Monday, March 26, 2007

Who Killed the Electric Car? Directed by Chris Paine

Who Killed the Electric Car?  Directed by Chris Paine

Who Killed the Electric Car? was a really good documentary. I don’t normally blog about movies, but this one was quite interesting. As the title suggests, the subject is the rise and fall of the EV1, a fully electric car made by GM. While the content is clearly slanted in favor of the EV1, the presentation is non-confrontational and informative—a refreshing change from the accusatory crap that usually passes for documentaries these days. Interestingly, the filmmakers don’t pin the demise of the EV1 on any particular group, but spread the blame (seemingly fairly), over the automakers, oil companies, and the government. They go out of there way to not blame the consumer, but I don’t agree with the reasoning there. While there are many EV enthusiasts and a waiting list always existed for the (limited supply of) vehicles, if the demand was truly that widespread I can’t imagine that both GM and the lawmakers would both walk away. This is of course one of the points of contention into which the movie delves, but no hard numbers are presented and I was left unconvinced of this point.

I was a bit amused at the subtle indignation of the writers that oil companies lined up against the EV. Big oil doesn’t want a challenger in the marketplace? Wow, what a surprise. The natural gas companies fought electricity, steel fought plastics, rail fought the automobile, the entertainment industry fought VCRs and now the internet—why is anyone surprised that oil is fighting electrics? To me, this is a silly argument.

On the other hand, one excellent argument made is that it took laws to force seat belts in cars, enforce gas mileage improvements, and mandate catalytic converters. Will it take a law to get EVs on the road for good? It can’t hurt, but then the product has to provide obvious advantages over current offerings for the marketplace to care. Being better for the environment simply isn’t enough. Electricity beat natural gas without government intervention because it was a clear improvement to consumers. In a world that can’t even agree if global warming is a real issue, a greener car isn’t a killer app. Can you imagine NASCAR running an all-electric race? Bubba wouldn’t stand for it (although I think it could be pretty interesting)!

Towards the end the movie discusses other green friendly alternatives, such as gas-electric hybrids and fuel cells. It avoided all the ethanol silliness, although I was surprised to see no mention of natural gas. Natural gas seems a big deal here in Austin, but if it was mentioned in the movie, I missed it. Interestingly, these other green options don’t get much screen time; electric vehicles are the main focus here.

A friend of mine is busy converting a gas powered car to an electric one, and our conversations have forced me to question many of my stances on electric vehicles. Would I drive one today? My answer is still no, but some of the reasons I’d have given as to why a few months ago I now understand aren’t valid. I have driven a pickup for over fifteen years now, and fill the bed with cargo often enough so I feel justified in owning one. Until recently when I thought of electrics, the image I had was a large version of the toys in which my kids ride around the yard. I couldn’t imagine one that would have the power to tow a trailer or haul a load of dirt. I’ve been corrected in this line of thought: plenty of torque available but at a cost to battery life. So why won’t I use an electric as my primary car? Range.

Range is the killer for an EV in my opinion. The claim is that the range of an electric will meet 90% of the needs of the average driver. 90% feels high (for at least me), but let’s go with it for now. 90% is great, but what do I do for the other 10%? I’m not interested in being a three vehicle family—two electrics for my wife and I for everyday use and an internal combustion for travelling or hauling—but that seems to be the electric answer. When charging stations become prolific on the highways range may cease to be an issue, but I can fill my gas tank in under ten minutes and be on my way right now; if my cell phone and laptop are any indication, I suspect a battery charge will take considerably longer. Coupled with the fact that the more weight you have to move the bigger the drain on the batteries, this is a huge hurdle.

In summary: I still don’t entirely agree that the EV1 got an unfair shake in the marketplace, but this movie certainly made me consider it. If the EV1 had the same or improved perceived value to the average consumer as a traditional car, the EV1 wouldn’t have vanished so quickly. I don’t think electric vehicles are ready for the mainstream quite yet, but they are certainly viable. With technology continuing to advance at a steady clip, it is only a matter of time before we have real alternatives to internal combustion machines. If you are at all interested in this topic, check out this movie!

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