Who Killed the Electric Car? (2006)


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Who Killed the Electric Car?

The documentary "Who Killed the Electric Car?" The film looks at the hopeful birth and untimely death of the electric car, an environmentally-friendly, cost-saving salvation to some, but a profit barrier to others.

In a film that has all the elements of a murder mystery, Paine points the finger at car companies, the oil industry, bad ad campaigns, consumer wariness, and a lack of commitment from the U.S. government.

"[The film] is about why the only kind of cars that we can drive run on oil. And for a while there was a terrific alternative, a pure electric car," Paine said.

In 1996, General Motors (G.M.) launched the first modern-day commercially available electric car, the EV1. The car required no fuel and could be plugged in for recharging at home and at a number of so-called battery parks.

Many of the people who leased the car, including a number of celebrities, said the car drove like a dream.

"...the EV1 was a high performer. It could do a U-turn on a dime; it was incredibly quiet and smooth. And it was fast. I could beat any Porsche off the line at a stoplight. I loved it," Actress, Alexandra Paul told NOW.

After California regulators saw G.M.s electric car in the late 1980s, they launched a zero-emissions vehicle program in 1990 to clean up the state's smoggy skies.

Under the program, two percent of all new cars sold had to be electric by 1998 and 10 percent by 2003.

But it was not to be. A little over 1,000 EV1s were produced by G.M. before the company pulled the plug on the project in 2002 due to insufficient demand. Other major car makers also ceased production of their electric vehicles.

In the wake of a legal challenge from G.M. and DaimlerChrysler, California amended its regulations and abandoned its goals. Shortly thereafter, automakers began reclaiming and dismantling their electrics as they came off lease.

Some suggest that G.M. -- which says it invested some $1 billion in the EV1 -- never really wanted the cars to take off. They say G.M. intentionally sabotaged their own marketing efforts because they feared the car would cannibalize its existing business. G.M. disputes these claims.

Transcript - June 9, 2006

BRANCACCIO: Welcome to NOW and welcome to the ozone layer. Carbon monoxide, too.

I can feel the traffic right here, some of the many by- products of the internal combustion automobile engine. Smog, global warming -- many of us are already trying to help...living closer to work, taking public transit where possible, or perhaps buying a hybrid. Hybrids can be a cool, efficient alternative, but don't kid yourself: in with the electric motor is still a gasoline powered one, with a tailpipe. Whatever happened to the promise of the fully-electric car? The plug-in kind, producing no exhaust out the back, at all?

About ten years ago, some big car companies started producing electric cars, quite a lot of them. They worked, owners loved them, they looked sharp and kicked butt coming out of a stop light. So where are they now?

Dead, by and large. Killed by their own creators in a stunning display of power politics and spin...that's the view of a provocative new documentary. Chris Paine's film is called "Who Killed the Electric Car."

BRANCACCIO: Chris, good to meet you.

PAINE: You too.

BRANCACCIO: I guess you're presenting us here with a whodunit?

PAINE: Yes, a bit of mystery. It's a -- "Who Killed The Electric Car?" is about why the only kind of cars that we can drive run on oil. And for a while, there was a terrific alternative, a pure electric car mostly in California. And then they all disappeared.

BRANCACCIO: But you know it didn't just happen that these cars became available. It had something to do with a marriage, of good, old American innovation both from the car manufacturers' point of view and also in terms of air quality regulation.

PAINE: Well, you know, Los Angeles has got very bad air quality problems. But --

BRANCACCIO: You think?

PAINE: Yeah. It was really bad in the 70s when I was growing up, and then -- in the -- in the 90's, 80s and 90s, it really began to increase too, because there's so many people moving to Los Angeles. And California was looking at like one in four kids had lung lesions and cancer and all these things were coming up.

So, they said, "We have to do something." And just then General Motors had built an electric car, and they had one at the L.A. Auto Show. And the regulators said, "Oh, you guys can do an electric car."

BRANCACCIO: They required these electric cars. They passed these rules in 1990 that by 1998 about two percent of these cars would have to be all electric, and by the year 2003, three years ago, what would it be up to, about ten percent?

PAINE: Ten percent. Yeah. So this is a rea -- This is as big innovation as, for example, the catalytic converter that California also led the nation on. And New York and Massachusetts and many, many states said, "Hey, this is a good idea, electric cars. Let's see what happens in California."

BRANCACCIO: Well, you've got some experience behind the wheel of one these EV1's. Does it go?

PAINE: Oh, oh, my God. I mean, most people think the electric car -- you know, golf carts or something for a little old lady, like it was in 1900. But these modern, electric cars, I sat in a EV1, and you step on the accelerator. And she -- whoo -- incredibly fast. And almost totally quiet, just like a spaceship taking off. And I think at that moment, the first time I drove in the electric car, I was -- I was hooked.

Very convenient. You just plugged it in at home overnight, charged the car. And then one day, the car was taken away.

BRANCACCIO: It was actually taken away from you.

PAINE: Well, not exactly like that. They leased the cars, so you knew you'd have to give the car back at a certain point.

BRANCACCIO: You couldn't buy one if you wanted to buy one.

PAINE: No. No, what you said, "Hey, okay, my lease is up." We said, "What's the cost to buy the car out?" They go, "Oh, no option. We take the car back." "No option? I wanna keep my car." "No, you can't have it." So everybody who had these electric cars were mostly people who really wanted to keep them. And they said, "No, we need the cars back."

BRANCACCIO: You mean really a lot of passion about a stupid car?

PAINE: I know. I never even liked cars until this EV-1 electric car. This was something special.

BRANCACCIO: So, cut hard to this, people who love their EV-1 electric cars so much that when they're taken away, they stage a mock funeral for their dearly beloved, but dearly departed cars. Let's take a look.

BEGELEY: What the detractors and the critics of electric vehicles have been saying for years is true. The electric cars are not for everybody. Given the limited range, it can only meet the needs of 90% of the population.

SEXTON: People used to ask me, "Why do you do what you do?" And I -- especially after I had my son -- told them, "I figure if I do my job well enough, my son will never know a time before there were electric cars on the road." And he rode in an EV1 on the way over here. And he said, "I wish we could keep the EV1 for a long time." And all I could say was, "Me, too."

PAINE: Only in Los Angeles would you have a funeral for a car, a bunch of celebrities and so forth. But when you started going in to it, you began to realize that something really had happened. That it was foul play.

BRANCACCIO: Foul play implicated in the death of these cars.

PAINE: Well, because the cars represent something bigger than cars, right? This is a -- The idea of the film is why is it so hard for us to get off of oil. Why even when you have an electric car can't they be given a real chance in the marketplace? And -- And my experience is that almost no one knew about these electric cars. So that's why we wanted to make the film to like let people know that it really was an option. And whenever you have big change, there's big forces that say, "No, no, no, we don't want the change." And I -- I -- I think that's a good reason to make a film.

BRANCACCIO: They were pretty strict about this. They took the cars away. And they didn't wanna just store them somewhere in the off-chance that gasoline would ever go up to $3 gallon. Which P.S. I think it has. They wanted these babies destroyed

Was it just GM that wanted the cars back?

PAINE: No, it was all the car makers. You know, I mean, even Toyota and Honda which are green car makers, supposedly, were after these cars. Ford, Chrysler, they -- they took them all back.

BRANCACCIO: And it comes down to this perverse little scene in your film where a legendary California broadcaster by the name of Huell Howser uses his considerable charm to get into one of these places where they crush cars. Let's take a look at this.

HOWSER: So we're gonna be able to see some cars shredded today?

MALE VOICE: Absolutely.

HOWSER: Which is not something most of us get to see

MALE VOICE: We shred the car -- about a car a minute. A thousand cars a day on a good day.

HOWSER: And what's interesting -- the first thing we noticed when we drove up here -- you're gonna be shredding some new cars here, too! These look like perfectly good cars! Why are you shredding them, too?

MALE VOICE: Little bit of a mystery, really. Since I've been here the last eight years, they bring us these cars from the dealerships. And they say that they're test cars. And they've been brought over to -- to test various emissions. And the insurance companies won't reinsure 'em. So we have to watch 'em destroyed here.

HOWSER: That seems like a shame!

MALE VOICE: It's a terrible shame.

HOWSER: I'd like to drive off in one of these things. Ladies and gentlemen -- that's the sound of a crushed automobile being shredded into a million pieces.

BRANCACCIO: Chris, undeniably sad, but really, I mean, the EV-1's pretty expensive. You can't drive even from, if it was on the East Coast, New York to D.C. in the thing, because of the battery range. Was there really demand for these things?

PAINE: In reality, every single electric car that was made, people wanted. And they just stopped making them. They claimed that people didn't want them, but all the evidence suggests, the waiting lists, that there really was demand.

BRANCACCIO: Maybe it's time just had not come.

PAINE: Yeah, well, that's what they claimed. Gasoline was $1.50 a gallon, and people were in love with SUVs. That was sort of what was happening. That was the landscape.

Clearly, of course, by now, 2006, the time for the electric car should be here, and it's unfortunate that they don't have any to sell. But even then, even when these cars came out, the way they tried to sell these cars to the consumers is almost sort of reverse psychology. Like they didn't really want people to buy the cars.

BRANCACCIO: What do you mean?

PAINE: Well, they would have these campaigns where the -- the car would look like it was being introduced in the middle of nuclear winter or something. So it's like --

BRANCACCIO: You mean the ad sort of had that look to it?

PAINE: The ads had this dark, scary look. You don't really want one of these cars.

BRANCACCIO: So you would argue an unusual way to sell a car. In fact, here is an example of what some critics say is an odd way to sell an electric vehicle...

VOICE: How does it go, you will ask yourself. And then you will ask, how did we go so long without it? The electric car:

PAINE: Yeah, the first time I saw that ad I thought it was like a civil defense ad for nuclear war.

BRANCACCIO: Well, I mean, they spent millions of dollars advertising the car.

PAINE: Yeah, well, that's what they say. In fact they say they spent a billion dollars, they spent millions advertising, but those of us that watch the story, that -- where -- where's the evidence? Please show us the numbers. The -- the numbers really aren't there. And then, if you look at the advertising -- the advertising does not, what shall we say -- make one want to buy one of these cars.

BRANCACCIO: Well, let's take a look at what General Motors says about all this. They said look, they tried -- they tried to do advertising, they tried to come up with a cool car. Nobody wanted it.

BARTHMASS (GM EXEC): Our goal at GM is to make the full functioning battery electric vehicle a commercially viable business opportunity for general motors.

NARRATOR: GM spokesman Dave Barthmass has worked for GM for nearly 10 years...

BARTHMASS (GM EXEC):We spent in excess of one billion dollars to drive this market -- to build a market. That means award winning advertising. Developing the vehicle. Developing the re-charging infrastructure. And in a four-year time frame -- from roughly 1996 to 2000 -- we were able to lease 800 EV1's.

BRANCACCIO: But, what's in it for the car companies to stop a program like that? I mean, you see Pulitzer Prize-winning car critic from The Los Angeles Times. His name is Dan Neal. He's in your film. He says, "Come on, if the consumer wanted a car that ran on -- ran on pig dung, GM would make it. They just don't want this thing." What's in it for killing something that works at least a bit?

PAINE: Well, you know, this is a -- this is really the heart of the movie. It's like why would car companies destroy the very car they created in the first place. It's -- One of the characters says it's like an act of cannibalism. And certainly it seems like it now when you look at General Motors with nothing to sell, except for their trucks and SUV's and a small number of compact cars.

Well, the thing is is that car companies since -- for 100 years have been selling the internal combustion engine, and that's an engine that needs to be fixed and re -- repairs. And there's lots to it. They know how to do it, and they have a big margin. If you say how about an electric car? You know, it's -- it's a totally different game.

BRANCACCIO: What? There's less maintenance on electric cars?

PAINE: Well, there's -- there's almost no maintenance, because there's no internal combustion engine. So there's no carburetor. There's no tune-ups. There's no air filters to change. There's not even a transmission. So the electric car really challenges the whole fundamental business structure for the car companies. And unfortunately the -- the electric car's another problem. It doesn't use any oil. So, the electric car instantly goes after two bedrock industries in the country, and that makes it a very difficult sell.

BRANCACCIO: The oil industry that provides the fuel and the lubrication for a -- for a conventional car and of course the car companies that --

PAINE: Yeah.

BRANCACCIO: -- would rather what? I mean, in your film, you argued rather sell rather larger cars.

PAINE: Yeah.

BRANCACCIO: Let's take a look at this.

ROMM: There's no question that people who control the marketplace today -- the oil companies -- have a strong incentive to discourage alternatives. Except alternatives that they themselves control. And, you know, just as General Motors 40 or 50 years ago bought up the trolley systems and shut them down, the oil companies have opposed the creation of an electric infrastructure.

PAINE: Well -- In the process of making the film, I began to think of cars, especially SUV's and trucks, as being like those printers you get you know from the office supply store for $49. And then you buy these $79 cartridges to make them run. And that's kind of the way it is with the gas car.

They might practically give it to you, like I think some of the big car companies are giving 'em away, but then you add up the repairs and the gasoline over the years. And that's where the money is.

BRANCACCIO: You know, Chris I open all these big ads from the oil companies these days, and they're touting all this cool alternative fuel research that they're supporting. Our hydrogen future for instance. I mean they -- that could undermine their -- their business model, yet they seem to be embracing some alternatives.

RIPPEL: If hydrogen can do a better job as an energy carrier than electricity then by gosh it should be the carrier of choice, the problem is that it's not even close.

BUSH: How far will this car drive on that amount of fuel?

GAS STATION ATTENDANT: It gets about approximately about 100-125 miles a gallon.

BUSH: Really


BUSH: Interesting.

NARRATOR: A fuel cell car powered by hydrogen made with electricity uses 3 to 4 times more energy than a car powered by batteries.

BUSH: This is the beginning of some fantastic technology and, uh, thanks for having us out here we are going to look at some other vehicles in a minute but, uhh, you know hydrogen is the wave of the future.

PAINE: Well, hydrogen fuel cell was a big surprise for us as filmmakers. Because, California, when they said, "Okay, car companies you don't have to make electric cars anymore, you win." And the car companies said, "Great. We'll build zero emission vehicle hydrogen fuel cell cars."

And, we were all very excited about them. But, as we began to look at the evidence, it turns out the hydrogen fuel cell was a really bad deal. And it certainly doesn't -- doesn't warrant quite all the enthusiasm it's been getting.

BRANCACCIO: What's wrong with hydrogen? I mean it would be cleaner.

PAINE: Well, I think the reason the oil industry likes hydrogen so much is that hydrogen is basically a way for them to ship something around in their trucks, to charge to fueling stations, just like oil. It's the same exact paradigm for the oil industry.

BRANCACCIO: As opposed to plugging something in, in your garage.

PAINE: Plugging in, very different. The oil industry doesn't want people plugging in, they want people filling up. So -- hydrogen works for them in that sense. But this is all 15, 20 years down the road if they perfect this technology.

And -- the work we did -- the research we did on film indicates the hydrogen fuel cell is a lot farther off than industry would have you believe.

BRANCACCIO: So you're not intrinsically against it, it's just that you are, from your study of this, skeptical this is something that could come to our environmental aid anytime soon.

PAINE: Yeah, I mean, that's really it. I mean, electric cars -- battery powered electric cars is a technology that exists today. We could all have them.

We could have millions of them on the street right now working very effectively, using domestically created electricity, charging off solar panels. Hydrogen fuel cell -- which they convinced California to wait for, is ten, 15 years off and, unfortunately, it turns out to be a much less efficient -- user of energy than if you just used a battery in the first place.

BRANCACCIO: So, your film actually renders judgment in some of these cases. You -- you stamp on your screen, "Guilty." When it comes to -- the car companies, they would argue with that. You stamp on the screen, "Guilty" when it comes to the oil industry, they would argue about that. But, what about you and me -- us, the consumer? I mean, we may not have run out initially. I lived in California at the time, I didn't think to get an EV1, maybe I'm partly guilty in this story.

PAINE: This is why we -- took on the consumer as part of the suspects for this -- for our story.

BRANCACCIO: But, ultimately, you don't lay blame on the consumer?

PAINE: Well, no, ultimately we do.


PAINE: We -- we -- in fact, when we first showed this to some of our producers, they're like, "I'm not sure you want to make the consumer guilty. I mean, after all they're -- they're your audience for your movie."

BRANCACCIO: People who pay money to get in to see this movie.

PAINE: Yeah, it's like --

BRANCACCIO: But you do have a guy in the film who, about the consumer, says this, when we hear energy efficiency -- I'm paraphrasing.

PAINE: Yeah.

BRANCACCIO: When we, the consumer hear energy efficiency, he says, we think smaller cars. We think cold houses. We think living like Europeans.

PAINE: Right, right. Well, it's really true isn't it? I mean, ultimately we, as consumers, are -- have a lot of herd mentality. And, whatever's hot, we go, we buy. And -- clearly when the electric car came out in the 90s everybody was buying SUVs.

THOMAS AND DIVINE: When SUVs first came out people were like, oh I can't drive that it's a tank I can't see over that, I'm going to murder somebody in that, oh that's too big but they convinced people this is safer, you need a big car, you need this for your family, bigger, safer...

NEIL: The idea of a penny pinching ev1 that was super green, you know that didn't get a lot of traction where as the idea of a gigantic SUV that would crush your neighbor, that did get a lot of traction

PAINE: Commercials were about SUVs, your neighbor had an SUV...

BRANCACCIO: It also helps as your film points out, there was a big tax break for many people if you bought an expensive SUV.

PAINE: That's right. You -- if -- you could get -- if you bought a 6,000 pound -- SUV or more, you could get a -- I think a $100,000 tax deduction as a small business owner.

BRANCACCIO: And 6,000 pounds is a pretty big vehicle.

PAINE: Yes, it's very big. In fact, a lot of these cars are -- are too big to go on residential streets, but they've never enforced those laws. The problem is, is that the electric car was given small incentives. And a lot of times -- government incentive makes a big -- big difference in what succeeds and fails.

BRANCACCIO: Alright, so the electric car, in that version, doesn't make it, but when you look around you now, the so-called Hybrid is hotter than the San Diego freeway during a mid-summer rush hour. I mean, everyone's grabbing those things. Success there!

PAINE: Yeah, yeah, it's terrific. The hybrids are taking off. And this is a great thing, because hybrids get people used to the idea of having electricity in a car.

In fact, you'll find that when people drive hybrids -- within the first couple months, you begin to see them just trying to keep their car in electric mode. They don't want to hear that gas engine turn up -- turn over. And, I think this is very good.

BRANCACCIO: So, we can change behavior.

PAINE: Yeah.

BRANCACCIO: This shows.

PAINE: Yeah, but the problem with the hybrids is that they still run on gasoline.

BRANCACCIO: There's still a tailpipe, there's still some pollution when the gas engine turns on.

PAINE: And you still have the internal combustion engine.

BRANCACCIO: Well, it's interesting to me in the film, you could have left it with these images of -- of death -- the demise of the car, but you don't. You come back towards the end of the film, with a -- a different vision of the future.

PAINE: I think -- United States is particular good at creating innovation. And, even though the electric cars in our film were destroyed -- a lot of new electric technology is coming to the forefront now. For instance there's the plug-in hybrid.

BRANCACCIO: Plug in hybrid.


BRANCACCIO: Now, for people to understand this -- typically -- if people don't understand this, a hybrid now, you never plug in. You either turn it over, gas engine runs it and puts energy into the electric part of it, but it doesn't plug in the wall.

PAINE: Right, yeah. Well, the difference with the plug in hybrid is you take your hybrid car and at nighttime you plug it in your garage and it charges overnight and then the first 40, 50 miles of your next day driving is all electricity. So, your gas never kicks on. So, suddenly you're seeing the equivalent of 150 miles per gallon in a car.

BRANCACCIO: And if your batteries run down then there's a little engine to get you where you're going.

PAINE: Then the engine turns on and it keeps you going.

BRANCACCIO: So some people are making these modifications, turning hybrids into the plug in kind?

PAINE: Right, right -- right now it's mostly people doing conversion kits. But -- there are rumblings from Toyota and others that -- plug-in hybrids may be coming around the corner. I -- I'm hoping to hear it out of -- General Motors and Ford too.

They could do it, it's just they don't -- so far, they've lacked the will to really invest in electricity as a way to power cars.

BRANCACCIO: But if you're bucking for sort of the ultimate revolution here in clean transportation, you gotta have a bigger coalition than these kind of Tom Hanks, Ed Begley Jr. characters that you've got in the film who love their EV1 cars. You need more people focused on this.

PAINE: Yeah. Well, in the film -- at the end of the film, we have -- what is this new coalition? And this includes -- what groups do we have? We have -- What Would Jesus Drive?

BRANCACCIO: So you have Christi-Evangelicals --

PAINE: Evangelicals.

BRANCACCIO: -- in making the world a better place.

PAINE: And we have the tree huggers and we have a lot of Reagan people that are -- part of a group called, Set America Free.

BRANCACCIO: Well, you're talking about them as neo-conservatives. What's the neo-Conservative -- pony in this race?

PAINE: Well, I -- I think conservative because these are people that look at the transportation issues from a National Defense point of view. And they go, "If we spent so much money protecting the flow of oil --"

BRANCACCIO: From the Middle East --

PAINE: From the Middle East, this was not good. Whereas if we use electricity, this is domestically produced and it's possible that it can be renewable. This is good for the long term.

So, these neo-Conservatives, if you will, have joined with the Environmentalists and really anybody who says, "Okay, I'm done with gasoline. How can I get off this stuff?"

BRANCACCIO: I mean, given the price of gas these days -- given the uncertainty in the Middle East and so forth -- one wonders if these car companies are having second thoughts about their decisions involving the electric car.

PAINE: I think they really are. I mean, car companies have all of these big cars sitting in their lots right now. And even last week, Rick Wagoner at GM said that axing the EV1 was probably the worst decision he made on his watch.

It's too bad. I feel like the electric car story was an example of us losing two years, maybe five years at a time when we don't really have a lot of time to play with.

BRANCACCIO: Well Chris, thank you for this.

PAINE: It's been great

BRANCACCIO: Chris Paine is director of, "Who Killed the Electric Car?" It appears in some theatres in New York and Los Angeles on June 28th. And it's likely to show up at a theater near you sometime this summer.

And that's it for NOW. From the middle of traffic somewhere, I'm David Brancaccio. We'll see you next week.

TIMELINE: Life & Death of the Electric Car

1665 – 1825

Between 1665 and 1680, Flemish Jesuit priest and astronomer Ferdinand Verbiest created plans for a miniature four-wheel unmanned steam “car” for Chinese Emperor Khang Hsi. In 1769, Frenchman Nicholas Cugnot built a steam-powered motor carriage capable of six miles per hour. In 1825, British inventor Goldsworthy Gurney built a steam car that successfully completed an 85 mile round-trip journey in ten hours time. (Steamers dominated the automotive landscape until the late 19th century.)


Scottish inventor Robert Anderson of Aberdeen, Scotland, invents the first crude electric carriage powered by non-rechargeable primary cells.


Thomas Davenport invents the battery electric car. Or possibly Robert Anderson of Scotland (between 1832 and 1839). Using non-rechargable batteries. Electric vehicles would hold all vehicle land speed records until about 1900.


American Thomas Davenport is credited with building the first practical electric vehicle -- a small locomotive.


French physicist Gaston Planté invents the rechargeable lead-acid storage battery. In 1881, his countryman Camille Faure will improve the storage battery's ability to supply current and invent the basic lead-acid battery used in automobiles.


Sir David Salomon developed a car with a light electric motor and very heavy storage batteries. Driving speed and range were poor.


Historical records indicate that an electric-powered taxicab, using a battery with 28 cells and a small electric motor, was introduced in England.


Immisch & Company built a four-passenger carriage, powered by a one-horsepower motor and 24-cell battery, for the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. In the same year, Magnus Volk in Brighton, England made a three-wheeled electric car.


Thomas Edison built an EV using nickel-alkaline batteries.

1890 – 1910

Period of significant improvements in battery technology, specifically with development of the modern lead-acid battery by H. Tudor and nickel-iron battery by Edison and Junger.


William Morrison of Des Moines, Iowa builds the first successful electric automobile in the United States.


A handful of different makes and models of electric cars are exhibited in Chicago.


First auto race in America , won by an EV.


First car dealer – sells only EVs.


First vehicle with power steering – an EV. Electric self-starters 20 years before appearing in gas-powered cars.

The first electric taxis hit the streets of New York City early in the year. The Pope Manufacturing Company of Hartford, Connecticut, becomes the first large-scale American electric automobile manufacturer. They built around 500 electric cars over a two-year period.

The London Electric Cab Company began regular service using cars designed by Walter Bersey. The Bersey Cab, which used a 40-cell battery and 3 horsepower electric motor, could be driven 50 miles between charges.


The German Dr. Ferdinand Porsche, at age 23, built his first car, the Lohner Electric Chaise. It was the world's first front-wheel-drive. Porsche's second car was a hybrid, using an internal combustion engine to spin a generator that provided power to electric motors located in the wheel hubs. On battery alone, the car could travel nearly 40 miles.


NYC blizzard, only EVs were capable of transport on the roads. First woman to buy a car – it was an EV.

The Electric Carriage and Wagon Company, of New York City, had a fleet of twelve sturdy and stylish electric cabs.


Believing that electricity will run autos in the future, Thomas Alva Edison begins his mission to create a long-lasting, powerful battery for commercial automobiles. Though his research yields some improvements to the alkaline battery, he ultimately abandons his quest a decade later.


The Pope Manufacturing Company merged with two smaller electric car companies to form the Electric Vehicle Company, the first large-scale operation in the American automobile industry. The company had assets of $200 million.

Two hybrids appeared at the Paris Salon.


NYC’s huge pollution problem – horses. 2.5 million pounds of manure, 60,000 gallons of urine daily on the streets; 15,000 dead horses removed from the streets each year. All US cars produced: 33% steam cars, 33% EV, and 33% gasoline cars. Poll at the National Automobile Show in NYC showed people's first choice for automobiles was electric followed closely by steam.

The electric automobile is in its heyday. Of the 4,192 cars produced in the United States 28 percent are powered by electricity, and electric autos represent about one-third of all cars found on the roads of New York City, Boston, and Chicago. American car companies made 1,681 steam, 1,575 electric and 936 gasoline cars. In a poll conducted at the first National Automobile Show in New York City, patrons favored electric as their first choice, followed closely by steam.

A Belgian carmaker, Pieper, introduced a 3-1/2 horsepower "voiturette" in which the small gasoline engine was mated to an electric motor under the seat. When the car was "cruising," its electric motor was in effect a generator, recharging the batteries. But when the car was climbing a grade, the electric motor, mounted coaxially with the gas engine, gave it a boost. The Pieper patents were used by a Belgium firm, Auto-Mixte, to build commercial vehicles from 1906 to 1912.


Oldsmobile EV (Walt Disney's). William McKinley, 25th US President, takes his final ride in an electric ambulance.


A series-hybrid runabout competed against steam and gas-powered cars in a New York to Boston reliability test.


First speeding ticket – it was earned in an EV. Krieger company makes a hybrid vehicle — using a gasoline engine to supplement a battery pack.


The Electric Vehicle Company built 2000 taxicabs, trucks, and buses, and set up subsidiary cab and car rental companies from New York to Chicago. Smaller companies, representing approximately 57 auto plants, turned out about 4000 cars.

America has only 7% of the 2 million miles of roads better than dirt – only 141 miles, or less than one mile in 10,000 was “paved”. Here's a 1904 Curved Dash Olds (replica). Henry Ford begins assembly line production of low-priced gas-powered vehicles.

Henry Ford overcame the challenges posed by gasoline-powered cars — noise, vibration, and odor — and began assembly-line production of low-priced, lightweight, gas-powered vehicles. Within a few years, the Electric Vehicle Company failed.


An American engineer named H. Piper filed a patent for a petrol-electric hybrid vehicle. His idea was to use an electric motor to assist an internal-combustion engine, enabling it to achieve 25 mph.

The Woods Interurban, an electric car that allowed long-distance drivers to swap the electric power unit for a two-cylinder gas engine (supposedly a fifteen-minute job), failed to get more than a handful of customers.


Henry Ford introduces the mass-produced and gasoline-powered Model T, which will have a profound effect on the U.S. automobile market.

Henry Ford buys his wife, Clara Ford, an EV. Many socialites of that time gave this rousing endorsement for EVs, “It never fails me.”


Commercial built a hybrid truck which used a four-cylinder gas engine to power a generator, eliminating the need for both transmission and battery pack. This hybrid was built in Philadelphia until 1918.

Motorized assembly produces gas-powered cars in volume; reducing cost per vehicle.


Charles Kettering invents the first practical electric automobile starter. Kettering's invention makes gasoline-powered autos more alluring to consumers by eliminating the unwieldy hand crank starter and ultimately helps pave the way for the electric car's demise.

38,842 EVs on the road. Horse drawn “tankers” deliver gasoline to gas stations. EVs perform well in snow.


With the advent of the self-starter (making it easy for all drivers to start gas engines), steamers and electrics were almost completely wiped out. In this year, sales of electric cars dropped to 6,000 vehicles, while the Ford Model T sold 182,809 gasoline cars.

Ford creates experimental EVs [1, 2] . Self starter for gas cars (10 years later for the Model-T).


The Detroit Electric Automobile.


During the 1920s the electric car ceases to be a viable commercial product. The electric car's downfall is attributable to a number of factors, including the desire for longer distance vehicles, their lack of horsepower, and the ready availability of gasoline.


Two prominent electric-vehicle makers — Baker of Cleveland and Woods of Chicago — offered hybrid cars. Woods claimed that their hybrid reached a top speed of 35 mph and achieved fuel efficiency of 48 mpg. The Woods Dual Power was more expensive and less powerful than its gasoline competition, and therefore sold poorly.

1920 – 1965

Dormant period for mass-produced electric and hybrid cars. So-called alternative cars became the province of backyard tinkerers and small-time entrepreneurs.


Federal Highway Act. By 1922, federal match (50%) for highway construction and repair (for mail delivery). Before this, roads were considered only “feeders” to railroads, and left to the local jurisdiction to fund.


National System of Interstate and Defense Highways. Funded 90% by states, and 90% by the federal government.


Sputnik is launched. The US space program initiates advanced battery R&D.


Congress introduces the earliest bills recommending use of electric vehicles as a means of reducing air pollution. A Gallup poll indicates that 33 million Americans are interested in electric vehicles.

Gallup poll: 36 million really interested in EVs. At the time EVs had a top speed of 40 mph, and typical range less than 50 miles.


Walter Laski founds the Electric Auto Association.

1968 - 1971

Three scientists working at TRW, a major auto supplier, created a practical hybrid powertrain. Dr. Baruch Berman, Dr. George H. Gelb and Dr. Neal A. Richardson developed, demonstrated and patented the system—designated as an electromechanical transmission (EMT) providing brisk vehicle performance with an engine smaller than required by a conventional internal combustion engine drive. Many of the engineering concepts incorporated in that system are used in today's hybrids.


Congress passes more regulatory statues than ever before due to health risks associated with cars: collisions, dirty air.


The GM 512, a very lightweight experimental hybrid car, ran entirely on electric power up to 10 miles per hour. From 10 to 13 miles per hour, it ran on a combination of batteries and its two-cylinder gas engine. Above thirteen miles per hour, the GM 512 ran on gasoline. It could only reach 40 miles per hour.


Concerns about the soaring price of oil -- peaking with the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973 -- and a growing environmental movement result in renewed interests in electric cars from both consumers and producers. The U.S. Department of Energy ran tests on many electric and hybrid vehicles produced by various manufacturers, including a hybrid known as the “VW Taxi” produced by Volkswagen in Wolfsburg, West Germany. The Taxi, which used a parallel hybrid configuration allowing flexible switching between the gasoline engine and electric motor, logged over 8,000 miles on the road, and was shown at auto shows throughout Europe and the United States.


Victor Wouk, the "Godfather of the Hybrid," builds the first full-powered, full-size hybrid vehicle out of a 1972 Buick Skylark provided by General Motors (G.M.) for the 1970 Federal Clean Car Incentive Program. The Environmental Protection Association later kills the program in 1976.

First Annual EAA EV rally.


As part of the Federal Clean Car Incentive Program, engineers Victor Wouk and Charlie Rosen created a prototype hybrid gas-electric vehicle using a Buick Skylark body. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency tested the vehicle, certified that it met the strict guidelines for an EPA clean-air auto program — and rejected it out of hand.

Vanguard-Sebring's CitiCar makes its debut at the Electric Vehicle Symposium in Washington, D.C. The CitiCar has a top speed of over 30 mph and a reliable warm-weather range of 40 miles. By 1975 the company is the sixth largest automaker in the U.S. but is dissolved only a few years later.


The U.S. Postal Service purchases 350 electric delivery jeeps from AM General, a division of AMC, to be used in a test program. The U.S. Energy Research and Development Administration began a government program to advance electric and hybrid technology.


EAA members assist U.S. Congress enacted Public Law 94-413, the Electric and Hybrid Vehicle Research, Development, and Demonstration Act of 1976. Among the law’s objectives were to work with industry to improve batteries, motors, controllers, and other hybrid-electric components.

General Electric was chosen to construct a parallel-hybrid sedan, and Toyota built its first hybrid — a small sports car with a gas-turbine generator supplying current to an electric motor.

1977 – 1979

General Motors spent over $20 million in electric car development and research, reporting that electric vehicles could be in production by the mid-1980s.


EAA member Frank Willey developed a transistorized speed controller and earned the IEEE Outstanding Engineering Award. First named the Willey-9 controller, later became the Curtis 1221C.


Dave Arthurs of Springdale, Arkansas, spent $1,500 turning a standard Opel GT into a hybrid car that could get 75 miles per gallon, using a six-horsepower lawnmower engine, a four-hundred-amp electric motor, and an array of six-volt batteries. Mother Earth News used the Arthurs plan to build their own hybrid, which averaged 83.6 miles per gallon. Sixty thousand Mother Earth News readers wrote in for the plans, when the magazine published their results.


Briggs and Stratton, the company known for manufacturing lawn mower engines, developed a hybrid car powered by a twin cyclinder four-stroke 16hp gasoline engine and an electric motor—for total of 26 horsepower. The hybrid drivetrain provided power for a custom-designed two-door vehicle with six wheels—two in front and four in the back.


A fleet of EVs drove from San Jose, CA to San Francisco, CA, 100 mile round trip, on a single charge.


Saied Motai drove 230 miles on a single charge.


Roger Smith, CEO of G.M. , agrees to fund research efforts to build a practical consumer electric car. G.M. teams up with California's AeroVironment to design what would become the EV1, which one employee called "the world's most efficient production vehicle." Some electric vehicle enthusiasts have speculated that the EV1 was never undertaken as a serious commercial venture by the large automaker.


Audi unveiled the first generation of the Audi Duo experimental vehicle, based on the Audi 100 Avant Quattro. The car had a 12.6 horsepower electric engine, which drove the rear wheels instead of a propeller shaft. A nickel-cadmium battery supplied the energy. The front-wheel drive was powered by a 2.3-litre five-cylinder engine with an output of 136 horsepower. Two years later, Audi unveiled the second generation Duo, also based on the Audi 100 Avant quattro.


California passes its Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) Mandate, which requires two percent of the state's vehicles to have no emissions by 1998 and 10 percent by 2003. The law is repeatedly weakened over the next decade to reduce the number of pure ZEVs it requires.

GM shows their production EV initially named, Impact; later it was re-named the EV-1. (US government spent $194 million on all energy efficient research. Much less than the $1 billion for a single day of Desert Storm, or the $1 billion per week of 2003 Iraq conflict.)


The United States Advanced Battery Consortium (USABC), a Department of Energy program, launched a major program to produce a “super” battery to get viable electric vehicles on the road as soon as possible. The USABC would go on to invest more than $90 million in the nickel hydride (NiMH) battery. The NiMH battery can accept three times as many charge cycles as lead-acid, and can work better in cold weather.

First Phoenix Solar and Electric 500 race.


Toyota Motor Corporation announced the "Earth Charter," a document outlining goals to develop and market vehicles with the lowest emissions possible.

EAA supports California $1,000 tax credit for EVs.


The Clinton Administration announced a government initiative called the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles (PNGV). In the program, the government worked with the American auto industry to develop a clean car that could operate at up to 80 miles per gallon. Several years and a billion dollars later, the PNGV emerged with three prototypes for their 80 mpg car. Every prototype was a hybrid.

Toyota's exclusion from PNGV prompted Chairman Eiji Toyoda to create a secret project called G21, Global Car for the 21st Century. The following year, Toyota doubled its original goal of improving fuel efficiency by 50 percent.

EAA member Bob Schneeveis races over 100 mph in a custom-built electric car named "Snow White". The EAA's EV Showcase exhibit is featured at WESCON Electronics Trade Show in San Francisco. GM estimated that it would take 3 months to collect names of 5,000 people interested in the EV-1 – it only took one week!


Twelve additional states adopt the California ZEV mandates. The GM Impact EV (later to be named the EV-1) sets a 187 mph speed record.


Renaissance Cars, Inc begins production of the Tropica.


EAA helps to hatch CALSTART incubator (for EV research) in Alameda , CA. Solectria Sunrise breaks the 300 mile range at the NESEA Tour de Sol. GM begins production of the EV-1 (formerly called the Impact).


Toyota unveils the Prius -- the world's first commercially mass-produced and marketed hybrid car -- in Japan. Nearly 18,000 units are sold during the first production year.

Audi became the first manufacturer in Europe to take a hybrid vehicle into volume production: the Audi duo based on the A4 Avant. The vehicle was powered by a 90 horsepower 1.9-litre TDI in conjunction with a 29 horsepower electric motor. Both power sources drove the front wheels. A lead-gel battery at the rear stored the electrical energy. The Duo was not a commercial success and therefore discontinued, prompting European carmakers to focus their R&D investment on diesels.

1997 - 2000

A few thousand all-electric cars (such as Honda's EV Plus, G.M.'s EV1, Ford's Ranger pickup EV, Nissan's Altra EV, Chevy's S-10 EV, and Toyota's RAV4 EV) are produced by big car manufacturers, but most of them are available for lease only. All of the major automakers' advanced all-electric production programs will be discontinued by the early 2000s.


Honda released the two-door Insight, the first hybrid car to hit the mass market in the United States. The Insight won numerous awards and received EPA mileage ratings of 61 mpg city and 70 mpg highway.


Toyota released the Toyota Prius, the first hybrid four-door sedan available in the United States.

Ford offers the Th!nk City EV, it's version of the Pivco, in California.


CARB upholds the ZEV Mandate of between 4,000 and 15,000 EVs starting in 2003. Dr. Andy Frank and his UC Davis Team Fate produce demonstration plug-in hybrid vehicles.


Honda introduced the Honda Civic Hybrid, its second commercially available hybrid gasoline-electric car. The appearance and drivability of the Civic Hybrid was (and still is) identical to the conventional Civic.

G.M. and DaimlerChrysler sue the California Air Resources Board (CARB) to repeal the ZEV mandate first passed in 1990. The Bush Administration joins that suit.

EAA launches the 1st annual Chapter's meeting in Washington, D.C. Toyota RAV4-EV retail sales begins; their estimated 2-year supply sold out in 8 months. Ford sells the Th!nk City Group.


G.M. announces that it will not renew leases on its EV1 cars saying it can no longer supply parts to repair the vehicles and that it plans to reclaim the cars by the end of 2004.

ZEV Mandate weakened to allow ZEV credits for non-ZEVs. Only requires 250 fuel-cell vehicles by 2009. Toyota stops production of the RAV4-EV; Honda stops lease renewals of the EV-Plus; GM does the same for the EV-1.

AC Propulsion’s tZero earns highest grade at the Michelin Challenge Bibendum; tZero specs: 300 miles per charge, 0-60mph in 3.6 seconds, 100 mph top speed.


The Toyota Prius II won 2004 Car of the Year Awards from Motor Trend Magazine and the North American Auto Show. Toyota was surprised by the demand and pumped up its production from 36,000 to 47,000 for the U.S. market. Interested buyers waited up to six months to purchase the 2004 Prius. Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. President Jim Press called it "the hottest car we've ever had."

In September, Ford released the Escape Hybrid, the first American hybrid and the first SUV hybrid.

The Ford Ranger EV and Th!nk are saved from the crushers. Unfortunately, the GM EV1 could not be saved from the crusher. CalCars demonstrates modifications to a Toyota Prius to enable plug-in capabilities.


On February 16, electric vehicle enthusiasts begin a "Don't Crush" vigil to stop G.M. from demolishing 78 impounded EV1s in Burbank, California. The vigil ends twenty-eight days later when G.M. removes the cars from the facility. In the film "Who Killed the Electric Car" G.M. spokesman Dave Barthmuss states that the EV1s are to be recycled, not just crushed.

Commuter Cars’ Tango begins shipments in fall of 2005. Myers Motors introduces the MM NmG (formerly the Corbin Sparrow). DontCrush.com saves EVs from the crusher — including the Th!nk City, Ranger EV, RAV4-EV. The EAA launches a Plug-In Hybrid Special Interest Group. Hybrid sales are through the roof. EDrive Systems brings their plug-in hybrid to the EVS-21 Auto Conference in Monaco. Launch of PlugInAmerica, a coalition of EV drivers, clean air and energy independence advocates working to promote the use of plug-in vehicles.


A few pure electric cars and plug-in hybrids are in limited production and new ones are on the horizon. Experts differ on how soon rising oil prices, peak oil forecasts, changing fortunes at car companies, and public demand for cars that run without gasoline will resurrect the mass market for electric car in the twenty-first century. The success of the gasoline hybrid Toyota Prius is a promising sign.

The Wrightspeed X1 demonstrates ability to go from 0 to 60 mph in about three seconds, and has a range of 100 miles in "normal" city driving. President Bush describes plug-in hybrids (video). EAA launches the first special interest chapter, the PlugInAmerica chapter.






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