This film is worth seeing, if only to dispel the notion that all the electric vehicles that existed in the last few decades were awkward, short-range creations. The EV1 looks about as good as the forthcoming Chevy volt, got 260km per charge (with the second generation Ni-MH battery, apparently available from the outset), and was released in 1996. The film also helps to illustrate some of the relationships between lawmaking, regulation, and strategic industrial behaviour. Sadly, it also hints at the general willingness of political bodies and even bureaucracies to fold in the face of industry pressure, even when industries are acting against their own long-term best interest. Indeed, the film makes a reasonably compelling case that the American auto industry conspired to crush the electric vehicle as an alternative to the gasoline-fueled internal combustion engine car.
The film also does a decent job of highlighting that the hydrogen car has always been a deeply unlikely proposition; hydrogen is just an energy carrier, and it is a deeply problematic one. Fuel cells are expensive and don’t last very long. Hydrogen takes energy to produce and compress of liquefy. It is tough to store, and there is no fuel distribution infrastructure for it. Compared to all that, electricity looks very appealing.
The film does seem to contribute to the common argument that our current approach to automobile regulation lacks vision, especially given the degree to which auto companies are now creatures of government largesse. Given climate change, given the possibility of peak oil, given the geopolitical consequences of oil dependence, it really seems as though they should be under much stronger pressure to produce very efficient vehicles, as well as vehicles that do not derive their energy from fossil fuels. Now that the government and unions own GM, perhaps they can insist on digging up any corporate records that haven’t been destroyed, with respect to internal deliberations on electric vehicle strategies, as well as responding to California’s mandate for zero emission vehicles.
Individual vehicles won’t ever really be an efficient option, compared with mass transit. That being said, it is unlikely that we will see their abandonment in the developed world, nor much diminished interest in them in the rising middle classes of developing states. If we are going to keep building cars, we need to do so far more intelligently. Electric vehicles will likely be a big part of that.
[Update: 2:11pm In retrospect, some of the film’s conspiratorial allegations may be less convincing than they appear at first blush. It is certainly plausible that oil companies would have a reason to resist the widespread deployment of vehicles that are not dependent on their key product, but it is another thing entirely to prove that they actually took action in that direction.