I Killed the Electric Car

A look at the GM-bashing electric car documentary.

Charles Murray

January 1, 2007

3 Min Read
The EV1 electric car was based on the 1990 GM Impact concept car.General Motors Co.

How much would you pay for a car with a 70-mile range and a six-hour refueling time?

I ask that question because I just finished watching the recently released documentary film, Who Killed the Electric Car? The film, which takes a hard look at the demise of battery-powered electric vehicles, designates a long list of guilty parties for the EV's "murder." Among them: the federal government, oil companies, hydrogen fuel cells, the California Air Resources Board and ... the consumer.

That last one jumped out at me because, admittedly, I'm one of those consumers. Years ago, I looked at pure electric vehicle technology and decided it wasn't for me. True, General Motors' EV1 (the main focus of the movie) was fun to drive. Its acceleration was amazing. In many ways, it was a marvel of engineering.

But electric vehicles had a couple of serious flaws. The first was range: Some vehicles could go 70 miles on a charge; the best could go twice that. (For more information, read our 10.05.98 story "Out of Juice") Then there was the second flaw: Depending on who you believed, recharge times could be as long as six hours - there was an argument on this point, but recharge times were always measured in hours.

So I did a little calculating. Since I made a 300-mile trek from Chicago to Detroit half-dozen times per year, I used that as a measuring stick. Stopping four times to refuel, and taking five hours per stop, an EV could drive me from Chicago to Detroit in about 25 hours. With an internal combustion engine-based car, it took me five hours.

I did similar calculations for several other frequent trips. From Chicago to Bloomington, IL, the driving time would jump from two hours to seven. From Chicago to Rock Island, IL, it went from two-and-a-half to 12 hours.

The movie mentions the range issue but, strangely, detours around the larger issue of recharge times. Instead, EV proponents in the film repeat a mantra that 90 percent of all driving takes place within the normal range of an EV. Then, by extension, they conclude 90 percent of consumers don't need a vehicle with longer range.

"Given the limited range, it can only meet the needs of 90 percent of the population," notes actor Ed Begley Jr. during a facetious moment at a mock funeral for an EV. In similar moments, the movie hammers home the point that consumers only "think" they need longer range.

That's where I take issue. I'll buy their point about driving, but not about drivers. If I need to take a longer trip every 10 days (i.e. 10 percent of my driving time) does it mean I'll need to rent another car for all those occasions?

In truth, that's an absurdly simple point. Moreover, it's a buying decision consumers are capable of making for themselves, no matter how many TV stars Hollywood flings at them.

Every year, consumers base their buying decisions on the inclusion of features that are much less significant than 70-mile driving ranges and six-hour recharge times. They look at engines, brakes, wheels, airbags, electrical systems, and even the availability of DVD players, cup holders, and comfortable seating. Some consumers even buy toys, tools, and appliances for similarly "insignificant" reasons.

Up until now, they probably thought that was their prerogative as buyers.

I guess they didn't realize they were committing murder when they did it.

About the Author(s)

Charles Murray

Charles Murray is a former Design News editor and author of the book, Long Hard Road: The Lithium-Ion Battery and the Electric Car, published by Purdue University Press. He previously served as a DN editor from 1987 to 2000, then returned to the magazine as a senior editor in 2005. A former editor with Semiconductor International and later with EE Times, he has followed the auto industry’s adoption of electric vehicle technology since 1988 and has written extensively about embedded processing and medical electronics. He was a winner of the Jesse H. Neal Award for his story, “The Making of a Medical Miracle,” about implantable defibrillators. He is also the author of the book, The Supermen: The Story of Seymour Cray and the Technical Wizards Behind the Supercomputer, published by John Wiley & Sons in 1997. Murray’s electronics coverage has frequently appeared in the Chicago Tribune and in Popular Science. He holds a BS in engineering from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

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