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The seductive message of Who Killed the Electric Car?

The documentary "Who Killed the Electric Car?" is an excellent murder mystery filled with dislikable corporate and government villains. It also features heroic engineers, salespeople and average citizens as well as a sprinkling of good-looking actors and actresses who play, well, themselves. As I watched the film recently for the first time, I found myself doing something that I don't normally do: cheering for Hollywood celebrities and their cars.

In this case the cars were the slick electric ones produced by General Motors and dubbed EV1. They were marketed in California in the late 1990s in anticipation of having to meet a zero-emissions requirement for a small portion of GM cars sold in the state. For those who don't recall what happened, the auto companies sued California to get the state to rescind the requirement, and they succeeded. The EV1s which had been leased, but never sold, were recalled and literally sent to the crusher despite the valiant efforts of those who leased them including prominent celebrities.

The complex tale of how this all came about is the substance of "Who Killed the Electric Car?", and it is a compelling story of greed and skullduggery. The film is an excellent piece of entertainment and journalism as far as it goes. But the subtext of the documentary is a message that has made the film as popular as it is misleading. The implied message of "Who Killed the Electric Car?", whether intended or not, is that but for the nasty auto and oil company executives and their collaborators in government, we could all just drive off into the future in electric cars while solving energy depletion and global warming. In short, technology will save us if only the corporations will let it.

Having said this, I am a strong advocate of electrifying our transportation system. One of electricity's virtues is that it can come from many different sources, but most importantly from renewable ones such as wind and solar. Another virtue is that we have an existing electrical infrastructure. There would be no need, for example, for expensive new hydrogen filling stations to service new hydrogen-powered cars. But it seems highly doubtful to me that as fossil fuel supplies decline, the world will be able to provide an electric car to everyone who wants one. Electricity, after all, is produced largely by burning coal and natural gas. Even oil is still used to produce electricity in many countries. If governments decide as a matter of policy to encourage the purchase of personal automobiles powered by electricity, the most likely source of that electricity will be coal. Hundreds of millions of electric cars on Chinese and Indian roadways would probably be better than ones powered by petroleum, but not by much when it comes to global warming and air pollution.

In addition, there are costs than cannot be measured in gallons or degrees of global warming. The automobile and its attendant infrastructure have been responsible in large part for the hollowing out of American cities, costly sprawl development, millions of roadway deaths and injuries, and a harried way of life that emphasizes speed above all else.

And therefore, the kind of electrification of transport I favor is the electrification and broad expansion of public transportation. Given the energy constraints we face, only electrified public transportation could provide us with widely available transport using renewably generated electricity. There are, of course, proposals to use wind power in combination with plug-in hybrid cars; but this is only a partial step. The simple truth is that the scale of renewable electric generation required to power private automobiles would be so vast that it seems doubtful it could be built within any timeframe that would meet the near-term challenges of fossil fuel depletion. If we had 30 years, perhaps we could do it. But, increasingly it is looking like we will have very much less time than that.

For those who must use private automobile transportation all or some of the time, owning an all-electric or hybrid vehicle may be a wise choice. But buyers of hybrids especially should know that half of all the energy a car will ever use has already been used by the time you buy it. The energy was used to mine and refine the metals, to extract and refine the petroleum used for the plastics and the rubber, to stamp out the myriad parts, to ship them to an assembly plant, to assemble the car, to ship it to a dealer and to house it at the dealership, all while housing, feeding and providing transportation for all the people who do these things.

The energy and materials required to replace our current fleet of autos with more efficient hybrid or all-electric ones, to build the necessary capacity in wind and solar, and to feed and house all those engaged in this project may not come very easily in the energy-starved world we are about to enter. As Dmitry Podborits explains, "[T]o implement renewable energy solution[s] on such a scale that would make a difference, you need to have an energy-rich economy to begin with. You also need to have a clear focus and understanding of the scope of the problem, as well as the political will and the grass-root support to go through a war-like economic development effort that will strain every economic muscle in such a society." Perhaps we will gain such a focus someday. But, will we gain it while we still have an energy-rich economy?

So my advice is to go see "Who Killed the Electric Car?" if you haven't already. And if you want to, hiss at all the greedy executives and malign government regulators. In retrospect they look more pitiful, than sinister as we watch the Japanese automakers run away with the hybrid and soon-to-be plug-in hybrid auto market. Cheer the good celebrities and the common folk who valiantly try to do their part to bring a presumably better technology into American life.

But don't get carried away with the unspoken message that technology will save us. Technology may be one of the many solutions we need to move toward sustainability. But, I find it very doubtful that we will all be able to sit behind the wheel our electric cars and wait for a green techno-utopia to emerge.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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