Who killed the electric car?

As a work of entertainment, Chris Paine’s “Who Killed the Electric Car?” is a pretty decent thriller. As a historical document, however, it is sorely lacking.

Paine traces the history of General Motor’s EV1. Unlike Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary, which brought us distinguished historians as commentators (wasn’t Shelby Foote especially wonderful?), Paine relies mainly on Hollywood liberals whose stunning lack of understanding of engineering and economics becomes obvious the moment they open their mouths.

GM didn’t want to build the EV1, but did so to comply with the California Air Resources Board’s mandate that car companies doing business in the Golden State had to produce a Zero Emissions Vehicle.

Once the CARB modified the mandate to allow car companies to meet emissions targets in other ways, GM stopped producing the EV1 and recalled all existing cars. In Paine’s version of the story, the EV1 was a potential environmental savior murdered by evil car and oil companies and corrupt politicians.

In fact, however, except for a few Hollywood tree-huggers like Ed Begley Jr. and Alexandra Paul, there really wasn’t much of a market demand for the EV1. And the reason is obvious: The original version with lead-acid batteries had a claimed range of 55 to 95 miles; the nickel-metal-hydride battery version had a claimed range of 75 to 130 miles. Both required an eight-hour charge.

In real word driving, the EV1’s range frequently proved to be substantially less than the claims. There was more than one story of a commuter running out of charge on the freeway. On top of the limited range, the EV1 lacked luggage capacity. Not only couldn’t you haul the proverbial 4×8 sheet of drywall, you couldn’t even haul the equally proverbial two bags of golf clubs.

Limited range and cargo capacity don’t matter much if you’re a wealthy movie star who can afford two or more cars. You just supplement your EV1 with an SUV. MostAmericans, however, don’t have that option.

Most Americans want a car that can handle occasional weekend jaunts. In my case, from my base in Los Angeles, I’d like to be able to reach places like Las Vegas (about 275 miles) or San Francisco (383 miles) in a single day’s driving. The EV1 simply couldn’t do it.

It thus was the market that killed the electric car. Even though it could have handled most day-to-day work-to-home commuting, it simply didn’t reflect the options most Americans want their car to provide.

The much-ballyhooed new generation of electric cars aren’t likely to have any more success than the EV1. The new Tesla electric sports car has a claimed maximum range of 250 miles, which would leave me stranded in the middle of the dessert on a Vegas run, even if the maximum claimed range proved accurate (which it rarely did for the EV1). Plus, of course, the Tesla carries a movie star price tag north of $100,000.

Meanwhile, the market continues to work its magic. Toyota recently announced plans to introduce a new version of its very popular line of hybrids in which the electric motor can be charged from a household outlet. Most estimates suggest a plug-in hybrid should achieve 100+ MPG fuel efficiency.

So who killed the electric car? The Hollywood liberals who believe you can legislate taste. Who created a superior replacement? The market. Somewhere Adam Smith is smiling.

UCLA Law Professor Stephen Bainbridge is a member of The Examiner’s Blog Board of Contributors and blogs at ProfessorBainbridge.com.General OpinionOpinion

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