With the US car market on its knees, petrol prices breaking records almost weekly and concerns over greenhouse gases now a factor in car-buying decisions, the electric car has never made better sense. Even Australians, who in 2008 are buying cars of all sizes (but only one means of propulsion) at record levels, might look at buying an electric car. So where is it?

The 2006 documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? tells a story of environmental vandalism, financial stupidity and political incompetence of the highest order. With electric cars able to carry you and your shopping home for around 1 cent per kilometer, why isn’t the public screaming for them? Given the recent spike in oil prices and devastation that has brought to the US car giants in particular, maybe they are.

An electric car has no emissions and could travel even using old technology (the Electric Vehicle Program began in the mid-1980s) around 120 kilometers without a charge. While electric vehicles aren’t completely emission-free (the electricity has to come from somewhere, usually coal or gas fired power-stations), it is still more efficient and environmentally sustainable option than petrol (and at least has the potential to utilise renewable energy down the track).

Way back in 1990, California passed a bill requiring car companies to manufacture a specific proportion of their cars as “non-emission vehicles”. That proportion would rise to 10% in 2003. GM (and others, including Ford) started selling electric cars in 1996. According to the company, it spent more than US$1 billion on advertising, recharge stations and other infrastructure. Abruptly in 2001, GM terminated production of the electric vehicle, firing staff and closing manufacturing facilities. GM proceeded to sue the Air Resources Board, the Californian regulator which had demanded the emission-free vehicles.

By 2004, all the EVs were off the road, repossessed by General Motors. Actor and EV driver, Peter Horton, noted that he had “never seen a company be so cannibalistic about its own product before.”

Rather than pursuing electric cars, General Motors purchased the Hummer brand from AM General and continued to push the sales of the then profitable gas-guzzling SUVs. However, skyrocketing oil prices have shown just how financially shortsighted Detroit was in dismissing electric vehicles. Dr Joseph Romm, Executive Director of the Centre for Energy and Climate Change Solutions described GM’s move as being “one of the biggest blunders in the history of the automotive industry.” (Ahh, hindsight.)

Further, the ease of creating electric cars shouldn’t be understated. In June, The Independent reported that a white-goods salesman in Gaza City built an electric car himself. According to inventor, Fayez Annan, “a six or seven-hour charge provides enough power to cover 110 miles at a cost of just over 90 pence. And all you need to charge the batteries is a simple mains plug. “It is like charging your mobile,” says Mr. Annan. “You can do it anywhere – even while you are shopping.” If an amateur mechanic in Gaza can produce an electric car, one would hope a car company with revenues of US$180 billion in revenues could come up with something.

GM shares currently trade at around US$10 per share – the lowest level in fifty years. Many suspect that the world’s largest automaker could soon slide into bankruptcy. GM announced last week that it had managed to lose US$15.5 billion for the three months ending 30 June 2008 (fellow Detroit-car maker Ford lost US$8.7 billion for the quarter).

To stem the red ink, GM recently announced that it would close four pickup and SUV factories, reducing production by 35% and laying off 10,000 workers. In an ironic move, GM also stated that it would also commence producing 100,000 electric powered Chevrolet Volts each year. Presidential candidate, John McCain stated that “the eyes of the world are now on the Volt. It’s the future of America and the world” while GM’s GM’s vice-president of global programme management, Jon Lauckner, claimed that “together we can transform automotive transportation as we know it, and get our nation and the world past oil dependence and heading toward a future that is electric.”

At last the world’s vehicle empires have seen the value in electric cars. Sadly, about a decade too late.

Peter Fray

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