Saturday, July 08, 2006

"Who killed the electric car?"

Every now and then, if we're paying careful attention, we get a glimpse of how innovation can dramatically change the future. I'm not talking about how the newest generation of cell phone can improve our social life, but actually witnessing the possibility of a world that was previously unimaginable. For me, that moment came in the parking lot of Michigan State University in 1997 when I had the rare opportunity to drive General Motors delightful electric sports car, the EV1. That's me smiling behind the wheel in the above picture.

Fast, sleek and silent, driving the EV1 was like slipping out of a dream and into the future. From the minute I first slid into elegant leather seats and keyed in the five-digit run code, I knew that I was experiencing something unique. I waited for the sound of the car's engine revving to life, only to realize, rather sheepishly, that there was no engine noise. The only indicator that the car's fully electric engine was running was the single digital display monitor.

As I shifted into drive and headed out of the parking lot, a muted hum, akin to a very distant sewing machine, rose and fell with the speed of the car. The only other sound that the car made was a beeper alarm that was triggered by the turn signals. The car ran so quietly, the alarm had been installed as a warning to pedestrians.

Once on the main road, I hit the accelerator and the car surged effortless to 100 km/hour, a speed I could have maintained for an hour and a half before the car's battery pack would need recharging. The car performed beautifully on its self-sealing, puncture resistant tires, installed because there was no room to carry a spare tire in the tiny two-seater. I turned up the car's fine stereo system, sat back and enjoyed the ride.

I was ready to buy the car right on the spot, but unfortunately, I couldn't. Nor could anyone else. The EV1, General Motors' beautiful, functional and environmentally-sound sports car was never sold. Introduced in 1996 on a lease-only basis, the car was only ever available in California.

Sadly, I'm one of the very few people outside of California who actually had a chance to drive the EV1. When I test drove it in 1997, it was explained that the car's limited distribution was because the design engineers still had to work on how to improve the cars battery function in cold weather. I was assured that it was only a matter of time before the EV1 would be made available in more rugged climates.

It never happened. And yet despite the tiny market where it was available, the EV1 was a resounding success. Anyone lucky enough to lease one, loved it. While its two-seats and very limited cargo space disqualified it from being a family vehicle, there was a huge market for the EV1 as a commuter car. And yet in 2000, one year after the company purchased the Hummer name brand, GM Vice-president Harry Pearce announced that there was "no particular need" for the company to continue building electric cars. In 2003, the company started recalling all leased vehicles, claiming that it could longer provide parts for service. Those unwilling to relinquish their magical electric cars got home visits from tow trucks sent to impound the vehicles.

Activists who offered GM $ 1.9 million US to buy the cars outright were soon dismayed to discover that the entire fleet had been crushed, thus ending one very bright and shining moment in automotive history. Not surprisingly, the demise of the EV1 had nothing to do with the car's functionality, and everything to do with the oil industry that stood to lose billions of dollars if the idea of the electric vehicle really took off.

Ironically, the annihilation of the EV1 comes at a time when the price of gas and concern about the very real impact of climate change has even the most stalwart SUV owner starting to think about fuel efficiency and alternatives to the gas-guzzlers that currently clog our highways. Sadly, their concern is too little, and way too late, to save the magical EV1.


This week marks the release of the Sony Pictures Classics film, "Who killed the electric car?" While it's unlikely that the film will be coming to a theatre near you,

This week, to mark the launch of "Who killed the electric car?", Treehugger TV, an online environmentally responsible news source, is featuring a special segment on the movie. To view, go to

NEXT WEEK: Intelligent fun - the Mercedes-Benz Smart Car.


Blogger Smart_AJ said...

ZAP ZP(NYSE) sells a 100% electric city car. So if you are just commuting within a city you could purchase one of those. Check out their website

July 12, 2006 12:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Suzanne
great article. I saw the film at the Bloor Cinema last week which was important as a description of the folly of the decision makers. My concerns about the supply of electriciy for fuel were alleviated when they showed the potential for supply from solar and wind power.
I hope the film is getting good distribution.
Good stuff!

September 03, 2006 8:52 PM  

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