‘Who killed the Electric Car?’

by Jim Longworth

Like many of you I love to watch documentaries, especially those which investigate or uncover various abuses of power by big government or big business. Last week I viewed a DVD of the award winning film, Who Killed the Electric Car? by Chris Paine. I took particular interest in the subject matter because in the early 1990s I produced a number of television news stories and educational videos designed to create interest in EVs. Back then, companies such as Virginia Power and North Carolina Power were big proponents of EVs  because, after all, the vehicles ran on batteries that required electric charging every 100 miles or so. I witnessed a number of EV demonstrations, including a competition at Richmond International Raceway where high school students designed and raced their electric vehicles in a NASCAR-style event. I was convinced that soon, every home in America would own at least one EV. And why not? Battery technology  was improving, enabling the cars to go farther on a single charge. The vehicles were energy efficient, quiet and powerful. And they were clean. Yet despite this win/win for America, electric cars were, in the words of Chris Paine, “murdered.”  And that brings me back to his documentary which helped to explain why my predictions were so far off-base. One hundred years ago there were actually more electric cars on the road than were gasoline cars. But consumers became enamored with the more powerful, longer range internal combustion machines and EVs soon disappeared from the landscape. That is, until 1990. That was the year the California Air Resources Board passed a Zero Emissions program which sent GM and a few other automakers scrambling to get EVs in the hands of a few high-profile left-coast drivers. But, according to Paine, GM in particular never intended to comply with the Zero Emissions Program. Their EV production was to be a temporary gesture.  Nevertheless, Californians clamored for EVs. The few who received them were only allowed to lease the high tech cars, while thousands of other consumers were made to wait for production to catch up to demand. It never did. It was a technology whose time had come. By 1990 we had become dependent on foreign oil (although President Dum Dum didn’t acknowledge that dependence until 2006), and we were consuming it like there was no tomorrow. Every gallon of gasoline burned was producing 19 pounds of carbon dioxide into the air. EVs were the answer to a prayer, but GM wasn’t much for listening to prayers. The big automakers sued California and had the Zero Emissions Program killed. All of those wonderful leased electric cars were snatched back from the thousands of satisfied customers, who were not allowed to purchase their vehicles no matter how much money or celebrity they had. Clearly, GM and others wanted EVs out of sight and out of mind. Suddenly EVs had disappeared again for the second time in the same century and once again, automakers and oil companies flourished, especially the latter. A recent comparison of oil company profits reveals that the giants of crude made $33 billion in 2003, $ 47 billion in 2004 and $64 billion in 2005. Even worse, today we allow our military to protect those obscene profits by fighting to secure foreign oil. And so while men and women in uniform die to preserve oil profits, we consumers back home are played for suckers. You can count on gas prices soaring during summer months when we really need to travel, then dropping just before a congressional election. Once again, electric vehicles had been taken from us, not because of lack of demand (GM will disagree), but because it would have cost automakers a fortune to reconfigure their traditional forms of mass production, and because it would have diminished oil industry profits. Yes, there are hybrids and hydrogen cell cars being introduced, but neither is as energy efficient or as environmentally friendly as the EVs. And with politicians promoting these technologies, you can be sure that they will never catch on so long as the oil lobbies control congress. It is sad and ironic that as we celebrate our nation’s independence this week, we are still an enslaved people. We are enslaved by a government who taxes our savings not once, but multiple times. We are enslaved by oil companies who have paid politicians to look the other way when they jack up gas prices. And we are enslaved by automakers who refuse to let us choose a truly alternative form of transportation that would help to clean our air and our lungs. Kudos to Chris Paine for making us confront our plight. Now he just needs to produce a film that tells us how to fix it.

Jim Longworth is host of “Triad Today,” which can be seen Friday mornings at 6:30 a.m. on ABC 45 (cable channel 7), and Sunday nights at 10 p.m.