Saturday, September 22, 2012

Who Killed the Electric Car?

Who Killed the Electric Car is a very interesting documentary-style film about the rise and fall of the wholly-electrically powered automobile.

The film centres around primarily the American (and specifically, Californian) development and eventual quashing of the commercially produced, mass-marketable, consumer market electric car. It begins with the introduction of the Californian state legislation on car manufacturers, which was brought into being in 1990, legislating that automobile manufacturers such as GM and Honda, if they wanted to continue selling cars in California, to produce some zero-emission vehicles for sale.

The film goes on to investigate the results of this initiative - the design, manufacture, success, fightback, and eventual destruction of the electric zero-emissions vehicle.
It specifically chronicles the journey of GM's EV1 vehicle - this was a successful and well-designed vehicle that was seen as the embodiment of the struggle of the electric car to gain commercial traction and support.

I found interesting and also depressing the way various components of industry and commerce seemingly (wittingly or otherwise) conspired to derail the path to success for such a wise and powerful piece of sustainable and forward-looking mass-transport possibility.

As pointed out by a few people in the film itself, I agree that this initiative seemed like a "no-brainer". There seems to be no good reason as to why we should not have embraced the electric car wholeheartedly and done everything at a local and governmental level in order to make these vehicles as successful as possible.

However, this did not occur. The film goes on to investigate what factors may have contributed to the derailing of the electric car - and these causes are diverse, ranging from the obvious (such as the automobile and petroleum industry itself) to the less obvious (such as CARB, the environmental board for California).

I struggle to understand why GM would put so much effort and investment initially into the design and engineering (by all accounts this was a very reliable, well thought-out and well-engineered car) to produce the EV1 and then to only shoot it down not long after. The company was so spiteful towards its final design solution that it crushed nearly all of the working models, just to avoid any interest in the electric car being maintained and perhaps rekindled.

An inspiring aspect of this film is that so many people were ready to become involved in the sustainable car market - there were many willing consumers of the vehicle (even as GM, along with other car manufacturers, insisted that there was not a large or sustainable enough market for these vehicles.) With the large willing consumer base, it was inspiring too to see the passion of various members of the push for EV development. The obvious examples of the marketing lady, the entrepreneurial battery technology developer, and members of the engineering teams that worked on the EV1 stand out, but just as poignant are the scores of unnamed people who protested against GM's moves to eventually remove from the market and then to destroy the EV1.

In closing, I think above all this film shows strongly both the good and bad sides to human nature - the very creative, ingenious and positive moves we can make through individuals, be they in design, engineering, science, technology, or indeed any other avenue of progress - dichotomised against the unprogressive, rigid, and blatantly obstinate constructs of humanity - the fact we have worked ourselves into a situation where such a positive concept for progress can be destroyed by the actions of a few working for self-interest is depressing at best. Self-interest is indeed a powerful motivating force for society - and I might say necessary for progress. However the length and manner of which the large companies went about obstructing progress is, to my mind, perverse in the extreme. I hope not to see a repeat.

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