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Powerful Interests Stifle Innovation
Government, business conspire to kill electric car technology
Ronda Hauben (netizen2)     Print Article 
Published 2006-07-05 12:04 (KST)   
General Motors Corporation and its offspring parts operation Delphi are currently laying off more than 50,000 unionized workers in the U.S. The companies claim that their North American operations are not profitable, and GM claims that it has to do the layoffs since it is losing market share for its cars.

Given the problems that GM claims it is having in its North American operations, the newly released film "Who Killed the Electric Car?" offers a helpful framework from which to view the automaker's current actions.

The film tells a little-known but significant story about corporate America and the U.S. government's failure to support innovation. Few in the U.S. or elsewhere know that GM had produced and leased 800 electric cars, which dotted the roads of California in the second half of the 1990s.

This was a new and functioning technology, the charged-at-home battery operated automobiles. The EV1 proved not only a viable technology but also a joy to the drivers. Yet, by 2006, all the cars, with the exception of a few hidden away in some museums, had been sent by GM to a crushing station in the Arizona desert.

By this time, though, a set of activists who had leased the cars and had come to love them, were monitoring what GM was doing. The fact that GM chose to destroy the cars rather than welcome the support of and enthusiastic reception by their users, highlights the disdain with which GM treated a new technology that could have revolutionized its industry and the corporation.

The film was released June 30, 2006, for viewers in New York and California, and will be shown throughout the U.S in the coming months. It raises some serious and important questions about the nature of corporate-government collusion in the U.S. when it comes to the ability of a society to transition to a new technology. This was similar to a problem that plagued the former Soviet Union. The story of what happened when a functioning electric car was introduced in the U.S. helps to show the forces at play that are hostile to a society's ability to embrace a new and needed technology.

The story starts in California in 1990. Plagued by high levels of smog that were very damaging to the health of its residents, the California Air Resource Board (CARB) adopted a regulation called the Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) mandate. This government entity set a series of goals for automakers selling cars in the state. It required them to produce a percentage of cars with zero emissions. The regulation would require that automakers sell 2 percent ZEV's in 1998, 5 percent in 2001 and 10 percent in 2003.

In January of 1990, GM introduced a car powered by a battery at the Los Angeles Auto Show. The car was later called the EV1 (Electric Vehicle). By December 1996, GM made cars available on lease for US$400-$500 a month. Later the lease rate was reduced to $250-$300 a month.

By 2000, GM was leasing 800 of the EV1s it had produced. Those leasing them found them enjoyable to drive and that they needed much less maintenance than older model cars. The batteries could be charged in one's garage overnight. There was no need to purchase gasoline or to do maintenance like oil changes. Though GM did not yet mass-produce the cars nor provide favorable publicity to let people know that they were an option for drivers, there were a number of people who learned of the cars and were willing to go through the hurdles put up by GM to be able to lease a car.

The reluctance of GM to advertise the cars and offer them to drivers, however, is part of a larger story. The California regulations were an incentive for GM and other automakers to invest in and develop new technology. The state of California subsidized each EV1 leased in California. The automakers, however, did not welcome such incentives. Instead, they formed a trade organization, the American Automotive Manufacturing Association (AAMA) and set out to try to stymie the regulations.

In March 1995, the AAMA circulated a confidential proposal to develop a "grassroots education campaign" to repeal the CARB ZEV program. Andrew Card was then the president of the AAMA and would subsequently become chief of staff in the George W. Bush White House, when the U.S. Department of Justice would join the GM and DaimlerChrysler lawsuit to end the CARB ZEV requirements.

In January 2002, GM, DaimlerChrysler and several auto dealerships sued CARB in U.S. District Court in Fresno, California, to repeal the ZEV mandate. In October 2002, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a "friend of the court brief" supporting the auto companies. The auto companies claimed that California could not require zero emissions, as this was an interference with the right of the federal government to regulate fuel economy standards.

Also, the Bush administration gave support to fuel cell vehicle technology, providing big financial incentives for research. Such technology, however, will take many years to develop, while the electric car technology was already functioning.

In 2002, Alan C. Lloyd, the chair of CARB, was named chair of the California Fuel Cell Partnership. This meant that Lloyd had a conflict of interest with regard to providing support for electric cars, as he headed an organization promoting a competing technology. Yet, Lloyd chaired the April 2003 CARB meeting, which decided to revise the ZEV mandate. Automakers no longer had the incentive to produce electric cars.

With this change in the regulation, GM announced that it would not renew the leases on the EV1 cars. It reclaimed the vehicles and towed those it had trouble reclaiming because of opposition to the removal of the EV1s from operation.

The disappointed former lessees of the cars used the Internet to form a group of activists hoping to save their cars from destruction. They offered to buy the cars and release GM from any obligation to repair them, or other liability, but GM refused the offer.

In March 2005, the cars were loaded onto trucks, despite the efforts of some of the activists to block the final trip of the cars to the crusher.

The film is important since it documents the powerful forces that came together in the U.S. to thwart the development and adoption of a vitally needed new technology. It sets out to understand how an automobile that didn't pollute and that didn't rely on oil could be destroyed by the company that successfully produced it. Though not a typical detective plot, the film offers the viewer a cast of suspects to consider when trying to understand how the crime was committed.

Not surprisingly, GM, the Bush Administration, and Bush's former Chief of Staff, Andrew Card, are among the suspects. So is Alan Lloyd, who presided over the hearing where the ZEV mandate was butchered. Another suspect is the oil industry. The film documents how the oil industry bought up the battery technology that made the EV1 work, not to develop it, but to suppress it.

The film offers other suspects. It fails to indict the press, however, and the fact that there was little media attention to the fight by the activists against the destruction of an important new technology. There was little media attention to the question, "Why was GM gutting a potentially highly profitable component of its operations?"

GM and its offspring Delphi are currently the subject of various federal government investigations about their questionable accounting practices, which have misrepresented expenses and unsold cars, thus inflating profits. The opportunity that GM had to pioneer a new and desired technology was thrown into the crusher.

At a time when the U.S. government is occupying Iraq in order to control its oil, among other geopolitical aims, the promise of an automobile not dependent on oil is all the more desirable to the many Americans who oppose the war in Iraq.

Just as the Bush administration conducted a disinformation campaign to deceive public opinion about its reasons for invading Iraq, so GM has conducted a disinformation campaign to deceive public opinion about its reasons for destroying the electric car it had produced and successfully put into operation.

The film helps to highlight the great need for media that will shine a light on corporate and government plans to subvert the public interest. In the absence of functioning mass media doing the needed investigative journalism, it is a welcome event to have the production and showing of a film like "Who Killed the Electric Car?"

©2006 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Ronda Hauben

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