GM's Electric Turkey

January 01, 1998  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  Transport

General Motors’ EV1 electric car

Imagine a car with a third the cruising range of the cheapest one on the market. Imagine that while the cheapest car takes about three minutes to refuel this one takes three to 15 hours, depending on the equipment you buy to refuel it. Imagine that the car will only be sold in a few markets in the southwest because it’s useless in cold temperatures.

Now, if your imagination really stretches, imagine that this joke of an automobile costs about $35,000 or four times what the cheapest car goes for. But this is no imaginary car. It’s General Motors’ much-celebrated EV1 electric car, the product of many years of development and one extremely large dose of environmental nonsense.

Resembling a turtle with angular lines, GM’s electric Edsel isn’t the technological marvel it’s advertised to be. Indeed, it’s all too similar to the electric cars that competed with and lost to piston engine-powered cars almost 100 years ago. Moreoever, piston technology has improved steadily since then.

An economy car equipped with such an engine can be propelled an amazing 50 miles with a mere gallon of gasoline that weighs only eight pounds and costs less than bottled water. The EV1, in contrast, uses low-tech lead acid batteries that in the best of weather propel the car only 90 miles with 1175 pounds of batteries, almost half the weight of the car itself. Other types of batteries such as nickel-metal hydride, nickel cadmium, zinc-air, and lithium would give a much longer charge but at even greater expense.

The lead-acid batteries are not only heavy but huge. The EV1 has only two seats, not because it pretends to be a sports car but rather because batteries take up what would be the back seat. Lead-acid batteries also last only two to three years and are an environmental mess to dispose of in a land fill.

Not all the criticisms of electric cars are deserved — just most of them. For example, some on the extreme fringe of the environmental movement claim that they shouldn’t be labeled zero emission vehicles because the power plants that supply the electricity emit pollution when they burn coal or oil. True, but the emissions which electric cars produce are generally far outside the city where pollution is a problem.

It’s too bad some of the environmental nuts don’t understand this, because essentially, GM has built a car that only a rich tofu-eating environmental looney could be interested in — like, say, actor/activist Ed Begley Jr. Problem is, he already has one.

That’s a huge chunk of the electric car market that’s already got one in the garage.

But it’s not really GM that built the EV1; rather it’s the bureaucrats at the California Air Resources Board (CARB) who did.

In a fit of both arrogance and technological ignorance, CARB mandated back in 1990 that by 1998, two percent of all new cars sold in California would have to be zero-emission ones, thus sending the car companies scrambling to develop electric vehicles. Ironically, just two weeks before the EV1 was announced, CARB backed down and pushed the mandate off into the 21st Century.

Why GM decided to market the car anyway is anyone’s guess, though rumors fly (which a GM spokesman denied to me) that the introduction was a quid pro quo to get CARB to drop the mandate.

In addition to ignoring technological reality, the CARB mandate also ignored how much cleaner cars have already gotten. Cars built these days put out only about four percent of the exhaust of cars produced in 1970. That’s why the air above every American city has gotten so much cleaner since then. The reason these cars sometimes put out large amounts of pollution is because like anything mechanical, they can break and must be repaired. Also, their owners can tamper with them to improve mileage at the expense of high emissions.

What’s needed is a device that can detect defective or tampered-with exhaust systems. It happens that Dr. Donald Stedman and other researchers at the University of Denver have invented just such a device.

When placed by the side of the road, it measures how much pollution a car puts out as it drives by. High emissions trigger a video camera which films both the car and its license plate. This allows the municipality using the device to send a letter (perhaps backed by a threat of a fine) to the violator informing him that his car emits too much pollution and must be repaired.

The ability of remote sensing to "read" vehicle exhaust accurately and cheaply has been demonstrated repeatedly in the U.S. as well as in Canada and Great Britain. Alas, its biggest advantage is its biggest drawback. Because it only singles out gross polluters and leaves most of us alone, bureaucrats hate it. They’d rather foist upon us nonsense like the EV1 electric turkey.

It’s possible that electric cars will one day be a viable form of transportation for something other than short trips or putting around the golf course, but that day is years away. For now, rather than giving in to environmentalist pleas and extortion, the automakers should line up behind remote sensing as a way of keeping gasoline cars running clean.