Somewhere out there, in the dusty basements of the Chevron-Texaco corporate headquarters, there is a technology that can - in one swoop - slash global warming emissions, save millions of people from respiratory illnesses, and stop us trashing the Middle East to seize its oil. Yet it is being deliberately left to rot, in the hope we will all forget about it.This sounds like the plot to a bad retro-episode of the X-Files, but an award-winning documentary released this week on DVD in Britain reminds us this technology is real and it is still there, waiting to save us. The film is called 'Who Killed the Electric Car?'
Its story begins in the smogged-out state of California in the early 1990s. The people of the Sunshine State were waking up with a cough to a crisis: one-quarter of all 18-25 year olds in LA County had severe lung lesions or chronic respiratory diseases caused by air pollution. The state government realized they had to act - so they seized on news of a dramatic new technology.
General Motors (GM) had developed a prototype of an electric car with swelling consumer potential. It was a sleek, silver car that could drive at the same speed as a fossil-fueled hunk of metal - only with no exhaust fumes and no carbon emissions. You simply plugged it in at night, like a mobile phone, and drove off in the morning. The electricity costs the equivalent of 30p for a gallon's worth of travel, as opposed to the £4 Brits pay at the petrol pump.
But GM seemed reluctant to push this extraordinary product onto the consumer market. So the California State Senate decided to give them a nudge. They passed a law that said if you want to sell cars for California's roads, a proportion of them have to be electric cars: 2 percent in 1998, 5 percent in 2001, and 10 percent in 2003.
The state senators envisaged a day when electric cars would turn the old fossil fuel beasts into relics. They argued that since it took a law to get seatbelts, airbags and catalytic converters into cars, we also need a law to get toxic fumes and surplus global warming gases out of the atmosphere.
The car companies were immediately and irreparably enraged. They began a two-pronged strategy: the most grudging and stuttering possible compliance with the law, while lobbying fiercely alongside Big Oil to have the law scrapped.
The first electric cars appeared on California's roads nonetheless, and a slew of celebrities like Tom Hanks, Ted Danson and Mel Gibson snapped them up and plugged them at every opportunity.
But the people working on selling the electric cars noted something odd: GM was deliberately underselling them. Chelsea Sexton, one of the company's electric car specialists, explains that the team had to fill in vast questionnaires for every customer, only for most to be inexplicably rejected: "I had to fill in a resume for Mel Gibson listing his accomplishments and achievements, because they said he didn't warrant a car."
Instead of marketing them with sexy women draped over the cars, GM's ads had odd opaque graphics and the voice of an elderly woman. Big Oil speedily joined this anti-advertising campaign. Exxon-Mobil followed its standard operating practice of setting up fake consumer groups to spread disinformation about the products, saying they were bad for the environment.
This corporate coalition finally succeeded in repealing the law - and GM immediately called in all their electric cars and sent them to the scrap heap. The drivers offered over $1.9m to keep the last remaining models - but the company preferred to destroy them. A bemused Sexton says, "There's no precedent for a car company rounding up every particular kind of car and crushing them, as if they're afraid one will get away."
Their campaign almost complete, Chevron-Texaco came in with a final blow. The biggest drawback to the electric car had been its limited range: one charge lasted around 60 miles, then the car stopped. So the distinguished engineer Stan Ovshinsky created a battery that could run up to 300 miles at 70mph on a single charge - enough to get from London to Scotland, and make the car extremely popular. The oil companies bought the technology. It has not been seen since.
Why? Why would a string of corporations turn down cash and scrap a potentially extremely profitable technology? Isn't that contrary to everything we are taught about how market economies work?
The oil companies had an obvious interest in stopping an alternative to fossil fuels. There is $100 trillion of oil left in the earth, and they plan to mine it - even if doing so will make the planet uninhabitable. Anything that could divert that cash away from them is a threat to be crushed.
But why did the car companies collaborate? Electric cars have no combustion engine - and it is in maintaining and replacing those engines that makes up a hefty chunk of Detroit's profits. A transition to batteries, which require little maintenance, would be a disaster for their balance sheets.
Besides, marketing clean electric cars would mean admitting that their core product is dirty. Tom Everhart served on the board of GM for more than a decade, and he explains how the conversation about the electric car went there: "We said that [using the electric car] we can meet the zero emissions requirements. Then we said, 'Do we want to show we can meet them? That means all our other cars...'"
Thatcho-Reaganites are always lecturing about how unregulated markets are the best way to stimulate innovation. The story of the electric car is a parable about how, to the contrary, unregulated markets often quickly descend into a corporate oligopoly that smothers new technologies in their cot. Only tough, democratic regulations - which they mock as 'red tape' - keeps markets from devouring themselves. The California government's regulations spurred innovation, until they were scrapped.
Out here in the smog, we have never needed the electric car more. The Royal Commission of Environmental Pollution warned this week that the air pollution in London is now as damaging as the low-level radiation Chernobyl survivors were exposed to, knocking an average of eight months off your life. The daily carnage in Iraq is the result of our burning thirst for oil. And more important still, global warming is acting like a slow-mo carbon bomb dropped on the planet, destabilizing the climate in ways we cannot control and cannot predict.
But however much we cry for it, the electric car will remain moth-balled in the vaults of Chevron-Texaco - until we change our economic system to put the needs of people before the unhindered, unhinged preservation of profits.
© 2007 Independent News and Media Limited