Who Tried to Kill the Electric Car?

There are many rumours, counter rumours and untruths bandied about with regards to the electric car with the 2006 documentary entitled "Who killed the Electric car?" tackling a number of factors which many believe led to the demise of the electric car in the 1990s. The film centres round General Motors which is rumoured to have spent in the region of $1 billion creating its own electric car range only for the technology to be taken off the road after just four years.

Background to the documentary

While there were actually six US car manufacturers involved in the production of electric cars between 1996 and 2000, the technology had been under development many years before 1996. The main player in the U.S. electric car market was General Motors which is rumoured to have spent in excess of $1 billion creating and advertising its EV1 electric car system.

There are many rumours and counter rumours as to why General Motors decided to invest so heavily in the electric car market even though this was a relatively new type of vehicle and one which was untested with consumers. However, many people believe that this was an expensive dumbing-down to the U.S. government and many other organisations around the world and an attempt, once and for all, to kill off the electric car.

The release of the EV1

Southern California is the area which has become central to this famous mystery about electric cars in the US and exactly what was going on behind the scenes. The commercialisation of electric cars became possible after the California authorities passed the ZEV mandate in 1994 for a zero emissions vehicle which was to have no tail pipe and not allowed to release dangerous emissions into the atmosphere.

Why did the Californian authorities pass the ZEV mandate?

There is general feeling that the mandate was passed as a means to reduce air pollution, increase protection of the environment, reduce global warming and above all it was seen as a political move to take out the Middle East countries which were effectively running the oil industry. However, this was just the beginning of the saga which finally ended in 1999 in a blaze of controversy!

Marketing the General Motors EV1

One of the more bizarre elements of this truly great story is the fact that General Motors, which was by far the leader in electronic car sector, decided that it would not sell its new EV1 electric vehicles but would in fact lease them to drivers. This was the first real suggestion that this was no normal marketing campaign and this was no normal vehicle technology. So why did General Motors decide to lease its lead electric car?

To lease or not to lease that is the question

General Motors never really gave an answer as to why the company decided to lease the vehicles rather than sell them outright but one thing it led to after 1999, when the company decided to terminate its electric car experiment, was that every single EV1 was taken back in-house by General Motors. The vehicles were either dismantled, crushed in the desert or else the engine itself was taken out and some vehicles were sold on to museums etc.

This was despite the fact that some EV1 drivers had offered to pay the residual value of their leases, which were cut short, with the company also receiving an offer of $1.8 million for the remaining 78 cars in existence. Nobody can quite understand why General Motors decided to terminate the project, why they were unwilling to sell any cars despite significant offers and ultimately why, in the opinion of many, after spending $1 billion on the project General Motors itself became very critical and destabilised the entire electric car industry.

Who was behind the termination of the General Motors EV1 project?

As soon as it became apparent that the electric vehicle project in South California was going ahead a number of automobile manufacturers, oil industry leaders and people from inside the George W Bush Administration served a number of lawsuits on the California authorities which eventually led to the removal of the ZEV mandate and the eventual collapse of the electric car industry in California.

It is worth pointing out that at the time, George Bush was heavily influenced by the likes of Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice and Andrew Card who were all former executives and main board members of various US oil and automobile companies. There is a feeling that political pressure was placed upon the California authorities after oil industry and automobile industry leaders got together and effectively instructed the US government to act.

Official reasons for the demise of the electric car in California

General Motors has been very vocal with its view that the EV1 failed for a number of reasons, firstly there was little or no consumer demand, the battery power used within the car were unsuitable for long distance travel, customer feedback suggested there were many difficulties with the vehicle and a general feeling that the technology was not yet ready. All of these views have attracted counter views and very different opinions!

Whatever happened to the EV1 technology?

While many people believe that the EV1 technology died when the cars were crushed or destroyed it is rumoured that General Motors actually retained the technology and switched production into hybrid vehicles which use both battery power as well as gasoline. There is a feeling that this was something of a "fudge", arranged to keep the oil companies and oil countries happy, ensure that garages and car dealers around the country were able to maintain a steady income with repairs and effectively ensure that nobody else was able to use the EV1 to produce a purely electric driven powered car.

Conclusion

There is no doubt that between the automobile manufacturers (many of whom feared going under if the electric car took off), the oil industry (which stood to lose trillions and trillions of dollars in income) and the car repair industry (which depended upon inefficient vehicles and constant repairs for significant income) there was very substantial resistance to the electric car. Some people allege that General Motors instigated a very expensive and all-consuming campaign to build up the electric car only to then criticise and eventually take the vehicle out of production as a means of "killing the electric car industry".

While obviously nothing was ever proven with regards to any undertones and potential political and corporate interference many people believe this was a well-organised and ultimately successful campaign to kill the electric car forever. Unfortunately, nobody seemed to think too far ahead and over the last few years there has been a significant move in this particular direction although as yet there appears to be very little political support and corporate support for the wholesale manufacture of emission free vehicles.

So what is holding back the sector today? We can only speculate...........