Freedom, Electric Cars, and Range

One could argue that the defining characteristic of the 20th-century American driving experience is freedom—and as long as you have your own car and a full tank of gas, you’ve got plenty of it. The privately owned vehicle offers the ability to go where you want, when you want, as quickly as you want—and as far as the seemingly endless American highway will take you.

If you buy this premise, then the electric car of the 1990s—such as GM’s EV1, Honda’s EV Plus, Toyota’s RAV4 EV, and Ford’s Th!nk and Ranger EV—wasn’t the proverbial ticket to ride. These electric cars relied entirely on rechargeable batteries, unlike today’s hybrid gas-electric cars that combine a conventional gasoline engine with an electric motor and batteries. An electric drive is fast, efficient, very quiet, and fun. There was only one problem: a single charge of that fun lasted, give or take, only 100 miles. As the energy in these 20th-century EVs was depleted, the driver had to think about getting back home to refill the batteries with electric fuel supplied by a socket—a process that could take seven to eight hours.

Compare that to a gas-powered vehicle. Running low on fuel? No worries. Pull into one of the 170,000+ gas stations dotting the landscape, and in about five minutes, you’re good for another 300 or 400 miles of freedom.

Forget for a moment that most American motorists drive less than 40 miles per day—well within the capability of today’s electric car technology—and that there are numerous environmental and social benefits to an electric car. What if you really wanted to take a weekend trip from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, or New York to D.C.? Sure, you could take the other car in the driveway or rent a car for the weekend, but the prospect of a slight impingement on transportation freedom—real or imagined—was all that EV detractors needed to kill California’s zero-emission mandates that ushered in the all-too-brief electric car period from 1996 to 2003. That and a few million dollars.

The carmakers teamed up with oil companies to wage a multi-million dollar lobbying campaign to fight the California mandates. In short order, the California Air Resources Board backed down from its requirement that 2 percent of the vehicles produced for sale in California had to be zero-emissions vehicles in 1998, increasing to 5 percent in 2001 and 10 percent in 2003.

So what happened to the 4,000 battery-powered ZEVs placed in California by major automakers between 1998 and 2003? Most of the cars were leased rather than sold. Despite the overwhelming enthusiasm and advocacy of electric car drivers, Ford, GM, Honda, and Toyota reclaimed the vehicles from lessees. The companies scrapped their electric vehicle programs, and wastefully and wantonly crushed or shredded their electric vehicles. Today, not a single EV is offered by the major auto manufacturers.

Freedom, and Electric Cars, Revisited

The most notorious of the EV-car crushers was General Motors. The sad story of its electric vehicle, the EV1, and the EV1s’ owners, was immortalized in Chris Paine’s 2006 documentary, "Who Killed the Electric Car?" But the story is not over. Three short years after GM demolished its electric car program and nearly every individual electric vehicle, the company’s leadership has apparently had a change of heart, which could signal the re-emergence of the electric car on American roads.

In June 2006, Rick Wagoner, GM’s chief executive officer, told Motor Trend magazine that "axing the EV1 electric-car program and not putting the right resources into hybrids" was the biggest mistake of his tenure. In late November, Bob Lutz, GM’s vice chairman, spoke about the company’s commitment to "the electrification of the automobile." Days later, at the 2007 Los Angeles Auto Show, Wagoner voiced "serious concerns about energy supply, energy availability, sustainable growth, the environment, even national security—issues that, collectively, have come to be called energy security."

Did Mr. Wagoner and Mr. Lutz suddenly go green? A desire to hug trees or rewrite the political history of oil dependency is not likely behind GM’s new promise to bring back electric cars. Instead, some or all of these factors influenced their decision:

  • GM’s public relations disaster embodied by the documentary "Who Killed the Electric Car?"
  • Rising public awareness about the realities of climate change, and the effects of automobile emissions on global warming
  • Roller-coaster gas prices in 2005 and 2006, in which many consumers abandoned the largest, most gas-guzzling vehicles
  • Rapid adoption of hybrid gas-electric vehicles; big public relations points for the Toyota Prius and other Toyota hybrids; and the possibility that the future Prius models could offer EV-like plug-in recharging capabilities
  • Signs of technology improvements in rechargeable batteries, promising longer driving ranges and quicker charge times; and promises of increased government support for better batteries
  • The need to fend off Toyota from overtaking GM as the technology leader (mindspace) and largest car company in the world (market space). Toyota is already the more profitable of the two, by far.
  • The emergence of Tesla Motors and other small, independent electric sports car companies, promising to reinvent the auto industry

Despite the recent buzz around electric cars, the American car dealership showroom lacks a single full battery-electric vehicle (or a plug-in hybrid, which would come close to offering the same electric-drive benefits). Years will pass before such a vehicle is accessible and affordable to most consumers. Nonetheless, it looks as if we’ve reached a turning point: the auto industry is devoting serious time and resources to producing cars which combine the freedom to go anywhere with the freedom from oil addiction.