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Electric Shock

Who "killed" the electric car? It wasn't GM.

By 7.17.07

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Who "killed" the electric car? It wasn't General Motors -- despite the innuendoes floated by conspiracy theorists who believe the world's largest automaker was more interested in suppressing electric vehicle technology than developing it.

In fact, if you want to affix blame for the failure of the electric car, Uncle Sam deserves at least a partial share of the blame. Here's why:

A chief defect of electric cars is their relatively short range -- typically less than 100 miles, under ideal conditions -- before they have to be plugged in for an extended recharging session of several hours' duration. Fleet operators running the same route every day -- and who know they'll make it back to an electrical outlet before their ride sputters to a halt by the side of the road -- might be able to work around the limited flexibility of an electric car's minimalist range and lengthy power-up times. But the average civilian driver hasn't got the time or patience for either.

Even as a commuter-car, there are just too many potential hassles. The prospect of being stuck in an unanticipated traffic jam, for example -- and watching the "charge" meter slide ominously to the left and knowing you can't just add a couple gallons of fuel and be back in business -- was more than enough to keep most buyers away.

So how does Uncle Sam fit into this?

An electric car's range/performance is a function of its weight. The more it weighs, the less its potential range -- and the worse its overall performance. Government regulations -- specifically, those having to do with mandatory safety equipment such as air bags and bumper-impact/crash-worthiness requirements -- have made all modern cars (including electric cars) heavier by several hundred pounds relative to otherwise equivalent cars of the past. A typical 2007 model economy compact like the Honda Civic, for instance, has a curb weight of 2,586 pounds. A typical econo-compact of the pre-air bag/pre-safety '70s like the old VW Beetle weighed only about 2,000 pounds soaking wet.

Now consider the GM EV-1, the ultra-compact two-seater electric car that GM supposedly "killed." It weighed nearly 3,000 pounds, or comparable to the curb weight of a current-year mid-sized sedan. Granted, the battery pack that powered the EV-1 weighed the car down -- but it's also true that before GM could offer the EV-1 to the public, it had to comply with the various DOT and NHTSA ukases that all new cars must comply with -- including the "passive safety" requirement that forces automakers to put dual front seat air bags in all new vehicles.

Air bags can save lives, but that's not the issue here. What is relevant (in terms of making an electric car viable as a mass market vehicle) is that air bags and other government safety mandates add to the weight of any new car -- and every pound over about 2,000 pounds that an electric car weighs makes it that much less viable as a mass market car.

Several electric car prototypes have achieved much higher ranges than the EV-1; some on the order of 150-200 miles on a single charge. That would be enough to make them credible to at least some buyers who would never consider an electric car like the EV-1, which began to run dry in less than 75 miles of typical driving. But these prototypes were also much lighter than the EV-1 -- and bereft of the mandated extras that Uncle Sam insists you must have. And so they could never be more than engineering exercises; the government would not permit them to be sold to the public -- no matter how "green" they happen to be.

The electric car is thus in a Catch-22 situation. In order for one to achieve a consumer-acceptable range, it must be lighter -- absent some as-yet-unrealized breakthrough in battery technology. But in order for it to be lawfully salable, government edicts render it over-heavy and thus, able to operate only for short distances under ideal conditions.

GM didn't have to lift a finger to kill the electric car; Washington handled the "hit" without even being asked.

IT'S ENTIRELY POSSIBLE THAT a consumer-acceptable electric vehicle could be built - and sold for a reasonable price, too. (Another of the EV-1's problems, also related to federal ukases, was its $32k price tag -- an amount equivalent to the cost of an entry-luxury sport sedan such as a new BMW 3-Series.) However, it would first be necessary for Washington to call off the DOT/NHTSA dogs, or at least grant an exemption of some kind for electric vehicles. Maybe let people considering an electric choose whether to equip their vehicle with air bags, for example in order to eke another 20 miles of range out of the thing. This would also help lower the price of the cars, too -- a further inducement to buy.

They might be less safe. But they would probably sell.

Which matters more: A theoretical higher risk of injury in a crash that may never happen? Or consumer-acceptable electric cars?

Don't look for that to happen, though. Washington values its power and prerogatives more than it cares about "promoting alternative technologies" -- including the electric car. GM and other automakers working to develop electric vehicles did all they could. But there's only so much they could do with one arm tied behind their back -- and 500 or so extra pounds of deadweight per vehicle wrapped around their necks.

Michael Moore won't tell you about all this. I just did.

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About the Author

Eric Peters is an automotive columnist and author of Automotive Atrocities: The Cars You Love to Hate (Motor Books International) and a new book, Road Hogs.