Who un-killed the electric car?

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It seems that in the last few years we have seen an absolute surge in the number of electric cars on the market. One source I found pointed out that the number of electric cars sold globally per year in 2012 is the same as the amount sold per week in 2021. That is a 5,200% increase in 9 years and quite astounding. One year later, I (very much anecdotally) seem to be noticing more and more electric cars on the road than in 2021, and I think it’s safe to say this is one “fad” that is here to stay.

Some readers may remember that the electric vehicle craze almost took off decades ago, back in 1996. That is when the “EV1” was first produced by General Motors (GM), an auto manufacturer known for producing a large selection of car brands at the time, with names like Chevrolet and Buick surviving to this day.

The EV1 (“EV” for “electric vehicle” and “1” for “the first”) was by no means the first electric vehicle ever conceived, but it was certainly the first ever mass-produced electric vehicle made by a large automobile manufacturer. The company did not build the vehicle without coercion. It was built after a mandate from the California Air Resources Board ordered the seven major automobile manufacturers to develop at least one electric car option as a condition of being able to sell the rest of their fleet in the state of California.

There were about 2,500 EV1s made between 1996 and 1999 and there was general consensus amongst those who had the privilege to lease the EV1 is that it was a great car. Many celebrities leased one, presumably to associate themselves with an image of environmental sustainability, as celebrities often do. It reportedly offered a smooth ride, sleek interior and good reliability. Of course, its battery did not have nearly the range of modern electric cars. The first generation battery could provide about 97 km per charge, while the second generation battery boasted an improvement to about 161 km of range.

Then, as quickly as the electric car was born, it was gone. In 2003, GM discontinued the EV1, but not as subtly as most cars are discontinued. Since there were never any EV1s sold (all were leased), the company repossessed all of the cars, and cancelled all leases. Countless owners protested, knowing that their perfectly functioning cars would likely be crushed, and most were.

California laws had changed to allow the production of fuel efficient cars, hybrid cars, and alternative fuel source cars as acceptable ways to meet environmental standards, which meant that producing an electric model was no longer required. GM claimed that since parts must be stocked for new car models by law for at least 15 years after the initial release, keeping the relatively small number of EV1s in circulation would be too costly. The company donated about 40 cars to museums under the stipulation that they never be driven on public roads again.

While GM’s explanation of why the cars were discontinued makes sense, far more sinister theories are put forth in a 2006 documentary, “Who Killed the Electric Car?” The film suggests that oil companies pressured GM into sabotaging the car in ways that would not be obvious. This theory may hold some weight as well. Those who are tech-savvy can go on YouTube and search for two old television commercials which advertised the EV1. The commercials are, in a word, creepy. One might mistake them for openings from a horror movie.

One begins during a thunderstorm, with ominous music and various small appliances coming to life in the dead of night to worship the car. The other, arguably even worse, features strange narration atop dissonant music, and a bunch of human silhouettes on concrete for which there is no explanation. Both commercials briefly feature the car’s rear – long thought to be its least attractive angle – and neither shows the front. Both of the commercials fail to show the car actually being driven. Many have accused GM of making these commercials intentionally bad because of pressure from oil stakeholders, but we may never know if this was the case. If you have internet access, I highly recommending looking up the commercials and judging for yourself.

Now, in 2022, the electric car industry appears to be booming. So who “un-killed” the electric car? It is somewhat amusing to think that if big oil companies shut the EV1 down, they don’t dare try to do the same with electric cars now. With gasoline and diesel so unaffordable for so many people, oil companies really don’t have much leverage left. People are also far more environmentally conscious now. Of course, that raises the great debate about whether electric cars are more environmentally friendly in the first place.

It can be argued that large batteries require heavy mining of precious metals such as lithium. It can be argued that the plastic components of electric cars are still made from oil. It can be argued that much of the electricity used to charge electric cars is still produced from gas or nuclear power plants. Obviously, we still have far to go, but a car with an alternative fuel type is surely a welcome addition to the automotive industry, even if we are not ready for it to be a total replacement for gasoline and diesel cars. For now, I must say “cheers” to the electric car. There is no greater feat than rising from the dead.

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