Tell me again: who killed the electric car?



The controversy surrounding the ill-fated EV-1, the electric car that General Motors launched with much fanfare in 1996, seems a little long-in-the-tooth for these days of environmental and economic apocalypse. But isn’t it worth re-addressing the conspiracy theories? Could it be that ‘big oil’ bolstered by a boosterist economic climate and a Republican administration sunk to the hindquarters in the corporate boardrooms of America, really scuppered a product that could have been the true herald of a carbon neutral America? Could the original EV-1 have been as good as Tom Hanks (the universal voice of reason for the American liberal) said it was? Surely there will be boffins and CEOs in Detroit as I write frantically drawing up plans for a new depression-busting electric car that will drag America and its auto industry from the brink of economic collapse. Surely the time is right for a mass-market electric vehicle that will appeal to real drivers and lovers of the automobile as fetish object. The political and economic reality of things, as these two excerpts help us understand, is incredibly complicated.

According to Californian academic David Spurling, in around fifteen years it is expected that there will be two billion vehicles driving around the planet. If even 60 percent of these vehicles are as polluting as the average contemporary vehicle, it means by most accepted estimates, our current emissions targets will be laughably out of line – and climate change may have gone way over tipping point – with disastrous consequences. The technology to build exciting, desirable non-pollutant cars has been there for a long time. The real problem lies in rallying the investment in the infrastructure needed to facilitate the widespread marketing, sales and distribution of electric vehicles, plug-in electric hybrids, fuel-cell driven vehicles and other emissions free motors. It perhaps then shouldn’t be surprising that the EV-1 might have been scuppered by an industry savvy enough to know that the world wasn’t ready for such a revolutionary product. The question is; where do we go from here? And how does Barack Obama’s ‘bail out’ and the ‘green stimulus’ effect the wider world? Because of the two billion cars that are expected to be clogging up the world’s highways by 2020, only a fraction of them will be driven by Americans.