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GM, Bush & CARB Killed the Electric Car

July 31, 2006 Environment, Media 13 Comments

Man I am pissed off. I just sent an email to General Motors which helped but only a little. Why am I so angry? I saw the documentary ‘Who Killed the Electric Car‘ at the Hi-Point Friday night.

Basically, GM F’d up big time. They started their electric vehicle program in 1988 with a concept car shown in 1990 and entering limited production in 1996 (the EV1). GM was actually out front and ahead of the curve on this one. Toyota & Honda, today’s leaders in hybrid technology, were following GM! In 2000 GM dropped the EV1 in favor of the Hummer and other large gas guzzling SUVs (Ford did the same thing). Today GM and Ford both are struggling to be profitable as free market consumers continue to purchase fewer and fewer of their products. They are scrambling to close plants and fire workers to remain solvent. Meanwhile, other manufacturers such as Toyota and Honda are opening new plants in the U.S. to meet increased demand for their products.

But the stupidity didn’t stop at the GM & Ford Board of Directors. No, the stupidity continued at the California Air Resources Board (CARB) and finally stopping at the Oval office with Dubbya. Before all the free market people start bitching about how we cannot force people to drive tiny cars please read carefully — government policy has been and continues to encourage the use of large vehicles and the burning of fossil fuels. From tax incentives offered for corporate vehicles to not improving requirements for average fuel economy to dropping the Zero Emission Vehicle mandate government policy has encouraged the proliferation of large vehicles and the stagnation of the U.S. auto industry.

Pollution and dependence upon foreign oil continue to be major issues. Had CARB stuck to their requirement for ZEVs (2% in 1998, 5% by 2001 and 10% by 2003) we may be well on our road to cleaner air and not be fighting a war over oil. Instead the Bush administration and others are pushing hydrogen fuel cells as the wave of the future. However, like electric cars, R&D takes time and money. Many experts say affordable fuel cell vehicles are a good 15-20 years away.

In the meantime we are supposed to continue burning fuel in internal combustion engines using alternate fuels. The 85% ethanol blend E85 is being promoted as a green product for flex-fuel vehicles and Biodiesel has similar claims. Here is the problem, it takes a lot of energy to grow corn or other products and process them into the so-called green fuels. With the exception of biodiesel made from waste, both are at best a break-even in terms of overall energy consumption and offer little difference from gasoline with respect to emissions.

We were so close and GM was leading the way. Yes, GM a leader! The movie assigns blame to GM, big oil and others for killing the electric car. I pretty much agree with their conclusions.

Of course, electric vehicles are not dead. What is dead is the mandate for a percentage of a manufacturer’s vehicles to be zero emissions. With that GM and Ford can talk about their hybrid vehicles that don’t get as good of milage as my ’06 Scion or even a 10-year old Saturn. Good job guys!

Zap (Zero Air Pollution):

First I want to disclose that I have a miniscule amount of stock in this company. They’ve got some interesting products, including a cute new 2-seater. Alas, some of these are way above average in cost. ZAP is also an importer of the Mercedes-built smart that I am quite fond of.

GEM (Global Electric Motors, LLC):

This company makes the electric vehicles you may have seen around downtown of late. A couple of developers have these and I know at least one loft owner that does. These are considered a Low Speed Vehicle (LSV) which has less requirements for being driven on the road. They are electronically limited to 25mph. This class of vehicle are often referred to as the Neighborhood Electric Vehicle (NEV) as use is often limited to the immediate neighborhood. This company is a subsidiary of DaimlerChrysler.

A number of vehicles exist on the market, some costing well over $100,000 but offering performance that you’d expect from a car costing that much.

GM is responding to the film with their own take on the situation (click here). Here is what GM says are the facts:

GM invested more than $1 billion in the EV1 program, which included money for installing a charging infrastructure and for marketing the product.

Even with extensive publicity, award-winning advertising and customer incentives the Electric Vehicle program was not a commercially viable business.

GM leveraged advanced technology to create the Saturn Vue Green Line Hybrid. It will hit showrooms later this summer, incorporating a new, more affordable gas-electric technology.

Nobody is disputing GM’s investment. However, the film disputes claims about demand, basically saying the advertising campaign was botched and that GM discouraged anyone from leasing an EV1. GM is not making a very good case in my view for disputing this claim. And finally we have a hybrid version of an existing Saturn Vue SUV that GM says will get 27 city and 32 highway (read review). Wow, those are horrible numbers. GM’s advantage is the Vue’s pricetag being about $7,000 or so less than the nearest competition, the Ford Escape Hybrid. However, the Saturn is considered a “mild” hybrid as it uses a regular gasoline engine for acceleration from stop rather than electric motors as on more traditional hybrids. It is the use of the electric motors to accelerate that enable cars like the Toyota Prius to get their outstanding milage.

I have to wonder what if CARB hadn’t lessoned the requirements and the various manufacturers had met the 10% rule by 2003. Would 10%+ of us in present day 2006 be driving electric cars? If so, things would certainly have come to a halt after our recent power outages caused by storms. How sad would that be to not be able to leave your hot house because your electric car needs charging?

The big downside to full electrics over hybrids like the Prius is battery life. With hybrids it is thought the batteries will actually last the life of the car as they are never fully charged or drained. When it comes to disposal of the vehicle that is a good thing. With full electrics I have to wonder what the environmental impact would be with all those batteries being manufactured and then disposed of every 2-3 years.

Ultimately the most sustainable car will combine a number of technologies, we’ll have the flex-fuel (or biodiesel) plug-in hybrid. What’s that you say? Imagine a future generation hybrid that uses E85 for the internal combustion engine (or a biodiesel) but needs very little because you plugged the car into the grid allowing it to act as a full electric until the batteries are nearly dead. That, combined with a solar roof, will be the car of the future. It will not be hydrogen powered. For a list of manufacturers that make electric vehicles, including scooters, see the Electric Auto Association.

Simply replacing our existing vehicles with some new technology isn’t going to solve many other problems and it may in fact create others. Reducing auto trips and distances traveled must be part of a bigger picture.

– Steve


Currently there are "13 comments" on this Article:

  1. Becker says:

    I’m really looking forward to catching that doc, hopefully I will be able to this week.

    But Steve can you cite or link me/us to the information you have to back up the statement that E85 fuels: “…offer little difference from gasoline with respect to emissions.”

    Quite simpply the information I have states that E85 produces approximatly 40% less Carbon Monoxide and 15% less smog-forming pollutants.

    In addition, the information I have read shows that E85 actually has a better net-energy production ratio than reformulated gasoline that many areas use.

    I do realize that urbanists tend to dislike the E85 alternative because it would not lead to as drastic a move away from our auto-centric culture as other options. But their dismissal of any benefit to using E85 still baffles me. Can you help me understand?

    [REPLY I actually like the concept behind E85 so don’t think that my urbanist bent is keeping me from seeing the facts. I may have misspoken about the emissions, still checking into that perhaps confusing with another alternate. However, a gallon of E85 gets you fewer miles than a gallon of gasoline, plus it costs more.

    From USA Today:
    “The price of E85 — a fuel that’s 85% ethanol made from grain and 15% conventional gasoline — is higher than that of gasoline, even though E85 has only 72% as much energy. The U.S. Department of Energy says a vehicle has to use 1.4 times as much E85 as gasoline to go the same distance.”


    The other thing we must factor into the equation is the cost to produce the Ethanol. Pesticides and farm production is not necessarily earth friendly. I question if we can actually grow enough corn to meet our needs or will we turn all farmland over to producing Ethanol and leave nothing to grow food. – SLP]

  2. Joe Frank says:

    While it’s certainly true CARB caved to political pressures on this issue, understand that California has been for decades the national leader in stricter emissions regulations. Federal legislation a couple years ago promoted by none other than MO Senator Kit Bond would have prevented California — and indeed any other state — from enacting regs on small-engines more restrictive than the Federal Clean Air Act.

    Why? Well, good ol MO has several Briggs & Stratton lawn mower engine plants. So, you can blame CARB all you want, but the fact is their regs are MUCH tougher than you’ll find in most of the other 49 states.

  3. Matt B says:

    Interesting fact that you didn’t highlight is that complete national infrastructure built around providing fuel, gasoline hydrogen or otherwise.

    Electric can be done at home, which solves the huge distribution problem with other fuels, and puts many gas stations out of business.

    Also I heard that electric motors are virtually maintenance free, so no (drastically reduced) need for service shops.

    Some have modified the Prius with a plug-in option and software hacks and have achieved near 100 mpg performance.

  4. Hans Gerwitz says:

    Let’s pray that Tesla can educate the market’s naive view of electric locomotion. I don’t think regulation or enlightened management are going to change the way the auto manufactures think, but customer preference will.

  5. Jim Zavist says:

    Electric MAY be an answer, but it certainly wasn’t back then, and it probably isn’t now.

    1. While electric power may seem extremely clean at your plug, somewhere up the line is (most likely) a coal-burning power plant burning strip-mined coal, neither of which is very environmentally-friendly. Plus a large amount of the energy put in at the plant gets lost through transmission losses and in heat sent into the atmosphere through cooling towers.

    2. Even the best batteries 20 years ago were crude compared to what’s available today. You didn’t see hybrids or true electric vehicles with any sort of decent range (50+ miles) simply because to get enough storage capacity required a battery pack that weighed in excess of a 1,000 pounds.

    3. As the recent power outages show, we depend too much on Ameren (and the reliability of its infrastructure) already. No power for 2-3-4-5 days means no driving either – you can’t fill up an “electric” can and refill your batteries when the power’s off.

    4. We’re preaching to the choir here. GM quit selling electric vehicles because they weren’t selling and they weren’t making any money on them (nor was anyone else). We may want different outcomes, and we may even want to legislate different outcomes, but the reality remains that people buy what they want. Blame advertising, price, availability and/or what’s currently “in” or “cool”, but we vote with our checkbooks. Nobody is holding a gun to peoples’ heads to buy Toyota Priuses – ‘nuf said. Create a good product, focus its marketing on the right audience, and it will sell.

    That said, here are some better solutions:

    · hybrid diesel – it combines the efficiencies of both a diesel engine with hybrid storage and regeneration – not available at retail yet, but in the works.

    · plug-in hybrids – the ability to recharge your hybrid battery pack at home, as well as with the onboard internal combustion engine, significantly increasing gas mileage – avialable now thru unofficial retrofits, pressure being put on manufaturers as a factory option.

    · locally-generated power/green power – significantly reduces transmission losses and emissions, reduces dependency on the large power companies – sources: http://www.solarexpert.com/PVgridtie1.html

    · true diesels in cars (not pickups) – VW makes several and Mercedes Benz makes one that they sell here now – mileage is 30%-40% than their gasoline counterparts

    · finally, WEIGHT is the enemy. Scooters and Scions get good gas mileage because they weigh a LOT less than the typical mid-size car and they weigh less than half what a full-size pickup or SUV weighs. Size is good if you fill it up. Size is bad if all you’re moving is one two skinny butts and a lot of dead air!

    [REPLY Couple of corrections. First, GM sold zero electric cars — they only leased them. And it was not 20 years ago — their EV1 came out in 1996 and was cancelled in 2000. In 2002/03 they began rounding up the cars from drivers that wanted to continue leasing the vehicles. Nearly all were chrushed despite a GM spokesperson saying parts would be recycled.

    GM disputes the waiting list but I tend to believe they had a backlog of customers seeking to lease the EV1. Demand was there but they were afraid they’d lose major revenue streams if electrics actually worked out.

    The second batch of EV1s had a more modern battery than the first batch. This was from a company GM bought a 60% interest in before they released the first EV1 to the public. Mobil Oil later bought GMs interest in this battery company. Range with the new battery was over 100 miles. – SLP]

  6. LisaS says:

    Hans beat me to it.

    The Tesla has been an article of lust in our household for a couple of weeks now. As Hans says, Tesla starts to destroy the perception that electric/energy efficient automobiles have to be ugly. (sorry, gang, some of us just can’t justify spending $20k+ on an article that offends the eye.) Now if we could just get to a vehicle size that would fit a family of four comfortably …

    Another key issue to be solved before many families like ours can go electric is lack of infrastructure. Like many urban residents, we don’t have indoor–or even off-street–parking for our cars. How do we charge the batteries? Hanneke doesn’t sell extension cords long enough. 😉 Should cities start installing limited “electric vehicle only” parking with metered electricity?

    BTW, Steve, Bimmers R Us on Kingshighway has a blue/silver Smart car on the lot, presumably for sale …

  7. Jim Zavist says:

    The only reason GM and others were leasing and/or selling cars in the late ’90’s is because California law required it – it made no business sense, given the small volumes, and GM and others were making a half-assed attempt of a) appearing to be trying to comply with California regs, and b) “proving” why electric power wasn’t a viable outcome. Bottom line, just because legislators decide something will work, doesn’t make it so! (Best local example is the old city master plan [circa WW II] that said we’d need dozens of local aiports to accomodate all the private commuter aircraft we’d be flying by the ’70’s and ’80’s . . .)

    I still contend that the american consumer will buy the right product at the right price if they’re given a viable choice. The EV-1, while an improvement over the electric cars of the 80’s, still had too many limitations to make it a practical choice for most buyers – it didn’t work well as a primary vehicle (limited range/requires an overnight recharge) and it didn’t appeal to most commuters (for whatever reason) as a secondary vehicle.

    If you want to buy an electric vehicle today, Daimler Chrysler will sell you a GEM – you see a few around here, even though they’re glorified golf carts. The reality remains that there are many, much better choices than electric to choose from, so while it’s a chicken-or-egg conundrum, a limited market and a limited choice of vehicles makes the electric vehicle market a true niche market, primarily for the true believers!

    [REPLY Actually Jim, CARB was so inspired by GM EV1 they took the step to require zero emission vehicles. Again, GM was out front in a leadership role before any requirement. – SLP]

  8. Chris Rowley says:

    Neither electric cars nor E85 is the solution. Jim Zavist made several good points concerning electical generation (more generating capacity would be needed as electric cars replaced petrol) and producing ethanol for cars is unsustainable and polluting. Many ethanol plants in the midwest have been cited by the EPA for emmissions because they burn coal as an energy source for the distillation process. ADM fails to mention this detail in their ‘feel good’ promos on PBS. Becker quotes info from a USDA report stating that ethanol gets a better energy return than reformulated gasoline. I read the downloaded report and dissagree, either that item is wrong or put in the wrong context. Drilling crude oil and refining into the various fuels gives the best return on energy input or else oil would not be ‘King’.

    The discovery of crude oil was a major energy bonanza that replaced coal as the major driver of industrialization. This was because of energy density, ease of extraction, ease of portability, profitability. It took millions of years for the earth to accumulate oil deposits that our civilization will use up in a blink of an eye as far as geologic time goes. People need to realize that our society uses petroleum energy at a tremondous rate and ethanol that is produced in real time by photosynthesis on a limited area of farm land will NOT meet the current demand. See SUPERMARKETS AND SERVICE STATIONS NOW COMPETING FOR GRAIN at http://www.earthpolicy.org.

    Besides, our current inductrial agricultural system is dependant on fosil fuel inputs, from fertilizer/pesticies to farming equipment and transport.

    Real solutions begin with increasing urban density, reducing sprawl and well planned and used public transportation.

    Peak oil and its implications are starting to bear down on our planet. At the local level communities can pursue sustainable objectives, investing in public transportation instead of thowing money away on highway projects, examining food security, puting the breaks on sprawl, etc.

    For details see: postcarbon.org, eroei.com, hubbertpeak.com

  9. Jim Zavist says:

    The best analogy for electric car technology is the evolution of the cell phone. Twenty years ago, you either had a “brick” or a car phone (permanently wired to a vehicle). Ten years ago, you had a phone you wore on your belt with 1-2 hours of talk time. Today, you have a flip phone that slides into your pocket and has 3-4 hours of talk time. Assuming that this technology can be economically transferred to the automotive world, electric cars MAY be “ready for prime time”, not just curiosities foe engineering nerds . . .

  10. Jim Zavist says:

    You can see a quick interview with the producer on a rerun of the Daily Show with John Stewart at 7pm (actually 7:19) on the Comedy Channel (69 on Charter Cable) tonight (Thursday, 8/3).

  11. Jim Zavist says:

    Now this is closer to reality – while it’s $80,000, it’s being produced in an open market and it looks like a great product:


  12. dave devore says:

    I have read where using electricity for automobiles is the equivalent of 75 cents a gallon.

    This all ties into the production of cheap renewable electricity by individuals and businesses, with namely solar and wind power. The capability of wiring direclty into the grid and the use of Net Metering billing practices eliminates costly batteries and maintenance and is done throughout the country.

    Not one missouri politician mentions mandatory Net Metering billing practices by electric companies or the fact that Missouri is only one of 15 banjo picking states that doesn’t require it. Most experts agree ( including reps from MO DNR) that this is necessary for the expansion of Alternative energy practices. For example solar panels are part of new construction in many states. Not here !!! Too much money to be made by Ameren. And they want to raise rates. The bile rises to my throat.

  13. Eyal says:

    The funny part of GM’s response in the link you provided is:
    “Although I have not seen the movie … I can tell you…”

    The movie is great but scary, as it shows yet another aspect of our big-brother society.


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