The Shocking Electric Car Debate

Did General Motors intentionally sabotage sales of its electric EV-1? That’s the contention of Chris Paine’s popular 2006 film Who Killed the Electric Car?, and the issue is still hotly debated. Just about the only thing the various players agree on is that GM leased only 800 of the sleek two-door cars between 1996 and 2000 before pulling the plug.

Some auto industry voices criticize the film, and they’re not all within GM itself. “The movie was terribly one-sided,” says Ernest Batien, a Toyota vice president, in an interview with the Detroit Free Press. “It was not balanced at all.” The suggestion that GM “chose not to make money on a car people wanted to buy in California” is ridiculous, he said.

Paul Scott of the Santa Monica-based Plug-In America, which advocates for battery vehicles, says that GM ran a terrible promotional campaign, and leased only 800 EV-1s because that’s how many were made available. “They had a waiting list of 4,000 or 5,000 names,” he says. GM counters that it contacted the people on the list and that most were unwilling to actually sign leases. It’s unlikely this dispute will be resolved anytime soon.

Although the film focuses on GM, both Toyota (the RAV-4) and Honda (the EV Plus) offered electric cars at the time, and neither one did well. Toyota leased only 342 vehicles and Honda not many more. Who Killed the Electric Car? glosses over the range problem: None of the EVs had a range of more than 100 miles, and that remains a big obstacle for many consumers. The hybrid option, which adds range to a standard gas car, had no trouble becoming established in the marketplace.

GM spent $300 million developing the EV-1, and it seems unlikely it would deliberately sabotage an investment of that scale. I was reporting on electric cars at the time for my book Forward Drive: The Race to Build “Clean” Cars for the Future, and my impression was that the company had a two-pronged strategy. One arm was sincerely promoting the EV-1 to a largely mystified public, and the other was working with the oil industry to defeat California’s clean car rules, which mandated a percentage of battery-powered electric cars (and thus would have been a great help in selling the EV-1). Contradictory? Yes, but that’s how it happened.

The mandates were duly modified to include hybrids and other clean cars, and that left EVs without a consumer base. By 2000, the market was drying up and companies like U.S. Electricar and Solectria were in trouble. Today, EVs are on the rebound and Tesla has sold out the initial offering of its performance-oriented $100,000 roadster. Better batteries are likely to spark a resurgence and the controversy over the EV-1 will become ancient history.

For his part, Who Killed director Chris Paine says he’s more sanguine about GM now, since the company announced both a production plug-in hybrid car (see main story) and a battery electric with a gas motor used solely to keep those batteries charged. “I”m encouraged by GM’s recentannouncement,” Paine said.”But obviously they’ve got to commit to it in more than wordsand Powerpoint.”