Who Killed the Electric Car?



Opening night at the Clay Theater, SF, CA

Darell (right) with Chris Paine (director).

At the Varsity Theater, Davis, CA.

The gang at the Sundance Film Festival opening.

Chris and Chelsea at Sundance.

Darell with the star at the 2006 ZEV Tech Symposium in Sacramento.

And if you don't think that the movie had any impact, look no further than this picture from Jan, 2007. Just a few months after the movie was in theaters.

CARB's official response to the movie. Apparently they take NO responsibility for the lack of ZEVs since 2003. It says right in there that if the mandate had not been modified in 2003 that we wouldn't have had ANY ZEVs since then. I'm still trying to figure out which ZEVs we DID have after the modification...

My repository for some of the great responses to the criticisms of the movie "Who Killed the Electric Car" that premiered in June 28, 2006.

The EV1 demise from Mark Looper.

Global-warming emissions, rising gasoline prices, oil addiction and environmental degradation are constantly in the news today. Hybrid vehicles are selling faster than they can be produced and plug-in hybrids are on the way. What’s the next step? Is there a better solution to our polluting cars and petroleum-related problems?

Yes: oil-free, zero-emission battery electric vehicles (EVs.) EVs burn no oil and emit zero pollutants; EVs will give America energy independence, take a major bite out of global warming emissions and stabilize rising asthma rates. EVs cost less than a nickel a mile to drive.

On June 28th, a documentary film entitled “Who Killed the Electric Car?” will be released nationwide by Sony Pictures Classics. Chris Paine, a dispossessed GM EV1 driver, has chronicled the attacks of Big Auto and Oil on a zero-emission vehicle (ZEV) mandate in California and their battle against all efforts to require clean cars in America. The film will be shown locally at the Winter Park Village 20 theater on August 11th.

On January 3rd, 1990, General Motors presented the Impact, a battery-electric coupe, at the Los Angeles Auto Show. The car, said CEO Roger Smith, would go anywhere but a gas station; it would later be renamed the EV1.

In September of 1990 the California Air Resources Board mandated that automakers accomplish 2% ZEV sales by 1998, rising to 5% in 2001 and 10% by 2005. In response, six major automakers built eight highway-capable EV models. They were well-received by those consumers who were able to obtain one. I rented and drove a red GM EV1 during a visit to Los Angeles in early 2000. I was delighted with it; the EV1 is fast, comfortable and well-equipped. I’ve been trying to buy one ever since.

So where are they now? Why can’t we buy EVs today?

EV test-marketing was half-hearted, to put it kindly. Initially, only one EV model, the Ford Ranger EV, was actually offered for sale (at double the gas-model price.) Six models were offered by closed-end lease only in California, New Mexico and Arizona. Qualifying to lease an EV was frequently tortuous and deliveries were slow. The lithium- battery Nissan Altra EV was never offered to individual consumers on any terms, being leased only to fleets.

Few EVs were built; all eight models’ production numbers totaled only around five thousand. Automakers soon claimed that demand was low, despite thousands on EV waiting lists in the three-state test market. Having started EV test-marketing in 1996, makers were already winding it down by 1999.

The oil and auto industries spent millions lobbying against ZEV requirements. They ran full-page anti-EV ads and opposed states attempting to mandate EV sales. GM and American Automobile Manufacturers lobbyist Andrew Card, later the White House Chief of Staff, spoke out repeatedly against EVs.

In 2002, GM and Chrysler sued to void California EV requirements, and (aided by a Bush Administration amicus brief,) eventually succeeded in eliminating California’s zero-emission vehicle requirements. By 2003, makers were refusing to renew leases and had begun repossessing and crushing their EVs. Most major-maker EVs in the US have already been crushed.

General Motors pulled all advertising from the Los Angeles Times in 2005, in retaliation for the LAT’s support of an auto pollution- reduction law. The mass media for a decade have slighted coverage of EVs, perhaps for fear of losing oil and auto advertising revenues. EV- related stories that did appear invariably quoted automakers’ misleading statements about battery and demand problems. Meanwhile, advanced batteries have increased EV driving range to over 300 miles per charge and can be recharged in a few minutes.

If EVs were not wanted, were impractical, unsafe or unreliable, then why was unprecedented time, money and effort directed towards killing them?

EVs have now been built that are far superior to internal- combustion engine (ICE) vehicles in every respect. Advanced batteries are now going into mass production that will power speedy EVs with all the conveniences found in conventional cars. Mitsubishi and Subaru plan to mass produce full-sized EVs by 2010, prototypes are being tested and one new maker has raised $40 million to build and crash- test EV models in order to meet US safety standards.

America will become energy independent when EVs replace ICE vehicles; pulmonary disease rates will level off and we will be contributing much less to global warming. Within five years, US consumers will see mass production and sales of zero-emission vehicles. Breathe free; the electric car will rise again.

Breathe free,
Hugh E Webber
Florida Electric Auto Association

In response to a June 26 Automotive News trashing of Who Killed the Electric Car article by Mark Rechtin:

I read your commentary on the film "Who Killed the Electric Car" which you claim is full of "unsubstantiated allegations and flat-out errors". Please allow me to comment on 7 of your claims and give you a perspective from someone who actually leased two GM EV1s with lead acid batteries and a Chevy S-10 pickup with NiMH batteries. I finally bought a RAV 4 EV with NiMH batteries as soon as I got a chance. I also testified at several CARB hearings as well as some joint hearings sponsored by CARB and the CEC (CA Energy Commission) on how to reduce CA's dependence on petroleum fuel. Those hearings allowed the auto makers and oil companies to give lengthy Power Point presentations while the EV drivers were only allowed to speak for 3 minutes or less.

First, I agree with you that battery shortcomings kept (GM) electric vehicles from being market-ready. I had battery problems with both EV1s that I leased as well as the S-10 truck. All of these vehicles required dealer service which decreased the frequency of the battery failures but did not eliminate them. I attribute this to the poor quality and design of the batteries used by GM.

The NiMH batteries in my RAV 4 EV have performed flawlessly and I have nearly 50,000 miles on this vehicle. You may be interested to know that the batteries in my RAV 4 EV are made by Panasonic, not a US manufacturer. Panasonic was sued by the US battery company who licensed the NiMH technology and as a result, Panasonic was no longer allowed to make EV size NiMH batteries. That US battery company was first bought by GM and later sold to Texaco which was subsequently purchased by Chevron. Conspiracy theory? - You tell me.

Secondly, you ask "were GM's 800 EV1 buyers really worth a $1 billion investment"? Well, GM claims it spent $1.5 billion on the EV1, so your number is a bit low. More importantly, all the manufacturers who built EVs in response to the CARB ZEV mandate cut a deal with CARB (called the MOA) allowing them to make far fewer EVs than the mandate required. Every one of those EVs was snapped up by an eager driver, so the demand exceeded the supply.

Other than about 300 of the RAV 4 EVs, all of these vehicles were for lease only - no opportunity to buy them although we certainly tried - having our deposit checks returned uncashed by GM. The bottom line is that the claim by GM and others is totally bogus. There would have been many more buyers if they actually sold the cars and their $1.5 billion investment could have made money if they wanted it to. Unfortunately, they did not want to make the cars and GM's leader admits killing the EV1 was his worst mistake.

Thirdly, you state that "When a car isn't profitable, it gets the ax, no matter how good (or not) it is. GM would probably kill the Corvette if it only sold 800 units". The Corvette has lost money for years > although GM keeps it in the fleet because the Corvette image attracts buyers to their other products.

With regard to the RAV 4 EV you claim: "The cost of its $32,000 battery pack isn't scalable by volume". Hello? Where did you get your MBA? During the CARB hearings, testimony was given by the manufacturers that battery prices would be slashed with volumes as low as 20,000 battery packs per year. With today's high gas prices, it would be easy to sell more EVs than that even if they only had an 80 mile range and a 4 hour re-charge time. (The Chrysler EPIC minivan had an 80 mile range and could recharge from 20% to 80% in 20 minutes).

Keep in mind that the vast majority of households have at least 2 cars and one of them is used primarily for commuting. Also, take a look next time you are stuck in rush hour traffic on the LA freeways. You are surrounded by single occupant vehicles that most likely drive less than 80 miles per day. Who needs a SUV for that kind of driving when a 2 seater will do just fine? (Especially one that would allow you to use the car pool lines without a passenger).

Next you applaud "GM's outstanding ad campaign, where appliances crowd around the car as it purrs down the street". I never saw this ad until after my EV1 lease expired and doubt that it would have inspired me to get the car. To be fair, I am annoyed by the blaring rock music and shouting announcers in most other car ads. I usually buy a car that meets my needs, not one that I see on TV. Electric cars such as the RAV 4 EV not only meet my needs, they exceed them. I have a small poster on my car proclaiming that "Every day is a 'Spare the Air' day in an Electric Vehicle". Meanwhile, today is our third "Spare the Air" day this summer here in the SF bay area where commuters are urged to take mass transit instead of driving their cars.

Another criticism you have for the film is that "It mocks the potential for fuel cells. It is as if electric cars are the only true path to vehicular enlightenment". Well, if you knew anything about fuel cells you would feel the same way. Honda has leased 5 of the FCX vehicles to folks in the LA area for $500 per month. These cars cost about $1 million each. This makes a $100K RAV 4 EV look like a bargain since they both get about the same range on a fill up. That's only the beginning, however. Try finding out what it costs to fill up with hydrogen and finding some place to do it. The fueling infrastructure makes GM's $1.5 billion investment in the EV1 seem like a drop in the bucket. Meanwhile I can charge my EV in my garage for pennies per mile and smile every time I pass by a gas station - unless I want to stop in to clean my windows.

Finally, you say "the free market chose not to embrace electric cars in volume sufficient to warrant mass production". To that I say, there is no free market here. The expensive NHTSA crash test requirements are a barrier to any independent company who wants to make an electric car. Only the big auto makers can afford these tests. The only reason I have my RAV 4 EV was because of the CARB ZEV mandate and those who originally set it in place. The CARB late-comers like Alan Lloyd are the reason that Toyota pulled the RAV 4 EV from the market the day after the ZEV mandate was gutted. You can't have a free market without any products for sale. No need for a conspiracy theory - Lloyd was also the chairman of the CA Fuel Cell Partnership - a joint venture between all the auto makers and 4 major oil companies. This is just a thinly disguised tactic to remove electric cars from the market while the auto makers have years to come up with excuses as to why the fuel cells are taking so long. Meanwhile it's business as usual except that business at GM is not so good while the oil companies are making obscene profits at your expense.

By the way, at some of our EV1 club meetings we did an informal poll. Everyone there agreed that there were at least 3 people among their friends, neighbors or co-workers who would gladly buy an EV1 if it were for sale - based solely on their word-of-mouth advertising for a car that had admittedly flawed batteries. No need for expensive ad campaigns, these cars sold themselves.

Yes, it's a different paradigm that takes some adjustment. A 3 day test drive from my local Saturn dealer is what sold me - not any advertising. All I needed to do was to satisfy myself that this car would get me to work and back without using any petroleum fuel. The pleasant surprise was that this car was really fun to drive. It accelerated like a rocket and turned heads everywhere I went. I could plug it into any wall outlet and I had a patriotic "red, white & blue" bumper sticker that said "Powered by American Electrons".

Forget this "You don't have to plug it in" nonsense from the car companies. Every time you go to a gas station, you take the nozzle and "plug it in" while your wallet is being drained. Instead of the other end of the plug going to your local utility company, it goes all the way back to our "friends" in the middle east. I encourage your readers to go and see the film now that the conspiracy theory has been de-bunked.

Jerry Pohorsky
Electric Auto Association - Silicon Valley Chapter President

I don’t consider myself to be some tree-hugging activist and I don’t make speeches or write letters to editors very often. But after reading your recent article regarding the movie “Who Killed the Electric Car,” I felt compelled to respond. Are you sure that your political views or occupation haven’t kept you from being completely objective with your review? Just how many actual electric vehicle owners have you spoken with to formulate your views on the practicality of owning one of these cars?

I have some knowledge regarding the RAV4 EV and Prius, since I was the first to own both in Ventura County. I am a high school counselor who majored in Economics from USC. From the time I had originally inquired about the RAV4 EV to the time I actually leased one to the time I opted to purchase the lease to even a week ago when I received another letter from Toyota, I’ve actually been discouraged by Toyota of owning a RAV4 EV every step of the way. And at no time have I ever seen any major car company really make an honest effort to promote or advertise electric vehicles to the general public.

I would say that for families my size (with a wife and three kids), most I know have more than one car. Certainly the EV1, being a two-seater, no matter how much people loved them, would have a somewhat limited utility for the general public. But the RAV4 EV has worked out absolutely great for us. In fact, I’d say the car has been much more convenient, not less convenient, especially since we have two cars anyway. Several years ago, I used to dread the words from my wife as I was about to leave for somewhere in the car, “by the way, the car needs gas,” necessitating an unplanned, extra stop to a gas station. Nothing could be easier than plugging in every 4 nights or so and in the morning you’re ready to go.

There are several other benefits besides convenience that my car could be more marketable. But I’d like to pose you a question. Would families be interested in purchasing a second car with a gas tank that held only 3 or 4 gallons of gas, but required no oil changes, tune-ups, smog checks and pay almost nothing for gas? How close do you live to a Costco? Heck, my parents and grandparents used to fill up their cars when their tanks were ¾ full because they liked having a full tank all the time. Our RAV4 EV meets at least 95% of our driving needs at a fraction of the operational cost of a gas car. And so we put as many miles as possible on the RAV 4 EV in recent years. We buy gas for the Prius about once every month and a half.

Please don’t be naive enough to think that the electric vehicles were ever marketed to be successful to the general public or for any other reason besides going through the motions of trying to meet the ZEV mandate. The car and oil companies, like any other business, operate by trying to maximize profits. A friend of mine just told me that he spent $65 the last time he filled up his Camry. More and more people are stopping me around town and asking how they can get a car like mine. I do occasionally take some satisfaction from thinking that I’m helping the environment and doing my part for our country to depend less on foreign oil. But when I made a conscious decision to buy out my lease for $29,000, I made an economical judgment based upon the reliability I’ve experienced with this car and projected savings over the course of several years.

I’m writing to tell you that if I win the next Super Lotto, I would still be driving the same cars I do now. My cars work for me and my family, and I don’t think I’m any different than the vast majority of people out there, except for the fact that I actually know something about electric vehicles. Most don’t have a clue. Because I’ve been to Europe several times, I’ve always felt that it was a matter of time before the price of gas would catch up to the outrageous prices that Europeans have been paying for years, sparking my initial interest. Call me crazy, but I think that gas will reach $4 per gallon or higher in the very near future and that you’ll be waiting a lot longer than you think for that hydrogen fuel cell vehicle.


Bill Garner

Dear Mr. Rechtin,

Several of the members of an online electric-vehicle discussion list to which I subscribe have sent you comments about your recent review of the movie "Who Killed the Electric Car?" and have cc'ed the list (as I'm doing with this email). I regret the accusatory tone of many of the things that were said to you please understand that the writers (including myself) have endured a decade and a half of frustration with GM in particular, and a lot of them have spent longer than that seeing their views regarded as the lunatic fringe by everybody from politicians to industry to journalists. I for one was interested in the EV1 since its prototype, the Impact concept car, debuted at the 1990 L.A. Auto Show. I picked up a GM credit card specifically in order to accumulate rebate dollars to buy an EV, and if they had actually been _sold_ rather than only leased with no buy-out option, I'd have had my checkbook in hand when the EV1s arrived at Saturn of Torrance in December 1996. (I'm not wealthy enough to lease vehicles: after three years you've got bupkes--no car, no equity in the car, nothing.) It wasn't just Jay Leno who balked at that arrangement! Eventually I used the rebate to buy a Pontiac Vibe with my new wife, and then traded it in for a Saturn Relay as our family grew--buying that from the same Saturn saleswoman (Alfie Garcia) who had tried from 1996 to 2000 to help my love for the EV1 overcome my unwillingness to lease. So what comes around goes around, to some extent anyway.

I have to admit that I have not seen the movie. I tried to catch it at the L.A. Film Festival Saturday, but I wasn't quick enough to pick up an advance sale ticket, and when I got there I saw the huge line of people trying to get tickets at the door and just had to laugh at myself. So I'm not able to comment on your review of specific observations about tone or emphasis ("ominous bass line"); however, I would like to take issue with several statements you make asserting facts that conflict with what you saw in the movie. Specifically, you discuss advertising and consumer interest; the degree to which automaker representatives did or did not misrepresent and undermine EVs while claiming they were making a good-faith effort to market them; and the perceived bias of EV advocates against any alternative vehicle technology except their own "only true path."

You refer to the "Appliances" TV ad that introduced the EV1. I agree that it was an amazing piece of art; did you know it was nominated for an Emmy in 1997, and won a Clio Silver award that year? But one TV ad does not a campaign make! I don't have any numbers on how much air or print advertising GM did, but many EV drivers (especially those who leased EV1s) say that they met very few people whom those ads had actually reached, i.e., who knew that EVs were actually (briefly) available from major automakers. As for the content of the post-"Appliances" ads, I understand the movie takes some shots at them (a "post nuclear feel," etc.); one thing that I noticed about the few ads I saw (in print or on bus stops) was that they were much more about "gee, what a cool green toy" than "gee, what a practical way to get around in the real world." The last EV1 I rented, with lead-acid batteries, had a range of about 80 miles per charge (NiMH versions got up to twice that). You say "consumers had serious problems with a two-seat vehicle that could drive for only 80 miles before it had to be recharged for four hours," and that might be true for consumers who equated those four hours with sitting in a gas station for four hours. But, of course, if the four hours are overnight while you sleep (and the electricity is metered on a cheap time-of-use rate) and you drive less than 80 miles each day, the only difference from driving a gasoline car is that you never go to a gas station. In a typical two-car family, the EV wouldn't be the "second car"--it would be cheaper to use it for the vast majority of driving, saving the gas guzzler for the rare trip to Vegas. This was frequently discovered by people who leased EVs in the expectation that they would be their "second cars," but who found just how seldom they needed more than the EV could give them. That's what I mean by "practical ... in the real world": complaining about limited range for an EV is like complaining that a four-door sedan can't carry a sheet of plywood--the question is, does it do the job you actually need it to do? And does it have advantages over other ways to get the job done, like much lower fuel and maintenance costs, and less pollution and support for terrorists if the buyer cares about such things?

But GM (and other EV makers) steadfastly refused to make this case to consumers in their ads. One EV1 lessee got so exasperated by this that he spent a few tens of thousands of dollars to create and air "wildcat" EV1 radio ads, without approval from GM! (He has a bit more money to throw around than I do...) It seems that automakers have a deathly fear of asking customers to consider whether there might be another way of doing things. Just days ago, I saw an article on CNN.com about the possibility of GM producing plug-in hybrids, at


in which a GM rep says fearfully that such a vehicle would "require a change in consumers' daily routine" (in order to run most efficiently, that is--it would run like an ordinary hybrid if you didn't plug it in when you parked it for the night). And on Saturday, in a Discovery Channel program on reducing our oil addiction, Rick Wagoner explicitly says that GM tries to figure out what consumers will want in a few years and then to be ready with such vehicles, and is not interested in trying to lead them somewhere they wouldn't be going anyway. In the first place, does he really think that the recently-peaked SUV boom would have happened without Arnold pitching the Hummer, and all those ads showing SUVs climbing up mountains when in reality most of them will never be driven anywhere more strenuous than the mall? Or did that many people suddenly acquire yachts that needed to be towed to the lake? If so, he can save his company a lot of money on its ad budget. And second, I think that he (like ever damn politician in Washington) underestimates the American people's willingness to change direction in the wake of 9/11, the recent oil price spikes, Katrina, you name it, if somebody makes an honest case for change. These are the same people who told us to fight the 9/11 terrorists by not giving in and letting them make us afraid to go to Disneyland. You said that "auto executives would break their momma's legs for advocates like the EV1 fans in the movie"; there was a minimal "EV1 People" section on the EV1 web site for awhile, but GM refused to attempt anything like, say, Apple's "Switchers" campaign to show in mass advertising the advantages real people found in their EVs, and so did every other automaker. So much for innovation and leadership...

So a lot of us think GM and the other automakers who built EVs failed to do anything like a reasonable job of promoting them. Did they actually undermine them while claiming they were promoting them? Again, people who lived through this can adduce many examples. I remember once toward the end when Ken Stewart, the EV1 brand manager for heaven's sake, was talking about disappointing lease rates in the previous few months--conveniently ignoring the current month, in which the second-generation car was finally released to a long waiting list after being held back for engineering tweaks. And automaker spokesmen have been misrepresenting the demand for EVs from then up to the present day. You mentioned Dave Barthmuss; I've had a couple of run-ins with him. Once he and I had dueling quotes in an article in my local paper, the South Bay Daily Breeze (www.dailybreeze.com), about the crushing of the EV1s; his had to do with a claim that GM never ran its EV1 production lines at more than 8% capacity. But what he failed to mention was that the EV1 line was _designed_ to build 500 or so cars at a time, then be dismantled until GM thought they needed to build another 500; there was a big display on this innovative way to do small-volume production that I saw once at an auto show, or maybe an environmental event--I don't remember where, but it was an official GM/UAW display. So he implies that GM couldn't move more than 8% of the EV1s it expected to build; the truth is they could have restarted production, 8% at a time, if they had really wanted to clear the waiting lists. And you say the film misrepresents 4000 "hand-raisers" as a real waiting list; as I recall somebody has already pointed out that these were people who had actually gone through GM's stringent disqualification process (they probably wouldn't have _let_ me lease the vehicle if I had wanted to, because I'd have had to make unusual arrangements for the charger). Put another way, you have remarked on the enthusiasm of EV1 fans; is it more likely that only the 800 most fanatical "greens" in California and Arizona bothered to lease the car, or that many of the small number of people who did manage to get through the gauntlet _became_ huge fans, whose enthusiasm GM (and other automakers) could have channeled into ads instead of letting it go toward web sites like dontcrush.com, saveev1.org, jumpstartford.com, etc.?

I've also seen phony "facts" quoted by GM apologists who are not obviously affiliated with the company; I don't know if they get their information from company reps, or _are_ company employees not identifying themselves as such in, say, letters to the editor or blog postings, or are pulling their "facts" out of their, er, rear pockets. One guy claimed that the reason the EV1s were taken off the road and crushed is that the NHTSA required it due to waivers of safety regs that had been granted on a temporary basis; this is plain wrong, as the EV1 met all standards for its model years. Another is that GM killed the EV1 because a large number of dissatisfied customers canceled their leases; according to Chelsea Sexton, the "starry-eyed" former EV1 sales rep, they never got any substantial number of cancellations, certainly not enough to make all the people on the waiting list happy. The admittedly biased sample on the EV mailing list I mentioned (who are at least interested in the RAV4-EV even if, like me, not actually owners or lessees) yielded a few people who canceled their leases once it became clear that GM was never going to sell the vehicle ("disappointed," but not in the way the apologist claimed) so that they could lease a Ford TH!NK City or Toyota RAV4-EV in the hope that they _could_ buy that later. (Some of these folks succeeded, some didn't.) As a journalist, you might find it interesting to talk to Chelsea Sexton about the quantity and quality of people on the waiting list, i.e., how many there were and how serious they were. I know what she's going to say, so it will be up to you to decide for yourself whether she's really a "starry-eyed" enthusiast (with clearer vision than GM execs) or somebody who's actually deluded and/or lying.

Finally (if you're still reading this far), you deride the film for ignoring hybrids and denigrating fuel cells. There was an episode of "The West Wing" that had fun depicting advocates of different alternative forms of energy as being at each other's throats, each trying to cut the others down as they scrambled for the limited pot of funding available. To some extent that's a fair cop; however, I can present some solid reasons why many of us in the "EV camp" have reluctantly come to train our guns on hybrids and fuel cells. With regard to hybrids, these have the trait that they don't require (or enable) the consumer to do anything different (go to the same gas stations, just less often), and so automakers have always been more enthusiastic about them than about any alternative fuels except ethanol, and that only recently. Even GM, which has spent years bad-mouthing hybrids, appears to have come around, as shown in that CNN.com article I mentioned above. The problem is that they are presenting hybrids as a way to solve our problems without actually doing anything differently, which is a big exaggeration of their benefits. Toyota, as the biggest hybrid maker, has been particularly bad about this; one of their "talking points," which I've heard at auto shows and seen in ads and in letters to the editor from Toyota representatives, is that the Prius is "90% cleaner than ordinary cars." This omits the crucial phrase "when new," and also misleads by making a vague comparison: the actual statistic is that vehicles meeting the same tailpipe standard as the Prius emit 90% fewer smog-forming pollutants when new than the average 2002 car did when new. First, this omits the fact that many non-hybrid cars meet the same tailpipe standard; second, it ignores the fact that all gasoline cars, hybrid or not, get dirtier over time as calibrations drift, components age, etc., which erases something like half of the emissions advantage of these "PZEV" vehicles over the respective vehicles' lifetimes. By contrast, when you charge an EV from the California average power mix, the Air Resources Board calculated that over time the pollution due to charging it is 98% less than that of the 2002 fleet average, and 95% less than that of even the cleanest gasoline cars. But Toyota clearly wants us to think that hybrids are inherently much cleaner than non-hybrids. Just today I saw an ad for a Camry hybrid that says "less gasoline equals fewer emissions--80% to be exact" (the percentage dropped because the 2006 fleet average is cleaner than the 2002 average), which makes the assertion explicit.

To choose another example, in the first brochure I picked up at an auto show for the Ford Escape hybrid, and again in a press release a month or so ago about the related Mazda Tribute hybrid, they say that it is "99.4% cleaner than unregulated vehicles." This is likely true, but misleading, since "unregulated vehicles" haven't been sold new in forty years! _Any_ vehicle that can legally be sold today is 99 point something percent cleaner than those. But the average person seeing that advertising claim is likely to think "gee, 99.4% cleaner than all those ordinary vehicles on the dealer lots." I may have an FTC false-advertising case to make here... By misrepresenting the cleanliness of their hybrids (and of their gasoline vehicles in general), automakers are trying to say "we have hybrids now--what do we need with all those icky, inconvenient alternative fuels like electricity or natural gas?" So EV advocates didn't pick this fight; in fact, when I rented a Honda Insight hybrid in 2000 and took a local newspaper columnist for a ride, he quoted me as saying that my EV-advocate friends thought the vehicle was a half-measure at best, but that my attitude was "let's not let the best be the enemy of the good." But at the time I did not foresee that the "good" would become the enemy of the "best"! Ford went from the best lineup of natural-gas and propane vehicles in the nation in 2004 to _none_ in 2005, the same year they introduced their Escape hybrid, and for the most part the automakers cut back or killed their electric and natural-gas vehicles right around the time that hybrids started appearing and fuel cells started getting attention.

So what about hydrogen and fuel cells? The reason we are suspicious is twofold: first, the path to commercialization for these runs through the same territory as that for electric and natural-gas vehicles (NGVs), but the mountains are considerably higher; if automakers can't scale the foothills to build EVs and NGVs, why should anybody believe their promises that they'll climb Mt. Everest and bring us hydrogen transportation? Second, the goal is so far in the future that they've got plenty of time to get the rules changed so they don't have to keep those promises. Taking the second reason first, I read that automakers generally figure they'll decide on commercialization of fuel-cell vehicles in 2015. That's almost a decade away; that's as long as it took to get from the introduction of the Impact show car to the end of EV1 production. It's longer than most automakers needed to go from their first NGVs to their last ones. I'm reminded of the old story about the man who was sentenced to death by a king, and who then promised the king that if spared for a year he'd teach the king's prize pig to sing, which amused the king enough that he granted a reprieve. The man's friends thought he was nuts, but he told them "at least I have a year; in a year a lot could happen. The king might die; I might die; and who knows, the pig just might learn to sing." The automakers may act like they're serious about the singing lessons, but they've left themselves plenty of time to off the king with lobbying, lawsuits, and foot-dragging, as they did with the Zero-Emission Vehicle mandate. (Or GM in particular might die...)

As for the obstacles facing hydrogen, one of the gripes people (including you) had against EVs was the expense of making them. As somebody pointed out to you already, we have every reason to suppose that battery prices will in fact come down with volume; if not, Toyota is gonna bleed itself white with the cost of all those NiMH packs in its hybrids! And as long ago as 1994, in a Business Week (not Mother Jones) article, Chrysler said that, apart from the batteries, it would cost no more to make EVs than gasoline vehicles if the volume reached as few as 100,000 a year, presumably a sum of all the EVs from a single automaker. For now, of course, all we've seen are essentially hand-built custom EVs made in smaller numbers than Lamborghinis, so it's not surprising that prices are at least in Porsche territory. By contrast, fuel-cell vehicles cost around a million bucks a pop, and bringing that down will require some real breakthroughs, rather than just scaling up of existing technologies; fuel cells are, after all, "rocket science," whereas lead-acid batteries and electric motors have been commercialized for over a century, and NiMH batteries have been in laptops and cell phones for over a decade, and lithium-chemistry batteries for nearly as long. Which do you think has a better business case for cost reductions?

Then there's the question of energy use. Two weeks ago I attended the grand opening of a hydrogen refueling station at the Santa Monica City Yards; they use purchased renewable electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen, then compress the hydrogen and burn it in five modified Prius cars. Hydrogen is typically measured in kilograms, a convenient unit since a kg of hydrogen contains about as much energy as a gallon of gasoline, and the turbocharged hydrogen-fueled Priuses get about 45 miles per kg, i.e., about the same fuel economy as the gasoline-fueled Prius. It takes about 70 kWh (kilowatt-hours) of electricity for them to produce and compress one kg of hydrogen; thus, the electricity needed to drive these vehicles one mile is about 1.5 kWh. An efficient electric vehicle like the EV1 might go ten times as far on the same amount of electricity! A fuel-cell vehicle will use maybe two or three times less hydrogen per mile, but you still come out way behind EVs; the often-quoted number is that a fuel-cell vehicle powered by hydrogen made by electrolyzing water uses four times as much electricity per mile as an EV. Hydrogen only makes sense if either (1) you have renewable electricity so abundant that you can afford to be a spendthrift; or (2) some of the exotic hydrogen-specific processes like genetically engineered algae that excrete hydrogen come to market; or (3) you insist that a vehicle must refuel at a traditional fueling station rather than overnight while parked in your garage. (1) and (2) are a long way from the market; (3) is the trump card, because of automakers' evident fear of inviting consumers to "refuel different". (This is also why conspiracy-minded folks see the hand of oil companies in the hype about hydrogen--they can't control millions of electricity outlets at home, but they can control the hydrogen stations.)

Well, NGVs refuel at central refueling stations (with the additional option of home refueling using the FuelMaker "Phill" appliance, www.myphill.com, but let's ignore that for now). How do they stack up against hydrogen vehicles? First, there is a natural-gas distribution infrastructure already in place, so that building a station simply requires tapping into that and compressing the fuel; there is no remotely comparable distribution system for hydrogen, so this infrastructure must be built from scratch or else the hydrogen must be generated at the point of sale with electrolyzers or natural-gas "reformers" in addition to the compression and storage gear. There are over a hundred public compressed natural gas (CNG) refueling stations in California already, with hundreds more across the nation; the most ambitious plans I've heard of (currently not funded, as I understand) call for 50 in California by the end of the decade. NGVs share almost all componentry except the fuel system with gasoline versions of the vehicle, and most of the vehicle can be worked on by a mechanic without special training; hydrogen internal-combustion vehicles like those converted Priuses have extra layers of safety and preignition-control systems, and fuel-cell vehicles are completely different. The price premium for an NGV over a gasoline version of the same vehicle is a few to several thousand dollars, comparable to that for a hybrid, and there has been over a decade of real-world experience over literally billions of miles with these vehicles; fuel-cell vehicles consist of a couple of dozen million-dollar prototypes at present. (With regard to real-world use, I own a 1993 Dodge factory NGV van with 87,000 miles on it, which in 1998 I drove from L.A. to Maine and back using public CNG refueling

But despite all these advantages of NGVs over hydrogen vehicles, especially fuel-cell vehicles, every automaker except Honda has cut back or killed their NGV offerings, saying they were too inconvenient, expensive, etc. But if they couldn't make a go of NGVs, _where_ is the business case that they could possibly succeed with hydrogen? I have tried to get an answer to this question since the automakers began shutting down NGVs and talking up fuel cells, without success. I mentioned that I had had a couple of run-ins with Dave Barthmuss of GM; one was face to face, when I posed this question to him (and others) at a meeting of the California Hydrogen Highway public education team. I made the mistake of not tightly restricting my question to NGVs, and also mentioned the crushing of the EV1; he "answered" by setting up and knocking down some straw men, saying that contrary to my assertion GM didn't crush _all_ the EV1s (I never said they did), and they didn't take them from leaseholders before the leases ran out (I carefully used the word "terminated" rather than "canceled" to avoid making that accusation), and he brought up all the GM boilerplate about the "limitations" of EVs. He never said word one about NGVs, and unfortunately I was "playing hurt" with a terrible cold and was too fuzzy to call him on it. I have yet to catch him in an outright lie, but he's a terrific "spin doctor"; he must have been hell on wheels in the college debate club. The funny thing is, I made the same mistake, mentioning EVs along with NGVs, in an email exchange with Analisa Bevan of the state Air Resources Board, and she likewise replied only about EVs; when I re-stated the question to try to pin her down on NGVs vs. fuel-cell vehicles, she never replied. The sole and only automaker or government representative that I've found who sees a disconnect between the way automakers except Honda have walked away from NGVs and the way they are promising fuel-cell vehicles is Steve Ellis, head of alternative-fuel vehicles for American Honda in Torrance. Of course, he doesn't see this as a proof of the hollowness of automaker promises about hydrogen, since he's an advocate himself; but he does agree with me that automakers need to get their NGV act together, if only to build both experience and credibility for hydrogen vehicles. The way he likes to put it is "NGV drivers are apprentice fuel-cell vehicle drivers." (I've been such an "apprentice" for thirteen years; I'd sure as heck like to advance at least to journeyman someday!) Again, as a journalist, you might find it interesting to talk to him and get his take on automakers' actions and their promises.

Well, I apologize for the dissertation; it is very rare that I run across somebody like you who is both part of the "mainstream [automotive] media," to use the whiner's phrase, but also not wedded to the idea that it's perfectly fine if automakers keep selling ever-thirstier SUVs, so I wanted to give you as much background info as I could to inform your writings on the topic of alternative transportation. Again, I can't comment on matters of tone or emphasis in a film I haven't seen; but I hope that the above 25 kilobytes or so provide a relatively dispassionate (ha!) exposition of the reasons that many people who've been involved in alternative fuels as customers, advocates, or (Chelsea and others) sales staff think that the automakers' justifications of their actions and promises just don't hold water.

Best regards,
Mark Looper

and more from Mark...

Dear Mr. Rechtin,

A week ago I clogged your in-box with a 4500-word letter disagreeing
with several points in your review of "Who Killed the Electric Car?"
That same day GM ran a full-page ad in my local paper, the South Bay Daily Breeze (www.dailybreeze.com), and others including the L.A. Times. The ad talked about the "legacy" of the EV1, and how GM is building on it with hybrids, hydrogen, and ethanol vehicles. It doesn't mention the film specifically, but at the end is a Web address, onlygm.com/electric, that points to a blog posting in response to the film by none other than our old friend Dave Barthmuss. In it he tunes up some of the exact same spin-points that I addressed in my letter to you last week; they're still at it...

I noted two numbers adjacent to each other in his blog posting, and something clicked; I am trying your patience by writing again in the hope that you, as a journalist, can corner him and get him to explain, in detail, where those numbers come from. I sent him a (carefully neutral, hoping he doesn't remember me) note asking for clarification, and got an autoreply saying that he was out of the office from June 29th (the day the ad came out) until next week. So he got outta Dodge the same day his blog post was highlighted in the ad; he's going to have one full email inbox when he returns...

The specific numbers that ran into each other in my head are "only 800 vehicles were leased in a four-year period" and "a waiting list of 5000 only generated 50 people willing to follow through to a lease." These seem, on the surface, contradictory: did the 800 leases in the first statement come from a waiting list of 80,000 people? Or did GM so precisely calibrate the number of vehicles it built (remember that every EV1 made available for lease _was_
leased) that in four years it achieved 100% saturation of the only truly interested people out there (all 800 of 'em), such that the remainder of the waiting list consisted of "one percenters"? Or are these two statements about consumer responses at different times and under different sets of conditions?

You can doubtless see that I think it's the latter. So what are the different sets of conditions? This is where I hope that you can squeeze out detailed information, where I can only extrapolate from my own experience. The first figure, 800 leases over four years, clearly refers to the period when GM was actually building the vehicles. GM's dismissiveness of the small number is misleading, since as I explained in my "long telegram" they could easily have built more if they had been serious about clearing the waiting list; but, there it is. What I think is being described in the second statement, about only one percent of the 5000-person waiting list being willing to lease the car, is the period _after_ the EV1 was no longer being built, and when it had become clear that GM was not going to build more EV1s and was not going to allow lessees to buy their vehicles when the leases ended. As I mentioned last week, I've heard from at least three former EV1 lessees who terminated their leases early because they realized that GM was not going to come around on a lease buyout option, and so they switched to other vehicles (Ford TH!NK City, Toyota RAV4-EV) in hopes of buying those; so you can understand that others might have been reluctant to get onboard at this time even if they (we) would have jumped at the opportunity back when the vehicles were actually being made and there was at least some hope of eventually actually owning one.

I myself may be one of those 4950 non-lessees: in 2001 or 2002 (wish I could find the letter to confirm when...) I was contacted by GM to see if I was interested in assuming the final year of one of those canceled leases. My wife, kind soul that she is, would have made room in the family budget so that I could "live the dream" at least briefly; but, knowing that I'd have to give the car up at the end of the year, not to mention having to pay for the installation of the special charger that GM required (that's another story), I could not in good conscience put our money into a car that we wouldn't be able to drive for the next fifteen or twenty years, so I turned GM down. Again, this had nothing to do with a lack of enthusiasm for the car (quite the opposite--I was afraid of how I'd react when the repo men came to tow it away!)--rather, it was entirely due to the fact that it was obvious that GM's commitment to the car had already failed. So for a GM spokesman to claim that this sad story was in fact a _reason_ for the end of their commitment would be grossly dishonest; and again, I urge you, as a journalist, to pin down the facts behind the figures that GM is quoting to see if they _are_ making such a claim.

Best regards,
Mark Looper

Reviewed by Owen Gleiberman (Posted:07/05/06)

When I first heard there was a documentary called Who Killed the Electric Car?, it didn't take rocket science to divine the movie's theme (environmental innovation squelched by oil profits), but I assumed that the electric car in question would be some weird, bubbly, futuristic prototype sitting in a lab somewhere. The movie's first revelation is that these babies truly existed, and that they were right there on the open road -- hundreds of them, zipping down the highways of California beginning in 1996, the result of a state mandate that said by 2003, 10 percent of all new vehicles had to be emission-free.

By all accounts, not just that of Tom Hanks (who we see proselytizing for the cause on Letterman), the electric car, produced by General Motors, was fast, attractive, and fun to drive. Its singular disadvantage was that the battery needed to be recharged every 60 to 80 miles. But imagine that you were judging the home computer based on, say, a 1984 Macintosh. There's a word for what was needed to upgrade the electric car -- that word is ''progress'' -- and the second revelation of Who Killed the Electric Car? is that GM, in deciding (at the probable behest of other forces) not just to stop developing this revolutionary vehicle but to take every last one of them off the road and destroy them, did something profoundly un-American: It turned progress back on itself. Who Killed the Electric Car? makes you angry, and also sad, to live in a country where innovation could be contrived into an enemy.

Darell's report to the Rav4EV list after seeing the movie:

I too just saw the movie with my wife last night at the opening at the Clay Theater in San Francisco. The unexpected bonus was that Chris Paine was there... along with some of the other "usual suspects" like Marc Geller. So I got to get some good pictures, a signed poster and my own "Ask me about the electric car" pin. I spent much time before, during and after talking about EVs - A GREAT evening!

Of course I did feel a bit like I was preaching to the choir, but most folks in attendance were just barely on the fringe of knowing what EVs were capable of. They *wanted* to believe, but had no hard evidence. Some asked seriously about insurers being scared off by cars that would so often "break down on the freeway and leave drivers stranded." Some surprising stuff that I hadn't heard before. Beyond the politics and conspiracies - the most powerful part of the movie to me is in showing the world that these great cars existed. And the drivers loved them. This flies in the face of what the automotive PR machine has been spewing for 10 years.

I found the movie to be better than I expected. Not that I didn't think Chris would do a great job - I just thought it would be more of a one-sided thing. Some points were pushed a bit over the top (implying that there were NO problems or maintenance issues with any EVs) and I do wish there could have been a bigger nod to ALL of the production EVs out there. This was an EV1 movie (rightly because of it being the "first" and the amount of effort that GM put into destroying the mandate and vehicles) - and while we probably saw more Rav4EVs in the movie than any other vehicle, they were just mentioned in passing. Taken as a whole, the movie showed some fantastic, indisputable facts straight from the mouths of those who know. I was amazed at some of the footage, and many of the comments.

Very well done. A movie that I'll be able to watch many times, and will be proud to own on DVD. That it did end on a high note was icing on the cake for me. Apparently that upset some of the audience though - they wanted the activists to be TICKED OFF. After the movie, Chris did a great job of explaining how anger is a great motivator... but it can only take you so far. You need a positive goal to really get the thing done. So... in summary - great movie. And while a sad subject that many of us were a part of, a great way to handle it. Every day I'm more proud to be part of this fine group. And did I mention that I fell in love with Chelsea all over again?

Oh! And I was in the film. Twice! for a total of about 3/4 of a second. :) I need to start screaming and foaming at the mouth more at the vigils... And while I obviously starred in the thing, I couldn't find my name in the credits! :(

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