Electric Cars

I found myself watching Who Killed the Electric Car? last night, and it’s quite an interesting little movie.

One thing that’s hinted at in the film, but not really fleshed out, is the idea that electric cars are a really, really disruptive technology. Like any disruptive technology, they create a whole new class of winners and losers. And, just like health care reform, land use reform, or just about any large-scale government intervention, the existing winners will fight like hell to preserve the status quo (Iraq, anyone?).

Moving to electric cars would have several ramifications. Most obviously, electric utilities would replace oil companies as our primary transportation energy provider. Electric utilities tend to be heavily-regulated quasi-public entities, much more so than oil companies. On the minus side, electricity in the U.S. tends to come from coal. On the plus side, though, upgrading a single power plant to cleaner technology — hydro, nuclear, wind, etc. — will instantly make the whole transportation grid more carbon-friendly (instead of, say, increasing CAFE standards and waiting 10 years for people to buy new cars).

Also, the film makes the point that electric cars are simpler and much easier to maintain. This is great for consumers, but terrible for auto dealers, who make much more money from their service departments than they do from their sales floors. Add in the cost of re-training and re-certifying service techs, and you can see why auto dealers would prefer the status quo.

Finally, the auto companies, understandably, hated the idea that the government would pick be picking the winning technology, as the state of California seemed to be doing with the electrics, so they fought it like hell. Governments should never be in the business of picking technological winners and losers. Instead it should create the rules of the market (i.e. “vehicles must emit fewer than X particulates of CO2”) and let the technology follow from that.

The subject of the film, the GM EV1, was introduced in the late 90s when gas was still $1.40 or so per gallon and rechargable batteries were of the lead-acid variety that long-time laptop owners will remember as providing a stunning 30 minutes of battery life. With gas hitting $4/gallon, and Litium-ion batteries — such as thosed used in the Prius* — providing the power, it might be time to look at EVs again.

So how would you do it in a way that prevents the oil companies and car companies from killing it? Well, I think the EV1 provides some interesting lessons. First, as I said above, government has to set up the market correctly, which means pricing gasoline appropriately, facilitating charging stations, and generally not doing things that get in the way. Next, customers need to be educated about the idea that they could have different cars for different purposes. The EV1 is not a good car for the family vacation, but it’s fine for commuting, getting groceries, etc.

GM is prepping a new electric car, the Chevy Volt, for a possible 2010 launch. Right now it’s vaporware, but assuming they get it right, it could be a game-changer. CEO Rick Waggoner said that killing the EV1 was the biggest mistake he made, which is reassuring.

Critically speaking, the film is not a great documentary. There are gaping holes in the logic (such as the use of street interviews and anecdotes to “prove” that there was massive demand for the EV1), and the tone is uneven. But it’s an interesting story, one worth hearing.

* Update 3/25/08: The Prius uses NiMH batteries, but Toyota is experimenting with Li-Ion batteries for use down the road.

Photo by Flickr user Corvair Owner, used under a Creative Commons license.