What really killed the electric car

A question from Askville:

Have you ever wondered what ever happened to the Electric Car manufactured by GM and Toyota and sold in California?

Well, my hubby and I just watch a U-Tube video in 11 parts of the story of the rise and fall of the all electric car. Here is the website:


The video is an eye-opener about the power of the oil companies and the car manufacturers. It is pretty lengthy, but very informative. Please review the video and give us your thoughts about what can be done to get the electric car back into production in the United States and the world!

Your concern is obviously well-meaning, but the video you are referring to (which actually is a documentary available on DVD) is just another reminder of how bad Americans are at basic science… A cliché, I know, but here are some relevant thoughts that never occurred to those who lament the electric car.

Gasoline-powered cars produce smog, electric cars don’t. That’s true, but electricity to power electric cars has to come from somewhere. And that somewhere is called a power station. Power stations come in different varieties; some burn coal, others, natural gas, yet others, heating oil. There are also hydroelectric and nuclear power stations. Overall, about 30% of electricity generated in the U.S. today is generated by burning coal, which produces more carbon dioxide and way more particulate matter than burning gasoline or even diesel fuel (worldwide, the figure is even higher, 40%). So if all gasoline-powered cars were replaced by electric cars, it would create even more smog (not to mention other well-known forms of coal-related pollution, such as acid rains and elevated levels of background radiation).

Speaking of power stations, quite a few of those would have to be built, should electric cars become a mass phenomenon. The total installed capacity of all U.S. power stations at the end of 2007 was just under one billion kilowatts. The total “installed capacity” of all U.S. cars, meanwhile, is to the tune of ten billion kilowatts (assuming there are 200 million cars and the average car has a 50 kW, or 70 horsepower, engine). Because cars don’t run 24 hours a day, like power stations do, installed capacity of power stations required to charge all those cars will have to be substantially less than the “installed capacity” of cars (most likely, by a factor of 3 or 4, since the average car seems to be on the road for two to three hours a day, while the most likely time for a car to be charged is during the eight-to-nine-hour window of nighttime). Even so, we’re still looking at a capacity requirement of 2.5 to 3.3 billion kilowatts, with only one billion currently in place, and a commensurate increase in pollution by power stations…

You asked for thoughts about what can be done to get the electric car back into production, so here’s one: why should anything be done about resurrecting an unsustainable dead-end technology? There are much more promising alternatives, from hybrids already on the road to (so far, remotely feasible) cars powered by fuel cells burning natural gas… Honda, meanwhile, in addition to its hybrids, already produces a conventional car burning natural gas and a car powered by fuel cells burning hydrogen

Note, however, that we haven’t even begun to discuss the really important things like abandoning the suburban living, lessening the dependence on the car by developing mass transit, or changes to city planning needed in the world where energy is expensive…

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