First, many thanks to IAGS for inviting us all to the screening of the movie "Who Killed the Electric Car?"


Anyone who is seriously interested in energy policy today SHOULD see this movie. It has a lot of important well-documented information even for long-time experts. It's pretty easy to see what's documented and what's not. And the basic spirit of the cause deserves strong support.


At the same time -- the movie is seriously misleading on some important points. My father used to say "Don't get into a pissing contest with a skunk." It is understandable how the EV movement is angry at some of the outright lies and misbehavior of their opponents -- but the EV movement (which I personally support) will do itself a lot of harm in the end if it doesn't get around to correcting some of the misleading impressions here.


In delivering the final "verdict" on "who killed the electric car", they first said: "Government - guilty; car companies -- guilty; oil companies -- guilty; CARB -- guilty." That much is fine. I actually have a good friend from GM who once told me "Actually, it was me who killed the electric car." (I was a bit nervous when he told me that, but it was too late to change anything, and he certainly had the evidence. And yes, he was a friend of Allen Lloyd of CARB.)


BUT -- the movie said "batteries, not guilty." No way, folks. This was not a balanced picture of reality.


Batteries today show wonderful signs of great breakthroughs which really change the game, and cry out for greater support of all kinds. (Well... not all kinds. If you look closely at the movie, you will see some very wide potholes in the road, where money can sink into the dirt.) But these breakthroughs are something new.


If you look back to the past, when EV-1 was killed, things were different. As recently as July 2005, IEEE Spectrum Magazine carried an article on plug-in cars representing the very best knowledge available to objective electrical engineers at IEEE headquarters at that time. (Anyone in energy needs to know what IEEE is. The Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineering is the world's largest professional society -- at least in science/engineering fields -- and it is truly international. Spectrum is their flagship magazine.) They carefully visited all the usual spokespeople, and came up very positive about plug-ins, with one "small" caveat. They reported at the time that no one they could find knew of where to get the required 10 kwh auto-grade battery for less than $6,000.  And they certainly asked all the plug-in folks. 10 kwh is what it takes for a quality car -- a Prius -- to get an all-electric driving range of just 32 kilometers.


Now -- what does that imply, if you want an equally good car (using the best market-ready technology available in 2006, as Toyota has deployed) but with a 100 mile driving range? Do the arithmetic. Multiply $6,000 by 4 or 5. What do you get? Would you today pay $24,000-$30,000 EXTRA for an electric car?


My friend from GM summarized his reasoning in three words: "cost of batteries." The makers of this movie clearly knew about this issue, but were very far from clear about it in the movie itself.  Nobody wanted to have to produce many, many thousands of cars at a cost of $60,000 per (then more) that they would have to sell at $25,000! GM and DOE truly believed at that time that battery technology was a mature technology, and that there was little chance of things getting much better. Back in the 1980's, the PEM fuel cell actually looked viable. Re batteries, the phrase went around: "we can't expect a breakthrough that puts new elements into the periodic table..." In retrospect, many of us made a great mistake in accepting that conventional wisdom too completely, without enough vigilant skepticism...


The movie glorified Ovshinsky, and hinted that his batteries were enough to make cost a moot point. But they never asked how much he charged GM per battery, and what the numbers were. They chose not to. They had the data. I doubt he charged less than what IEEE Spectrum found in their survey of July 2005! (Hint: I have seen some proprietary auto industry data on numbers. But sorry, folks, I don't have an authoritative citation from Marvin Minsky or Madonna to back it up. Proprietary means proprietary -- though the SAE estimates on battery costs for hybrids today could be cited, I suppose. They have seen what I have seen.)


Picturesque summary:


After the movie, one of the EV guys graciously drove his car up to the curb, opened the hood and let people admire. It was a big Toyota... SUV... I forget the code. (I think "RAS 4," which shows I know launch vehicles better than I know SUVs.)  A local guy from the 'hood was riding by on his bike down the rainy, empty road, rode around the car, and turned back to look. He could see everyone else looking at it... and he said to me, "Hey, yeah, that's a pretty fancy car. That the latest RAV? Pretty cool." Me: "It's cooler than you think. That car doesn't even need any gas to run." Him: "Hey, man, are you joshing me? That can't be." Me: "No, really. It doesn't need any gasoline at all. If you had one of those, you would just plug it in  at night, and you would never have to go to a gas station." Him: "Really? But how far can it go? Can you get any distance on a thing like that?" Me: "I figure it's about a hundred miles." EV guy breaks in: "No, it's 120 mile range." 'hood guy: "That doesn't sound like much." Me: "Well, think about it. Do you have to drive 60 miles one-way to get to work or get to the store? How many days do you actually drive more than 120 miles?" 'hood guy: "Ya, that's a good point. A really good point. And it really is cool. Are these things for sale? How much money do you want for them?" EV guy: "Well, a regular RV is $25,000, but this one is more like $40,000." 'hood guy gets on his bike, and says, as he leaves, "Hey, man, that's not a car, it's a piece of jewelry."


Later, the data sheet showed a range of 94 miles, and someone said it would be more like $60,000 to get it, today.




But: times change. My slides posted at give the URL to a manufacturer in China that offers 10kwh batteries at $2,000 each, for quantity orders for delivery in October 2007 or later. That's really great news for plug-ins. It makes the practical economics of plug-in hybrids better than the economics of today's hybrids, even for tough, skeptical consumers (like me or the guy from the 'hood), even at a mere $3/gallon gasoline. Toyota's new plug-in will come in like a massive wave, unstoppable by all the barnacles that the movie talks about. (All the truly promising batteries I've heard of are based on lithium. Japan makes 46% of the lithium batteries now, China 23% and Korea 23%. The US is currently a no-show, no-know. DOE's historic far-sighted investment in lead-acid batteries was a major contributor to this development.)


The US government need not worry about how to encourage the change; instead, we need to worry about helping GM and Ford to be better prepared for the coming wave, perhaps by making deals with the Chinese (or Koreans?) to get a source of batteries that can survive Japanese competition. No matter what we do, Toyota has plenty of markets outside the US where the price of gasoline is higher than here.


And.. we need more effective battery/systems research for the US. That's not just a matter of raw dollars, however. There are exciting new options to try to get the US back on the world battery team, but I don't see much sign of the serious commitment and rational thinking needed to make it real. For now, DOD is probably benefiting this sector more than everyone else in the US government, multiplied by five. (NSF has some relevant basic research, due in part to an SBIR topic I set up back in 1994, but it's so far from the manufacturing/systems level of the problem that it's hard for me even to know how important it is. Just my personal opinion, not any official opinion.)


If we don't admit that we have a problem with battery cost (for batteries meeting key specs, in a systems context)... and that there are unmet opportunities for breakthrough-type research that has a good chance of solving that problem... we won't FIND that solution. And so... if we don't admit our problem, we won't be able to solve it. Too much "promotion" and "optimism" could actually kill the exact thing we are trying to promote!!! I have seen that over and over again in so many areas of technology.... space, hypersonics, global energy, AI, fuel cells, robotics, biofuels, solar energy, whatever...


Of course, even without new breakthroughs in batteries, even at $2,000 for a 10kwh battery, Prius-quality electric cars with a 160 kilometer driving range and 50 kwh of battery, costing $11,000 more than a conventional Prius, may eventually take over the world, if we don't have fuel flexibility and the price of gasoline keeps rising. And other nations may find their own way to the kind of breakthroughs that would cut the costs well below $2000/10kwh.


Now if only we could work on 24-hour renewable SOURCES of electricity large enough to keep up with all the new demand... most people say that that would be too risky, but even without a massive deployment of electric cars, it may be riskier NOT to do our best... No one, not even Japan, is on course to solving that problem as yet...


Best of luck to us all,



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 (forwarded with permission..)

Date: Fri, 30 Jun 2006 09:37:57 EDT
Subject: Re: who killed the electric car -- comments on the movie


I agree with much of what you outlined in the "who killed the electric car" comments. - and recognized my self -of course

Actually I killed two electric car programs by pointing out that  better solutions were either use of natural gas (first time ) - before the caltrans ZEV  mandate - or use of fuel cells (second time) .  That was when we got top management approval of a full scale fuel cell development program (and approved our plan to purchase GE"s fuel cell activity).   It was before I came to the conclusion that stirling engines were a better solution.

At the same time I was promoting the "neighborhood" car where battery electric drive fits.  -  we made a number of studies, presentations etc. built models etc.  the problem was that GM legal thought that GM could not afford the risk of liability suits.

I had nothing to do with the "production" version - except trying to promote an early fleet demonstration using some Saturn's that were to be destroyed because a supplier delivered the wrong antifreeze.

This leads to another villain you did not list - that is the trial lawyers

The reason those cars were not sold (and I assume the reason they were destroyed) is that GM Legal felt that GM could not afford to taker the liability risk should someone get injured in an "old" not properly maintained electric car.  (It is the reason that automobile companies do not sell their show cars)

We had the same problem with the lean machine (a hybrid auto motor cycle capable of 150 mpg ) .   GM legal wanted a comprehensive demonstration before starting public sale.   We and the California Dept. of Transportation (caltrans) came up with an approach acceptable to both caltrans and GM lawyers.   Chevrolet has started a program to produce the number of cars required - the program ended when members of the California legislature told caltrans they could not participate in such a program - that benefited a private company (GM).     Our produce clinics - discounted by GM Marketing - showed that as many as 10% of the sales in California would have been lean machines.  

If you would like I can provide more information on this program (which I managed for GM before and after I retired).  The lean machine was a two person (tandem) car ,  It could have all normal automotive amenities - it leaned like a  motorcycle on cornering - thus (with the right tires) could turn with a production Corvette.  Safety studies showed that it would have fewer accidents - particularly with pedestrians.  But paper studies were not enough- that had to be demonstrated.   Having been a qualified witness on the Corvair suit (which had the fewest fatalities per car of any car at that time)  I understand the severity of the legal problems and why they have inhibited progress.

                                                 Al Sobey

P.S. Al is retired from GM but still active. His resume and several of his papers are posted at __._,_.___