When the history of a 21st Century "Green Revolution" is written, last week's Toyota-Tesla headlines and, behind the lines, the concern of a veteran California politician for a few thousand unemployed auto workers, may be the preface to how the electric car eventually penetrated the consciousness of America.
Two years ago, California State Treasurer Bill Lockyer commissioned me to study the potential of "Green Business" in America. I was struck by all the jokes about a benign "plot", of an environmentally-conscious power elite, determined to drag the gas-guzzling, carbon-loving masses into upheaval against an old regime of fossil-fuel energy.
Bill Gates was one "elitist" who pointed out that a hundred million consumers were not about to "go Green" merely to save the earth. Alternative energy had to be economically competitive before it was adopted on a scale massive enough to truly counter the threat of Climate Change.
Living and working in the Berkeley-San Francisco-Silicon Valley milieu, it's easy to be blinded by Green optimism. More Prius autos are sold per square mile in northern California than anywhere else in America. Solar panels are popping up all over in public places, lighting school buildings and powering traffic lights. But no matter how Green the "Left Coast", a Richard Nixon might still ask, "Will it play in Peoria?"
What could possibly trigger a popular Greening of the American heartland? Maybe the one thing many Americans love above all else - their automobiles.
A documentary film of 2006, "Who Killed The Electric Car?", explored the complex of special interests and happenstance that conspired to doom the first General Motors Electric Vehicles which appeared on California roadways in the 1990s. The same question might have been posed a century earlier when the US Government, having bought a large fleet of electric trucks as transport for its new Parcel Post service, scrapped the metal and the technology and joined the rest of the country in hailing Henry Ford's internal combustion engine.
During the last decade, the gradual acceptance of Toyota's Prius hybrid, sales of which passed the respectable (but not yet game-changing) million mark, held out hope for a slow trend back to that fateful turning-point of the past - until the recent bad rap of real and imagined mechanical failures.
Then, while licking its public relations wounds, Toyota announced it would close the NUMMI (New United Motors Manufacturing Inc.) plant in Fremont, California, which it had been operating for 25 years in collaboration with General Motors. Hard hit by the Great Recession, GM was pulling out of the partnership, and Toyota wasn't willing to go it alone. So over 4,000 unionized auto workers would be out of luck.
That disturbed Bill Lockyer. Before he was elected to state office as Attorney General and then Treasurer of California, Lockyer was the State Senator representing southern Alameda County. NUMMI was a dozen miles from his home and his close ties to the plant and its workers, who adapted well to the Japanese production system, were of long-standing.