Who Killed the Electric Car?

Well, I guess I’m on a bit of an environmental kick the last couple of days.  Last night I watched An Inconvenient Truth which I followed up tonight by watching Who Killed the Electric Car?, a look at what happened to the electric cars produced in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Essentially, the documentary centered around the origins and demise of General Motor’s EV1, an electric car that was seemingly on the verge of becoming an American phenomenon, only to have the rug pulled out from under it.  Obviously, this film wasn’t a true documentary as it was very slanted (i.e. very pro electric cars), but it still brought up a lot of interesting points.

Essentially, electric cars were around before internal combustion cars, and were actually the favored automobile in the early 20th century due to being quiet and exhaust free.  However, with the rise of Big Oil, along with the mass production practices and efficiencies of internal combustion cars, electric cars sort of fell by the wayside until California enacted radical “Zero Emission” legislation in the early 1990s.

It’s no secret that California has some of the world’s worst air quality and in order to combat the smog and health problems that were developing due to the poor air quality, the California State Legislature passed the “Zero Emission” law, which required a certain percentage of cars sold in California be zero emission.  This meant that the big car manufacturers needed to come up with an electric car – and quickly.

So, General Motors, Toyota, Ford, essentially all the big car manufacturers, began to roll out these electric cars, all while fighting California’s new “Zero Emission” law.  In the process of unveiling these vehicles, there seemed to be plenty of demand building, however, one thing would eventually lead to the other and by early 2004 the electric car had been officially killed.

The movie spends most of its time spreading the blame among several groups: the American Consumers, the American Federal Government, the car manufacturers, the California Air Resource Board and Big Oil were pointed out as the main culprits.

Anyway, I’ve probably already given away too much, so I’m not going to sit here and list the reasons why each of the aforementioned groups were to blame, but there are two statistics from the film that absolutely floored me and I think are important to share.

The first statistic shows the rise in combined annual profits of three of the world’s largest oil companies – ExxonMobil, Chevron-Texaco and ConocoPhillips:

2003 – $33 billion

2004 – $47 billion

2005 – $64 billion

2006 – $72 billion

Keep in mind all of this is happening as oil prices are rising.  When I saw this exponential increase in profits (up 115% in a four year span) all I could do was shake my head.

The other statistic that left me speechless was the tax breaks available to owners of hybrids and/or electric vehicles vs. owners of 6,000 pound SUVs.  In 2004, the tax break available to a person who drove a hybrid or electric vehicle was $4,000.  Not too bad, I mean, I’d take it.  That is until I saw that an owner of a 6,000 pound SUV could be entitled to a $100,000 tax break.  Yes, a six figure tax break for owning a gas guzzling highway tank.  Unbelievable.

Anyway, because I’m assuming you’ve visited this site because you have an interest in either getting better gas mileage or the environment in general, I would highly recommend that you rent or buy Who Killed the Electric Car?


  1. I think the future of electric cars never looked brighter. The rapid advance of battery technology is bringing the electric cars clearly into the realms of usability. For more info, read this and this. With renewable energy options like household solar and wind installations (that deposit into the grid during the day and withdraw at night), powering our cars may become not only clean, but cost effective.

  2. I agree with you, however, I think that if the major car manufacturers were to step up it would help the electric car quite a bit. You mean to tell me that a company like Tesla would be able to ramp up production and meet demand if their car really took off?

  3. 1. You seem to have confused tax breaks (i.e. tax deductions) with tax credits.

    2. Those profit increases are not exponential, at least not in a mathematical sense.

    3. @ Brian Carr: I think a new company could definitely ramp up production because there are dozens of unused auto plants and probably something like 100,000 trained autoworkers no longer building cars.

  4. 1. Tax break = anything that reduces your taxes, whether it’s a deduction or a credit.

    2. From the American Heritage Dictionary – Something is said to increase or decrease exponentially if its rate of change must be expressed using exponents. A graph of such a rate would appear not as a straight line, but as a curve that continually becomes steeper or shallower.

    It would certainly appear that these profits would graph as something that “would not appear as a straight, but as a curve that continueally becomes steeper.”

    3. And a new company would be able to afford buying or leasing the plant and all the equipment, paying the work force, marketing the car, etc.? That seems like a pretty tough task for a start up.

  5. 1. They both reduce your taxes; this is true. But to use “tax break” to describe and compare two completely different tax reduction mechanisms is, at best, ignorant (as in you just didn’t know any better, which happens to everyone from time-to-time) or, worse, intentionally dishonest.

    2. It would appear that way if you don’t have a particularly good understanding of what “continually steeper” means. To be continually steeper, the dollar increase in profits each year must be greater than the profit increase the year before. The increases are 14, 17, and 8 billion. The above data by themselves do not fit an exponential curve.

    3. If a small company’s “car really took off,” their long list of orders would draw serious cash-flow from investors. It would not be instantaneous, but in the order of 5 years, they could grow rapidly.

  6. 1. It was unintentional; I do understand the difference between a deduction and a credit, but thanks for pointing it out.

    2. Yes, it’s a loose interpretation. Perhaps I should have used another adjective.

    3. I still think it seems unlikely that a small company could ramp up unless they were purchased by a bigger company.

  7. Positive – These types of posts put pressure on the companies to invest in the next version of electrics – plug in hybrids that use much of the EV1 technology.

    Negative – You bought the negative spin on tax credits.

    The Truck deduction was an incentive for business to replace an aging truck fleet for product & service transportation with newer, cleaner, more efficient delivery vehicles (commercial trucks and delivery vans). With the new ultra low sulfer fuel & direct injection, today’s commercial vehicles are much cleaner than the machines built 10 years ago. I support the deductions for investment in this area. We just need to close the loophole that was abused by a small % of companies to buy large SUV’s in lieu of buying new commercial vehicles.
    Let’s focus on the original goal of the legislation to encourage investment in cleaner more efficient delivery vehicles.

  8. Da'Milkman says

    Anybody have an answer for this Question? In the winter, Canadians waste fuel and money by idling their vehicles for a combined total of ______ minutes everyday.

    a) 35 million
    b) 200 million
    c) 75 million
    d) 10 million

  9. Chad Frost says

    I watched this film and I have to say I took the side of the big automakers, their are other places that make electric cars, if you really want one, buy one from them. Why force someone to do something against their wishes in requiring them to make a product they don’t want to and in their opinion doesn’t and won’t sell well.


    These big car manufacturers should have some side programs like the electric car, I mean they make a mint on other products they sell and it only seems like they should “GIVE BACK” to the community and the environment, if not in just some small way like an environmentally friendly car, but like I said, they should do it out of their own convictions and not by a legal requirement. I also think that if they in any impede the development of environmentally friendly applications like electric cars, AS THE MOVIE SUGGESTS, then they should be fined heavily. I was especially sore to find out that one of the automakers bought out an electric car company and shut it down, that was really annoying.

  10. William Wilgus says

    The electric car died out in the 20s for the same reason it hasn’t taken off again—the time required to re-charge the batteries and the lack of re-charging facilities `away from home’

  11. Watched “Who Killed the Electric Car” recently (great documentary), then i heard that GM and Tesla are making another run at the electric car (yay for progress!) hopefully development of this technology can go on unhindered by the corporations that depend on oil consumption.

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