Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 7, 2006

Who Killed the Electric Car?

Filed under: Ecology,Film — louisproyect @ 5:00 pm

Although I don’t recall hearing the word capitalism mentioned once in “Who Killed the Electric Car?”, it is hard to imagine a recent documentary that makes the case against this irrational system as well. Like the documentary “Mondovino” that makes the case against monopoly capital by examining the wine industry–something not usually associated with multinational depredation–“Who Killed the Electric Car?” deals with a seemingly innocuous case study. Why should anybody care that General Motors produced an electric car in the early 90’s and then decided to cease production? It is to the credit of director Chris Paine to not only explain why we should care, but to provide a concrete example of why the capitalist system is so inimical to the long term interests of humanity.

EV-1’s on parade

Using the investigative journalist techniques of a television show like PBS’s “Frontline” (producer Jessie Deeter is a veteran of the show), as well as its somewhat prosaic style, the film interviews a range of transportation experts as well as people who owned the GM EV-1. Among the first group is Ralph Nader, who is as eloquent as ever. The second group includes director Chris Paine, who owned an EV-1 and has never gotten over what amounts to a GM seizure of his leased car.

From their testimony, one is left with the inescapable conclusion that the automobile industry in the USA is subject to irreconcilable contradictions between the industry’s drive for profit and the ordinary citizen’s need to enjoy clean air and to get from point a to point b efficiently. Furthermore, although the film does not explicitly deal with the current crisis of the automobile industry, it certainly suggests that it was inevitable.

In 1992 the California legislature passed a stringent new law based on recommendations from the California Air Resources Board (CARB). By 1998, 2 percent of all new cars sold would have to be pollution-free, which translated to electric vehicles. The percentage would then increase year by year. Although the percentage might seem small, it involved a major cost for the manufacturers since a sizable investment would have to be made for the startup manufacturing facilities whatever the number of cars sold.

Behind these regulations was an understanding that California air was becoming unbreathable. When University of California scientists did postmortems on 100 seemingly healthy young accident victims, they found that 80 percent had serious lung abnormalities and 27 percent had severe lung lesions.

There was not only the immediate threat to one’s lungs; there was also the overarching problem of global warming that had to be addressed. With its vast quantity of internal combustion engine-based transportation, California was a major contributor of greenhouse gases.

Despite its reputation as being technologically backwards, General Motors began producing what everybody, and most especially its owners, regarded as one of the greatest cars ever. The EV-1, which was sold through Saturn dealerships, was both beautiful and fast. Fully charged, it could go 60 miles. For the average urban driver, this was more than adequate. It was also trouble-free. When a battery is the source of power, you don’t have to worry about changing oil filters, let alone spend money on tune-ups or replacing engine parts. In an interview, an auto mechanic who had worked on EV-1’s says that his hands never got dirty.

In essence, this benefit to drivers was exactly what sealed the doom of the EV-1. It turns out that much of General Motors’s profits were derived from the sale of such parts through its Delphi division. After selling a car, there would be a steady stream of revenue as the hapless driver would be forced to spend thousands of dollars on tune-ups and spare parts.

General Motors was not the only corporation that felt threatened by the electric car. The oil companies soon became partners in a conspiracy (yes, the word does apply here) to abort the EV-1. Using their influence on the California Air Resources Board, whose chairman James D. Boyd was on the payroll of a Hydrogen car R&D firm–a competing but ineffective technology–they were able to succeed in having the clean air regulations enacted 4 years earlier scrapped. Boyd’s wife Catherine Reheis-Boyd, was chief of staff for the Western States Petroleum Association and the industry’s registered lobbyist in Sacramento. Although the film does not make the charge, I have no problem doing so: it is safe to assume that Boyd was chosen for the job of running CARB in the same way that George W. Bush puts people in charge of agencies. They must pass the test of knowing where their master’s class interests lie.

Even after the EV-1 met with huge enthusiasm by purchasers early on, GM refused to market the car effectively. It was basically an orphan commodity. Despite this, a kind of subculture grew up around the car that included a number of Hollywood personalities, from Mel Gibson on the right to Tom Hanks on the liberal left. But the real activism to keep the car alive came from ordinary people who believed in the car and whose beliefs can be found on the EV-1 Club’s website: http://ev1-club.power.net/.

The film makes a couple of political mistakes that should not detract from its overall value. It tends to overestimate the Carter administration’s (and by implication Democrats in general) to clean air and the environment. The film relies heavily on interviews with a Carter EPA official, who blames Bush and the oil companies for the death of the electric car. If anything has become clear, it is that the commitment of politicians such as Carter and Gore to “Green” values is mostly verbal.

Finally, the film depicts consumers as being culprits along with GM and the oil companies. By not understanding that electric cars were a better choice than the SUV’s they seem to have an almost sexual attraction to, they amount to “Red State” fools in the Thomas Frank mold. One wonders if the otherwise perceptive film-makers spend much time watching television. During an hour or so of primetime, one is bombarded with ads for SUV’s, including GM’s Hummer which in an unintended irony is depicted as the offspring of a Godzilla-like monster and a giant robot.

“Who Killed the Electric Car” is scheduled for theatrical release later this year and is a must for anybody with a morbid fascination with the irresolvable contradictions of the capitalist system.

Other electric car websites:

http://www.ev1.org/

http://dontcrush.com/

http://www.pbs.org/pov/borders/2004/air/air_ev1.html

 

11 Comments »

  1. The majority of all Marx’s writing was in the form of political critic. He gave no remedies, and many of the “problems” that he theorized for capitalism, are problems that would be intrinsic to any market. Therefore, Marx, and his present day followers are little more than conspiracy theorists and cynics. And you, my friend, are no different.
    I am not only an economist, but was for many years a mechanic, and I must tell you that your interpretation of the evolution of the electric car and its apparent demise is gross with inaccuracies. To begin with, electric cars are not pollutant free. The electricity which powers them still has to be produced somewhere. The difference is that instead of having individual vehicles converting fuels into energy, that same energy is being produced in a power plant somewhere (likely from coal which produces far more carbon dioxide than gasoline). Second, of course the mechanic working on brand new cars didn’t get his hands dirty, when I worked at a dealership my hands never got dirty either (and I was working on Fords)!
    Your conspiracy theories are equally confused. Electric vehicles require maintenance just like every other vehicle out there. However, instead of requiring frequent, inexpensive maintenance like oil changes they need lesser but far more expensive maintenance like having their entire battery (which I assure you is quite large) replaced every few years at a cost of thousands of dollars. Other systems on the ev’s are identical to internal combustion vehicles for example the A/C and would therefore, require the same kind of maintenance at the same intervals.
    And finally, the vehicles were most likely abandoned because of a lack of demand. Sure, you can say that they were widely considered the best vehicles ever and show us a tiny parade of 10 ev’s, but you well know that the demand simply did not exist for a car that can only go 60 miles. Honda and Toyota in their ongoing quest to be considered “green” companies continue to produce their electric cars at a substantial loss. Honda alone loses thousands of dollars on each ev they sell.
    Although I think that Michael Moore would be exceedingly pleased at your brand of journalism, I am disgusted at your blatant disregard for reality and factual evidence. I imagine that you did no research whatsoever into this topic. You should be ashamed to call yourself a journalist.

    Comment by Chris — April 11, 2006 @ 5:41 pm

  2. No need to get so riled up, Chris. It seems to me that between the Hummer and the EV-1, the latter is a lesser evil. However, I am opposed to private transportation in general unless it is a car (of course, electric) that you can borrow like a book from the library but only on a quota basis. Like 3 or 4 weeks a year, for recreational use. We need public transportation, an end to suburbia and a drastic cutback in air travel–all under communism, needless to say.

    Comment by Louis Proyect — April 11, 2006 @ 5:46 pm

  3. Nice review Louis. I saw the movie at Sundance and I thought it was really cool.

    I agree with “Chris” that electric car can create pollution when electricity is created. But I disagree with him because he didn’t say that electricity can be produced without any pollution at all if you have solar panels on your house like we do. And even in our current fossil fuel world when lots of electricity is produced with coal the total emissions is still considerably less then from a gas car according to the California Energy Commission. For one thing, millions of electric cars could charge at night when there is plenty of off-peak power available. Also your critic said that electric car battery packs are still expensive but they are made in small numbers. EIther way, I’ve read studies showing that the cost of ownership of electric cars over time is much less because internal combustion engines have so many systems vs. an electric motor. For one thing, brake pads hardly ever wear out in an electric car because braking energy is used to charge batteries.

    P.S. The Chairman of CARB was Alan Llyod (not James D. Boyd) at the time the electric car program was killed. Llyod was also Chairman of the California Fuel Cell Partnership. When he chaired the CARB meeting that killed electric cars, he voted to change the law in favor of fuel cell vehicles instead.

    James D. Boyd had been Chief Executive Officer of CARB during the development of the electric car program in California but he was no longer at CARB when the program was killed. (In the film he wondered why oil companies were so involved in attempting to kill the electric car program so I think he is one of the “good guys”.)

    Here are biographys I copied from internet:

    Alan Lloyd, former Chair of CARB
    ——————————————————————————–

    Alan C. Lloyd, Ph.D. was appointed as the Secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in December 2004.

    Dr. Lloyd most recently served as the Chairman to the California Air Resources Board appointed by Governor Gray Davis in February 1999 and reappointed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in August 2004. The Air Resources Board (Board), a branch of the California Environmental Protection Agency, oversees a $150 million budget and a staff of nearly 1,000 employees located in northern and southern California.

    As Chairman, Dr. Lloyd was committed to cultivate a mindset and an attitude throughout government, industry and society that zero- and near-zero emission technologies can be put to use now or in the immediate future to help the state meet its air quality goals. He initiated the environmental justice focus within the agency and led the efforts resulting in the adoption of the Environmental Justice Policy and actions to be followed up by the Board.

    Dr. Lloyd served as the Executive Director of the Energy and Environmental Engineering Center for the Desert Research Institute at the University and Community College System of Nevada, Reno. Previously, Dr. Lloyd was the chief scientist at the South Coast Air Quality Management District from 1988 to 1996, where he managed the Technology Advancement office that funded public-private partnerships to stimulate advanced technologies and cleaner fuels.

    Dr. Lloyd has given many presentations to national and international audiences, focusing on the viable future of advanced technology and renewable fuels, with attention to the urban air quality challenges faced by California and to the impact on global climate change. He is a major proponent of alternate fuels, electric drive and fuel cell vehicles eventually leading to a hydrogen economy. Dr. Lloyd has also authored many articles on alternative fuels and air pollution control technology, including Fuel Cells and Air Quality: A California Perspective; Electric Vehicles and Future Air Quality in Los Angeles; Air Quality Management in Los Angeles: Perspectives on Past and Future Emission Control Strategies; and Accelerating Mobile Source Emission Reductions: California’s Experience and Recommendations to Developing Counties.

    Dr. Lloyd was the 2003 Chairman of the California Fuel Cell Partnership and is a co-founder of the California Stationary Fuel Cell collaborative. He is a past chairman of the U.S. Department of Energy Hydrogen Technical Advisory Panel (HTAP).

    Dr. Lloyd, 63, earned both his Bachelor of Science in Chemistry and Ph.D. in Gas Kinetics at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth, U.K.

    James D. Boyd – Biography
    Commissioner, California Energy Commission – Appointment Designation: Economist

    Appointed by Governor Davis
    2/2002 to 1/2007

    Phone: 916-654-3787

    ——————————————————————————–

    James D. Boyd was appointed to the California Energy Commission on February 6, 2002, by Governor Gray Davis. The five members of the Energy Commission are appointed by the Governor to staggered five-year terms and requires Senate confirmation. By law, four of the five members of the Energy Commission are required to have professional training in specified areas – engineering or physical science, environmental protection, economics, and law. One commissioner is appointed from the public at large. Commissioner Boyd fills the economist position.

    He chairs the Energy Commission’s Transportation Committee and oversees Climate Change and International Export Programs. He also chairs the Natural Gas Committee which includes the Energy Commission’s work on Liquified Natural Gas (LNG). He is the Associate Member of the committee overseeing the preparation of the Energy Commission’s 2004 and 2005 Integrated Energy Policy Reports. He also is the Associate Member of the Siting Committee. He chairs the state’s Joint Action Climate Change Team and the state’s Natural Gas Working Group. He serves as the state’s liaison to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. He represents California on the Border Governors’ Conference Energy Worktable. He represents the Energy Commission on the Steering Teams of the California Fuel Cell Partnership and the California Stationary Fuel Cell Collaborative. He serves on the Boards of Directors of WestStart/CALSTART, the Center for Clean Air Policy, and the Board of Advisors of the University of California Davis’ Institute of Transportation Studies.

    Prior to his appointment to the Energy Commission, he served as Chief of Staff to the Secretary of the California Resources Agency. He served 15 years as the Chief Executive Officer of the California Air Resources Board (CARB), directing the nation’s largest state air pollution control program. During this period, CARB led the nation in establishing new pollution control programs for motor vehicles and fuels, toxic air contaminants, consumer products, and industrial and area sources.

    He was vice-president and served on the Board of Directors of the Air and Waste Management Association and served on the Board of the State and Territorial Air Pollution Program Administrators. He has been a government administrator for over thirty years overseeing a variety of public health, environmental, natural resource, scientific, technical, and administrative programs.

    A California native, Commissioner Boyd received his Bachelor of Science degree in Business Administration from the University of California Berkeley. He is a long-time member of the Commonwealth Club of California, and the Air and Waste Management Association. He is certified by the Institute of Professional Environmental Practice as a Qualified Environmental Professional. He resides in Sacramento with his wife Cathy and has three adult children.

    Comment by Alexis Katzman — April 16, 2006 @ 4:17 am

  4. I agree with the gist of Chris’ comments, but also agree that he should calm down a bit. One certainly can’t fault Marx for the specific ills of the internal combustion engine!

    For those who are concerned about the cost and pollution of batteries, as well as the range of EV cars, there is a better option being developed: The air car. It is powered by compressed air (which, depending on how it is compressed, may or may not be very polluting, and holds the promise of fairly rapid recharging at service stations, thus eliminating the 60 mile driving limit.). Check it out: http://www.theaircar.com/

    Some analysts have estimated that the quantity of hot air produced by Congress alone might be sufficient to meet most of the public’s driving needs;-)

    Comment by Malooga — April 17, 2006 @ 11:13 pm

  5. wow. lots of bad facts here….

    But only one set in Chris’ message I really have to refute. The range of the cars then was 120 miles, not 60 miles (that was the THHINK) this is a popular misconception which resulted from massive misinformation.. interestingly when was the last time you saw a massive missinfo campaign against suburbans…

    The cars were never for sale. NEVER they were only available on lease – and were withdrawn early as soon as the Bush administration lawsuit drove California to change it’s mandate. As for demand – how can there be demand for something which is not available. there were only 800 made, even though there was a 5-10k person waiting list (confirmed on camera in the movie) which I was refused to be added to by 4 different auto dealers!

    I’d say they did everything but refuse to sell the car and still inspired passion.

    Who Killed the Electric Car?

    they did we were their passive, weak accomplices

    Comment by rdt — April 21, 2006 @ 4:50 am

  6. Thank you for playing the straight man, Chris. I’ll try to summarize your points:

    1. EVs pollute the same as gas vehicles, or worse.
    — Electricity can be, and, in many cases, is produced with little pollution. The PV system in our back yard, which supplies all of ours, produces none. Comparing gasoline to coal for transportation energy is apples vs. oranges. If the petroleum to make the gasoline were used to generate electricity, the efficiency would be higher (gas turbine vs. internal combustion) and pollutants could be better controlled, possibly sequestered in depleted oil fields. Even coal generated electricity avoids the pollution and inefficiency of transporting, refining, and delivering gasoline. Refineries are among the biggest consumers of electricity.

    2. EVs are as dirty as gas cars.
    — EVs don’t carry a gallon or more of oil, which, as a gas car ages, tends increasingly to leak. The code designation for EVs is Inherently Low Emission, meaning they don’t pollute more as they age. Operating temperatures are low, so the same applies to the few required fluids.

    3. EVs cost more to maintain because the batteries must be replaced every few years.
    — My RAV4EV has gone about 60K miles with no loss of range. 100K is the minimum I’ve heard of so far. Service generally consists of rotating the tires and checking the brakes.

    4. No demand for a 60 mile car.
    — Yes, the original EV1 was limited by lead-acid batteries, but the NiMH EV1 had a real 130 mile range, and the RAV4EV will easily go 80 miles, which is much farther than the average commute.

    5. Car companies lose money on EVs.
    — Neither Honda nor Toyota still makes EVs. Assuming you meant hybrids, Toyota claim a profit on the Prius, and as gas prices tend upward toward the actual cost of finding and defending oil supplies and the cost of batteries falls with increasing manufacturing volume, the economics of EVs and hybrids, preferably plug-in hybrids, will become more attractive.

    6. Louis Proyect is a raving Marxist.
    — Unrepentant is his own epithet. I am a believer in the economic power and efficiency of the market, but not in its ability to protect societies against their own excesses. Besides which, ours is not a free market. With the political power of the industries and administrations that benefit from prolonged addiction to fossil fuels, and the commendable exception of Pres. Bush’s recent exhortations, we continue to burn our, and our children’s, future. You don’t have to be liberal to foresee disaster.

    Comment by Norm Rhett — April 24, 2006 @ 9:33 pm

  7. I would like to add these two very informative EV websites:

    Electrifying Times Magazine: http://www.electrifyingtimes.com/index_2x.html

    EV World: http://www.evworld.com/

    I have a guest blog on EVWorld that compares the pollution caused by burning (worst-case) dirty coal in an old power plant with the pollution caused by extracting, transporting, refining and retailing oil. The fair comparison, mine-to-wheels vs well-to-wheels, reveals that EVs (including all fuel-making emissions) cause at most 5% of the pollution that internal-combustion vehicles do. I will not belabor the additional military costs (and pollution) involved in protecting overseas oil fields and seaways, but these complications of our oil addiction surely exist.
    An EV1 lessee actually produced his own TV commercial for the car because GM’s promotion was so weak; GM bought and buried it. I’ll end by mentioning that GM showed off a prototype EV1 at the LA Auto Show in January of 1990, nine months before California mandated zero-emission vehicle sales.

    Comment by Hugh E Webber — May 8, 2006 @ 6:28 pm

  8. I was really disappointed to read that you’d basically cut and pasted this same blog entry into a post onto the Pacifica Radio/WBAI.ORG website.

    In the thread above, You’d been challenged by one of your readers to fix/redact your statement on James Boyd- yet you did not! you posted the original blog.

    I am for alternative energy, I am for alternative means of transport- but it does not help the case, (Especially if the word consipiracy is used!) for there to be any improper proper presentation of the facts and the players.

    Please fix your original post and or the post on WBAI.

    Proper fact checking can only help make a sound, reasoned case for alternative energy sources.

    Comment by Chris Miles — June 8, 2006 @ 3:16 pm

  9. James Boyd and Alan Lloyd, along with a few other people such as Charles Imbrecht and Jan Sharpless, were part of the most aggressive attempt to unset the oil industry from its transportation industry dominance in U.S. history. The coalition was comprised of “enviros” (Sierra Club types) and “Republican enviros” (Lowell Weicker types) who had the specific, local California emphasis on finding alternatives to oil because the economy was too dependent on the international oil cartel, not to mention the Texas crowd that helped eviscerate the CA economy in early 2001. It is mistaken analysis to think that Boyd is somehow doing the work of the nefarious hydrogen industry or the oil industry. It is more accurate to say that he, and those with whom he has worked, have had an impressive ability to push a few very specific levers related to NOx, VOC, and carcinogen emissions into an attempt to redirect transportation development.

    In fact it was Boyd and Jan Sharpless who pushed the reforms through in 1990 that led to California’s strikingly tough laws that forced major changes in both automotive pollution control and fuel formulation. These were the most innovative reforms since the introduction of the catalytic converter in the 1970s.

    The quantification of electric vehicle emissions is complex due to the upstream emissions of mainly nitrogen oxides from power generation facilities. Traditional pollution analysis focuses on “in basin” tropospheric pollution with some local transport issues. Power generation might transfer NOx emissions (and CO2, for the Greenhouse people) to Oregon or New Mexico.

    EVs would undoubtedly be a great leap forward for the environment. They have specific problems. For example, anyone who has started a battery in the NE during winter knows lead acid batteries decline in efficiency with low temperatures. This in effect robs the vehicle of fuel. Variability in mileage estimates for EVs (60 to 120 miles on a charge) are in part due to the different estimates about ambient temperatures, which on the cold end affect the batteries’ ability (a battery of batteries is still called a battery; we’re talking close to a dozen standard sized lead acid batteries) to perform. On the hot end, adding an air conditioner to the “fuel demand” greatly diminishes range; and finally, there is some fall off in performance as you get to “exhaustion.” (Just like a flashlight is still OK but not as good as new when the batteries have been used awhile.)

    The development of the hybrid vehicle was an attempt to get around the limitations of lead acid technology. One way to do it was to have the gasoline engine run at a constant speed which allows for optimal emissions control of standard pollutants (very low and idle speeds are the worst for combustion). But this means charging the battery to run the car, and this is very inefficient way to get power to the wheels. Current hybrids have opted to make the engine’s power directly available to the vehicle in combination with the battery power. The gasoline engine also compensates for cold weather and air conditioning types of issues by providing an on-board source of power. Nonetheless climbing mountains in Colorado or CA on a winter skiing trip would probably be a challenge for the current hybrids.

    It is true that the oil industry and the American automotive giants (former giants) were the lead opponents of alternative fuel technologies.

    As a final point, to people who have studied the alternatives, the fuel cell vehicle remains the single best alternative for all weather, efficient production of a car that meets the basic criterion of 300 miles between refuelings with standard passenger space etc. The reason most of the air quality professionals in CA are backing this alternative is because they have a pretty deep understanding of the relative merits. The other reason is that much to the surprise of everyone traditional criteria pollutants have been, by 1990’s standards, astoundingly reduced by the advent of SULEV and near-zero emission vehicles. In order to push matters further one has to take into account such things as upstream emissions. For example, running an air compressor to fill an pumped air tank requires power from somewhere.

    There are many ways to make vehicles work. Another one is super fast flywheels which could be spun up to extremely high speeds. God help us if one got into an accidnet and were to roll off at 300,000 rpm. But something with a heavy mass spinning that fast stores a lot of power.

    Of course, in terms of capitalist irrationality even a “perfect” vehicle would still be irrational in the sense of promoting land use patterns that are detrimental to the maintenance of wilderness spaces and keeping good agricultural lands from becoming tract homes.

    Comment by Greg Nowell — August 4, 2006 @ 7:08 pm

  10. I believe that when all is said and doneor, to use the fashionable term, at the end of the day, it is the quick profitability of both replacement parts and petroleum products. this is similar to the unwillingness of politicians to promote a policy of GRADUAL gas price increase, saying “every 6 months for the next ten years the price of gasoline will rise 50 cents”. This gives everyone enough warning to adapt their choice of vehicles, home location and living patterns to a new way of looking at energy. Nobody has the guts to do this. When I am the Benevolent Dictator……

    Comment by robert cooper — August 16, 2006 @ 1:33 am

  11. Dave

    Interesting topic… I’m working in this industry myself and I don’t agree about this in 100%, but I added your page to my bookmarks and hope to see more interesting articles in the future

    Trackback by Electric Car — August 27, 2006 @ 5:25 am


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