Times Online article - How electric cars came back from the dead.
"The big makers have dumped them, sparking conspiracy theories, but little firms have filled the gap, says Joseph Dunn of The Sunday Times
As conspiracy theories go it’s a cracker: in the name of profit the oil industry, politicians and car makers conspired to discredit and then kill off the GM EV1, an electric car marketed in the late 1990s by General Motors as the saviour of the planet but then suddenly withdrawn. Three years ago almost all remaining models were crushed in the Arizona desert.
Who Killed the Electric Car?, a new film set for release in Britain next month, claims to have uncovered a sinister plot to sabotage electric vehicles and ensure that eco-friendly motorists are forced to carry on using petrol.
The film, directed by Chris Paine, adopts the form of a murder investigation and takes on the car industry in the same way that Michael Moore took aim at the gun lobby in Bowling for Columbine and Morgan Spurlock nailed McDonald’s in Super Size Me. It has already caused consternation in America, where it was released last month, prompting howls of indignation from GM bosses, who claim the film is biased and inaccurate.
The story begins in 1997 when GM began to lease 800 brand new electric vehicles to drivers in California and Arizona. The cars were part of GM’s $1 billion development programme in response to a 1990 mandate that 10% of cars in California should be emissions-free by 2003. However, at the last minute the state backed off after the car industry, led by GM, sued. The company then began recalling the cars.
In the official version, put out by GM and largely echoed in the media, the electric car failed because it simply couldn’t attract enough customers. The battery didn’t give the car sufficient range and took too long to recharge.
In the film, which features interviews with former GM employees, environmentalists and celebrities such as Tom Hanks and Mel Gibson, Paine accuses the car industry and its suppliers of cynically killing off the EV1 to protect its existing models.
“The company made these cars because of the new law,” says Paine, “but behind the scenes they went after that law and succeeded in changing it so it said they only had to make cars in accordance with customer demand. Once this happened their advertising just flipped to discourage interest and suppress demand.”
It was no coincidence, Paine says, that the decision by the Californian Air Resources Board to ditch electric cars in favour of hybrid technology was taken by its chairman, Alan Lloyd, who was given the directorship of the new fuel cell institute.
The film will have some resonance in this country where no big manufacturer currently sells all-electric cars. All of their early efforts have been mysteriously discontinued. Ford’s Th!nk car was unplugged a couple of years ago. Ditto the Peugeot Partner and Citroën’s electric Berlingo.
The Th!nk was launched originally as a revolutionary form of private transport — an emissions-free, cheap-energy way of commuting to work. In 1999 Ford bought Pivco (Personal Independent Vehicle Company), the Norwegian firm that created the car, and trumpeted its environmental credentials. Three years later it dumped the project and destroyed many of the remaining cars. The move prompted criticism from environmentalists. Ford later sold the company, which continued as Th!nk Nordic until early this year, when it was declared bankrupt after building around 1,000 Th!nk cars.
Likewise the Partner and the Berlingo were hailed as new electric delivery vehicles ideally suited for stop-start traffic conditions in the city. With the growth in online grocery shopping and home deliveries it seemed as though they would revolutionise the market in small commercial vehicles.
So why were such promising projects junked? Ford said it was “uneconomic” to progress further. Citroën was a little more forthright. After some pressing it revealed that what it hoped would be a radical replacement for the white van had become a white elephant. It anticipated selling hundreds of the new electric vehicles but its sales forecasts were wildly out — in 2005 it sold just 11.
So it seems the electric car was killed by apathy, not conspiracy. Nonetheless, city traffic planners, most notably in London, are determined to tilt the market in favour of the electric car. Zero-emission vehicles are exempt from the congestion charge and an increasing number of councils are giving discounted parking incentives. The government’s recently announced road tax exemption policy for electric cars and the record price of petrol and diesel are also making electric vehicles suddenly more attractive.
So were the big manufacturers too quick in abandoning electric cars and will they rush to embrace them again? Among the hulks of horsepower on display at the British International Motor Show this week are an unprecedented number of new electric vehicles, and they are attracting a surprising amount of attention.
The unveiling of the Smart EV and Mega City Nice (No Internal Combustion Engine) as well as a first appearance at the show for the Reva G-Wiz is, claim the makers, confirmation that electric-powered vehicles really do have a future on British roads.
Smart, the embattled brand owned by DaimlerChrysler that just a few months ago was facing an uncertain future after poor sales forced it to drop two of its models, hopes the unveiling of an electric version of its Fortwo city car will boost its public profile.
The Smart EV, which has been developed in partnership with Zytek, a British-based electric engine specialist, is being leased to corporate clients such as the Knight Frank estate agency for £375 a month as part of a trial run with a view to marketing the car for private sales in the future. It has a top speed of 70mph and a range of 72 miles on one charge, making it on paper the most user-friendly and practical of all electric cars.
“I think we have reached the tipping point with these vehicles now and there is a market that will sustain them,” says Jeremy Simpson of DaimlerChrysler. “The increased congestion charge and high fuel prices as well as talk of air quality targets make them more viable than ever. I have had more interest this year on the back of the EV than at any other motor show for the past five years.”
The Mega City Nice, also launched at the show, is an ultra-lightweight model with a range of 50 miles and a top speed of 40mph, while the G-Wiz is Britain’s bestselling electric car. Built by Reva in Bangalore, India, and distributed here by GoinGreen, 600 have been sold since it was launched in 2004. It costs £7,999 and GoinGreen is anticipating another slew of orders after its high-profile appearance at the show.
“In some ways I am surprised it has been left to small companies such as ours to create the market for electric cars, and I think you have to ask why it hasn’t happened before,” says Keith Johnston, managing director of GoinGreen. “The answer is that it is not in the interests of auto companies and certainly not in the interests of oil companies — there are huge vested interests to maintain the status quo. When the whole industry is based on the internal combustion engine it is hard to suddenly turn that around and reinvest in something else, especially for public companies which look for short-term profit.
“That’s why it has been left to someone like us to come in fresh and effect the change. The market might still be small, but the electric car genie is out of the lamp now.” http://driving.times...2280024,00.html