areas using wind generators. There are parts of the country ideally suited for this, where such industry would provide otherwise unattainable jobs and investment.
We have an opportunity to make the UK a world leader in this technology - can we think big enough to do it?
W Singleton, Bristol
So the EU won't allow the government to knock off VAT, why not subsidise back the cost of VAT (perhaps from the congestion charge fund) and call it a subsidy, not VAT back.
Beth, Somerset, UK
The pollution caused by cars is largely a red herring to divert public attention away from the main argument against them; which is that they are incredibly dangerous and kill people.
Neil Hoskins, Aylesbury, UK
It's disgusting that EU law is the obstacle to common sense and an abolition of VAT on all green products.
The law should be changed, because it is a bad law that is doing us all harm.
How can electric cars be seen as a pollution reducing measure? It stands to reason that the power has to come from somewhere, which in the UK at least would be predominantly from coal-fired powerstations. Ultimately, there's no 'one-size fits all' solution. Personally I believe that more effort should be put into exploring the possibilities of bio-ethanol, a fuel that can be used in most petrol internal combustion engines without radical modifications.
When the Earth's oil reserves finally run out (predicted to happen in the 1980s incidentally), what price an electric car then?
Alan, London UK
Hydrogen powered cars have to be the way ahead. The universe is full of the stuff and the only emmission is water. I remember back in the 70s the only problem was storing the hydrogen safely in the car. I can't believe that this issue has remained unsolved for over 30 years. Am I being cynical, or is it just that oil companies are in some way inhibiting developments? Let us hope not.
John Goodyear, Huddersfield, England
Electric is a total waste of time and an enviromental distraction. Electricity doesn't just appear by magic: its created (expensively) by burning oil, coal, gas or uranium. Equally batteries are an enviromental nightmare- they contain hundreds of kilos of very toxic heavy metals (lead, cadmium, nickel, lithium) and concentrated sulphuric acid. At least petrol (with a catalytic convertor) only produces CO2 and water.
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