Review: The Davinci Code
Who Killed The Electric Car  (2006)
[GP] Starring: Tom Hanks, Mel Gibson, Chelsea Sexton, Ralph Nader
Narrated by Martin Sheen
Directed by: Chris Paine
Written by: Chris Paine
Who Killed the Electric Car paints a disturbing picture of a promising technology, the electric car, murdered in plain sight of uncaring consumers by the greed and arrogance of big oil and big auto companies in collusion with underhanded and misguided politicians. Unfortunately, the movie paints mostly with the brushes of anecdotal evidence, innuendo, and emotional imagery. For example, we're shown pictures of GM's EV1 electric cars squealing their tires and burning rubber to convince us that it was a hot ride, but are never given a single number about the vehicle's performance.

In fact, the EV1's performance numbers were impressive 1. The 0-60 acceleration was a respectable 9 sec with a respectable 137 horsepower motor powering a light-weight vehicle with an aluminum frame. Although production models were regulated to a top speed of 80 mph, a prototype set an electric vehicle speed record of 183 mph.  Compared to most cars drag coefficient (COD = .3 - .4), the EV1's incredibly low drag coefficient of only 0.19 meant the car would have required very little energy to maintain highway speeds. Okay, in this case, the movie's images agreed with the numbers, but providing the numbers would have boosted the movie's credibility.

The movie tells us repeatedly that the demand for the EV1 was high and the waiting list of prospective leasers lengthy. (The car was leased not sold.) These claims are eventually condensed to a number: 5000. GM supposedly contacted the 5000 prospective customers and after explaining the vehicle's limitations only 50 remained. Obviously, this is a huge discrepancy, which is dismissed in the movie by saying that telling customers about the limitations of a car was no way to sell it. Unfortunately, a number from a biased source evaluated for accuracy by another biased source leaves us wondering.

Besides, since when has a governmental organization had to mandate that companies supply a product to customers who are giddy about buying it. The only reason GM offered the EV1 was because the California Air Resources Board (CARB) mandated that they do so to reduce pollution  in California's smog-prone cities. GM and other car manufacturers complied but fought back with all the political and legal muscle they could muster. Eventually the CARB became infested by that species of slimy invertebrates commonly found attached to political issues, and capitulated. The overt reason: car company claims that the best hope was an, as yet to be realized, future with hydrogen fuel cellnot batterypowered electric cars. As soon as the CARB dropped the mandate, GM all but burned rubber in its haste to withdraw its EV1 from the market.

So, did the EV1 have undesirable features that could have turned away prospective customers? Yes, limited range for one: first generation models got 55 to 75 miles (90 to 120 km) to a charge. More expensive but improved batteries, boosted range by an extra 20 to 25 miles (32 to 40 km). Charging times could take 8 hours. Lease payments were $299 to over $574 per month corresponding to an estimated purchase price of $33,995 to $43,995pretty pricy for a two seat subcompact that couldn't make it from Palm Springs to LA without an 8 hr layover 2.

As evidence of GM's lack of commitment to sales, the movie shows us segments of electric car commercials, some of which, quite honestly, do seem uninviting. So who did GM hire to deliberately un-sell its product? For one, George Lucas, not exactly the kind of guy you'd hire to insure failure. Again, what does all this mean?

The movie dismisses claims that running a car on electricity produced by coal-fired power plants could actually make pollution worse. The evidence: all the studies say it isn't so. Yes, the exhaust from a few stationary coal-fired plants may be easier to regulate and clean up than the exhaust from thousands of cars, but please, give us some numbers!

We're told that driving an electric car is like driving a gasoline-fueled car only with $0.60 per gallon of gasoline. Does this mean that electricity is under-priced or under-taxed compared to gasoline or that the electric car is super efficient?  If the number were  based only on energy efficiency, it would mean that a similar sized, gasoline-fueled, commuter car with a similar low drag coefficient (and by the way there aren't any) would have to use around 5 times as much energy per mile as the electric car. The electric car's maximum efficiency is limited by the efficiency of the power plant (often run on a hydrocarbon fuel) used to produce the car's electricity. Even with regenerative braking, the electric car is not going to be 5 times more efficient than burning a hydrocarbon in a car's engine. But wait a minute, we're using a $3.00 per gallon price of gasoline in our analysis and with the price of gasoline going wildly up and down, the factor of five we just quoted may be substantially off. With such a rubber yardstick how can we hope to understand the $0.60 per gallon claim?

The movie ignores some of the electric car's inherent problems. For example, the heater. In a gasoline driven car, waste heat from the cooling system is used for heating, hence there's little loss of efficiency when running the heater. In the electric car, the heater is powered by the battery. Air conditioning is also problematic. Electric cars don't have to idle; they can be completely shut off when caught in traffic jams or at stop lights, that is except for heat or air conditioning. Get caught in a traffic jam and the electric car driver might have to turn off the heater or AC unit to make it home.

There's also the issue of electric generating and distribution capacity. California already has problems supplying the load. Imagine what it would be like with an electric car in every driveway. Indeed, the charging rate of batteries is limited more by the size of the electric distribution wires than the charging technology. Cars could be charged in much less than 8 hours but, if done at home, such high charging rates would likely blow circuit breakers or possibly burn up the neighborhood's electrical distribution wires. Rapid home charging would require rewiring of neighborhood distribution systems as well as the building of a lot of new power plants, but at least we know how to do it. On the other hand, the proposed hydrogen fuel cell car—current darling of politicians and at least some of the car companies—would require a massive new hydrogen delivery and generation infrastructure that we don't yet know how to build.

We have to side with the movie on the foolishness of axing battery-electric cars in favor of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, at least on any near term basis. The technical problems associated with the so-called future hydrogen-based economy look daunting compared with the technical problems of battery-electric cars. Where we differ from the movie's point of view is that we're a lot more bullish on both the short and long term prospects of hybrid cars, plug in hybrids, and even mundane technologies like diesel cars.

While capacity and expense are the biggest battery problems, there are others. All batteries tend to heat up when providing large amounts of current such as those needed for accelerating a car. Certainly, battery heat has been a problem with the much less demanding application of laptop computers. It has, at times, led to fires and the recall of laptop products. Even rechargeable batteries have finite lives, are expensive to replace, and if not properly recycled, become environmental problems. Batteries cannot be turned off and can pose serious safety hazards to the workers maintaining electric cars.  While recognizing that GM had battery problems, the movie maintained that had GM wanted its electric vehicle to succeed, the problems could have been easily solved with existing high quality batteries. However, GM did switch to higher cost, larger capacity nickel-metal hydride batteries and immediately experienced overheating problems requiring GM to cool the batteries with the car's air-conditioning system 2 (a fact not discussed in the movie). Again, we're left pondering.

Car companies are extremely conservative about releasing products before they're fully debugged and tested for good reasons. Their cars stay on the road about 10 years and even minor defects that take years to detect can cost tens of millions of dollars in law suits, recalls, and bad publicity. The thought of having thousands of cars on the road and possibly having to recall and replace a major part like a battery pack, costing upwards of $20,000 each, at company expense, must have sent shivers down the spines of GM executives. 

The movie's images of perfectly good electric cars being smashed and ground up when there were customers willing to buy them was disturbing. Maybe GM did deliberately tank their electric car program. It's not like giant corporations are noted for being visionary risk takers, but since when has a major corporation been willing to sacrifice a rosy red profit opportunity? Why did all the other car companies supplying electric vehicles pretty much follow GM's lead and destroy their cars? For a capitalist, capturing the majority share in a profitable market is called winning. How many times does one's competition destroy their own capabilities and passively withdraw? Wouldn't this have been a golden opportunity for competitors, that is, if the market were actually profitable? About the only answer offered in the movie was the notion that a grand conspiracy killed a perfectly good, much needed product out of corporate greed. We'd have found the explanation more logical had the basis for the killing been fear.

Our final analysis of  Who Killed The Electric Car : it's disappointing to see emotional content squeeze out data, but encouraging to see serious moviemakers shoot a film about a critical technical issue. In spite of its flaws the movie is still worth seeing. Our analysis of the battery-electric car: if the physics and economics really are there (and we're optimistic), it may take years, but the battery-electric car will eventually be back stronger than ever without requiring government mandates to revive it.


Got $100,000? Want to go 0-60 in 4 seconds in the coolest electric car ever? Check out the Tesla Roadster.

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