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Who Revived the Electric Car?

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Message Joel Thorson
According to the Associated Press (,

"General Motors Corp. says it expects to bring its first lithium-ion battery powered hybrid engine system to market in North America in 2010."

If you haven't yet seen "Who Killed the Electric Car?", it's worth seeking out. The answer to the rhetorical question is, of course, General Motors. GM not only killed their prototype pluggable 15 or 20 years ago, it actually recalled every single car because they were attracting too much favorable attention, and put them through a crusher. It bought up the rights to the car's promising lithium-ion battery technology and put it on a shelf so it wouldn't fall into the hands of a competitor. And so it was that the electric car became extinct and largely forgotten -- much as the electric streetcar had 40 or 50 years earlier, with a heavy-handed lobbying nudge from the auto industry.

Now that new CAFE mileage standards have forced their hand, voilà! Behold what the innovators at GM have discovered -- a battery that makes electric cars feasible! General Motors to the rescue!

So much for relying on competition and the profit motive to spur innovation, weed out inefficiency and drive productivity growth. The losers in this sorry tale, as always, are consumers, the environment, and our children's prospects for a safe and prosperous future. The winners are GM 's shareholders. If you still have a few shares in your 401(k), you and yours are along for the ride. Just don't expect anyone to pay attention to your vote on corporate policies of any consequence.

Another film worth seeing, if you haven't already, is "There WIll Be Blood." It casts a harsh light on the genesis of America's oil hunger, showing the dark side of the "will to innovate" to which we owe all the complex benefits, costs and karmic baggage of the American Age of Prosperity.

There's a polemical drift in the film's storytelling that gets in the way: entrepreneurs as a class aren't the greedy, power-hungry monsters the film makes them out to be, Bill Gates notwithstanding. It does seem, though, that the survival imperative facing every corporate enterprise functions as a sort of Darwinian screening filter in the cultivation of its leadership. The grabbers of the brass ring are those whose values, instincts, skills and competitive drive best serve the needs of the corporation: to grow profits, to appease the stock analysts, and to maintain access to capital. You don't become CEO of GM by worrying about the environment or foreign oil dependency or global warming or even national security, at least not at the expense of ROI. You may worry about those things privately, like everyone else, but you're not about to let your private concerns interfere with your duties or derail a fast-track career.

Meanwhile, Dubya has a pocketful of auto-industry IOUs to repay and the regulatory powers of the federal government under his fist, and so it came to pass that the EPA prohibited states from implementing stricter emission standards than federal law requires.

This is what passes for states' rights and free-market economics under the enlightened rule of today's Republican Party. Your mileage, as they say, may vary.


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Joel Thorson is a a software engineer who lives in Portland, OR. Before tackling software he was an English major, taxi driver and newspaper journalist, moonlighted as a bouncer at a Moebius strip club, apprenticed as a quantum mechanic, and (more...)

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