Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Killing Cars

Yesterday, General Motors announced the launch of a new H3 Hummer truck in 2009. The vehicle, which began life as a high-mobility vehicle (Humvee) for the US military, is key to GM’s strategy as it tries to recover from a $US10.6 billion 2005 loss. Global Hummer sales rose 54 per cent in the first nine months of 2006 despite high oil prices, while overall GM sales fell 2.5 per cent. Hummers have been roundly criticised for their low fuel economy, massive bulk and environment destructiveness when used as off-road vehicles.

The popularity of the Hummer is mainly due to favourable US tax breaks and lax emission standards. A $50,000 H2 attracts a federal tax deduction of $38,000. Owners take advantage of a loophole which allows tax breaks on vehicles with a gross weight of 6,000 pounds (2720 kg) or more which was meant to help farmers afford tractors, large trucks and other heavy equipment. But many SUVs, including the 2,900 kg H2, fall into that heavyweight category. Typical SUV owners include executives, doctors, real estate agents and lawyers are now all qualifying for the deduction. Truck-type vehicles are also held to weaker emissions standards than passenger cars.

The growth in the use of the H2 is in direct comparison to how General Motors treated the EV1 – the electric car. Filmmaker and ex EV1 driver Chris Paine made the feature length documentary “Who Killed the Electric Car?” The film documents the history of the electric car in the US focussing on GM’s EV1. GM built the EV1 in response to California’s Zero Emissions Vehicle (ZEV) Mandate of 1990. California specified that by 1998, 2% of all new cars sold were to have no emissions. GM spent over $1 billion developing and marketing the EV1 much of which was defrayed by the Clinton Administration's 1996 Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles (PNGV) project.

The EV1 was first displayed as a concept at the 1990 Los Angeles Auto Show under the name of “Impact”. It took six years to get it onto the road. The first purpose built two-seater electric vehicles were made available in 1996 on three year leases to about a thousand drivers in California and Arizona. It could be plugged in for recharging at home and at a number of so-called battery parks. The first generation EV1 used a lead-acid battery which required re-charge after approximately 100kms. In 1999, a new car with a nickel metal hydride battery could run for approximately 200kms without charge. The EV1 had the lowest wind resistance of any production vehicle in history and the only audible noise was the whirr of the tyres, with nothing from wind or motors. The EV1 could accelerate from 0-100kph in under ten second and had a top speed of about 130kph.

In 2001, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) modified the ZEV Mandate to allow manufacturers to claim partial ZEV credit for hybrid vehicles. General Motors and Daimler Chrysler then sued the state of California and CARB, alleging the new rules violated a federal law barring states from regulating fuel economy. The oil companies Exxon and Mobil joined the suit as did the federal government under the new Bush administration. Vice President Cheney and Secretary of State Rice had major links to the oil industry. And ex-Chief of Staff Andrew Card came to the White House from GM where he was appointed Vice President of Government Relations in 1999.

But even before the Bush team was elected, GM was already scaling down their operation. Barely a month after releasing the second generation EV1 in 2000, the car manufacturer announced it was closing down the production line due to insufficient demand. They recalled all EV1 due to thermal problems and although they returned them to the original lessees, they told everyone on the waiting list they would no longer be able to lease a vehicle. Under the considerable external pressure of the law suit, CARB finally backed away from their ZEV mandate in 2003. GM’s response was swift. The entire program was cancelled. They claimed they halted production because there were only 800 paying customers. Activists contended GM ignored a waiting list of 5,000 because the EV1 threatened the future of the rest of GM’s fleet based on the internal combustion engine.

The last private lease expired in August 2004. The cars were stored at a facility in Burbank, California before being transferred to the GM Desert Proving Grounds in Mesa, Arizona. There they were crushed and recycled. GM refused all requests from lessees to purchase the vehicles. The reason GM gave for refusing was to avoid legal liabilities. GM claimed the EV1 was not a failure but that battery technology was not advanced enough to support it. Nearly all models have now been destroyed apart from a small amount of cars (minus working battery) GM donated to colleges and universities for engineering students. Several museums also have EV1s in their possession.

One of those museums is Washington’s esteemed Smithsonian Institution. However in June this year, the Institution pulled its model from display in advance of the release of “Who Killed the Electric Car?” GM is a donor to the museum but a spokesman claimed there was no conspiracy and it simply needed the space for another vehicle. Filmmaker Chris Paine said he was disappointed the EV1 was in the museum at all. "It's an example of what the 21st century can be in this country, if we had the willpower to do it," he said. "The Smithsonian should take the car out of the museum and put it back on the road."

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