Internal combustion economics

Jan. 1, 2020
Just a few weeks ago, it seemed like there was no end in sight for steadily increasing gasoline prices. Suddenly, without explanation, they're dropping like birds with avian flu. It's probably just a coincidence that this is happening in the middle o

Just a few weeks ago, it seemed like there was no end in sight for steadily increasing gasoline prices. Suddenly, without explanation, they're dropping like birds with avian flu. It's probably just a coincidence that this is happening in the middle of the election season. Yeah, right.

But it is no coincidence that American motorists have to worry about the cost of gasoline. Our economy is largely built on automobiles powered by internal combustion engines. It's been an almost infallible system that has kept our economy strong decade after decade with the exceptions of the 1970s fuel crisis and the current oil market.

Who would have thought that the biggest threat to that economic system may be the electric car? Somehow the subversive message of how viable electric cars are crept into the limelight, albeit short lived, when filmmaker Chris Paine released his controversial movie, "Who killed the electric car?" The movie is a documentary that focuses on the merits of GM's EV1 and those responsible for making sure that it died a quiet death.

Chances are that you didn't know the EV1 program is dead and, worse, you may not see why that's significant. In my opinion, everyone working in the automotive industry should see this film to better understand the feasibility of electric car technology. It's never been taken all that seriously by either the general public or the automotive industry and with the demise of the EV1, there's even less reason to think about it. That seems a tad odd given our present position of being at the mercy of some unstable countries for our oil supply, which literally keeps our economy rolling.

The general feeling about electric cars is that they're ugly, lack power and have a limited range for mileage. Early on, that certainly was the case. The reality today is that they can be built to the same design specifications as a manufacturer's regular lineup. Moreover, there are some electric vehicles that are actually faster than many gasoline-powered vehicles and have a range of 300 miles on one charge.

If not for the California Air Resources Board's Zero Emissions Vehicle mandate of 1995 to require 10 percent of all new cars sold in the state to be emissions-free by 2003, the motivation to put the EV1 on the road would have been less than enthusiastic.

Predictably, the automakers lined up to fight the mandate. The Bush administration was also predictable mostly because of the influence wielded by Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice and Andrew Card, all former executives and board members of oil and auto companies.

Strangely, the wild card to submarine the mandate turned out to be CARB itself. Alan Lloyd, who became president of CARB at a critical time in the debate, was a wolf in sheep's clothing. He was in a position that required holding the line on the mandate but was an active proponent of fuel cell technology, which, at best, is a distant alternative. Needless to say, under Lloyd's influence the mandate crumbled like a saltine.

Free of the burdensome mandate, GM rounded up all of the EV1s, which were all leased. The company took them back and had them crushed. The only evidence that they ever existed can be found in a few museums and universities.

GM said it gave up on the EV1 because it had spent $1 billion on a vehicle the public didn't want. There's a lot of truth to that, but the effort to change the public's perception of electric cars was, at best, weak. Those who leased the EV1s loved them, but word of mouth couldn't spread fast enough with only 800 of them in use.

GM's marketing of the EV1 took on the tone that the vehicle was an expensive experiment rather than being the answer to fuel independence and the elimination of CO2. Sadly, in 2004 GM walked away from the project and turned its attention back to the mainstream where trucks and SUVs were king.

Ironically, the strict emissions standards that California set in motion were so unsettling to Toyota and Honda that they pursued hybrid technology with fervor, leaving GM and the other automakers behind in a market that is turning in that direction.

As shortsighted as it seems, GM had no other choice but to protect their parts and service business. Fortunately, GM's action also helped the aftermarket. It doesn't take much imagination to see that the aftermarket as we know it would vanish if electric cars were a major means of transportation. Other than rotating tires and changing brakes, there's not much to maintaining an electric vehicle.

There's no doubt that GM took a giant leap forward in technology, but the sad fact is that we are not quite ready for it because it would turn over the economic applecart.

The good news is that when we get to the point where we are forced to pursue electric vehicles –– either because we run out of oil, want clean air or both –– we can go back to the future at the Smithsonian.

Larry Silvey, Publisher & Group Editorial Director [email protected]

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