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The EV is dead, but its legend isn't

In response to a "documentary" film that's getting limited release and some media exposure south of the border these days called "Who Killed the Electric Car?", fingers are being waved at a variety of potential villains for betraying the environment in such a cavalier fashion.

To refresh your memory, the auto industry created many electric vehicles in its early days but abandoned them as soon as a superior propulsion system (the internal combustion, or IC, engine) came along. Primarily it was a question of cost and range, since batteries were expensive 80 or 100 years ago and couldn't hold enough of a charge to carry vehicles as far as their owners wanted them to go.

After several decades of enjoying and taking advantage of the mobility generated by the IC-powered car, society finally began to worry about its downside (emissions), and that worry grows more pronounced by the day. Automotive pollution is a bad thing anywhere, but it has particularly nasty affects in the climate and topography of Southern California, where it simply doesn't blow away.

So the state created the California Air Resources Board (CARB) to deal with the matter, and CARB's most famous move was to require that any car company selling a certain number of vehicles in the richest and most populous state in the union had to market a certain number of those zero-emissions vehicles, which essentially meant electric vehicles.

CARB's motivation was largely worthwhile (helping to clean the air for all the world's citizens), but it also had a more political and less publicized goal -- to create a demand for EV technology that might put many of the engineers and technicians from California's collapsed aerospace industry back to work. Killing jobs in Michigan so people in California can have that work was essentially CARB's goal.

In any case, it was an extremely clever use of power, since CARB knew the car companies would do whatever was required to keep selling in California. Which is why I spent a great deal of time in the early and mid-1990s going to LA to write all kinds of EV stories, including more than a few test drives.

My colleagues and I quickly learned that the might and majesty of the world's greatest car companies could still not overcome the problem of range with a battery-powered vehicle. But this legislation was pending, so GM spent a large fortune to create the best pure (no power source but the battery) EV the auto industry could create at the time -- the EV1. Other companies, it should be noted, put converted versions of their regular production vehicles on the market as well. It should further be noted that all of these vehicles were grotesquely more expensive to build than anything on the market then or since.

For the most part these vehicles were leased at low rates as part of a testing program, and the results were predictable to anyone who knew the technology and the behavior patterns of California buyers. Despite an enormous amount of publicity and the best intentions in the world, they did not catch on. People were afraid that EVs wouldn't get them where they wanted to go and back, and they were right to worry, particularly in the LA area where nowhere that you need to go ever seems to be close.

To the surprise of almost no one, the EV1 and all of the other electric vehicles failed, and the whole idea of forcing them into the dealerships where they wouldn't be bought died on the vine.