The documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? opens with a mock funeral for the EV 1, GM’s early entry into the alternative fuels vehicle race. The ill-fated car was test-marketed in Southern California after the state passed a strict new emissions law. The EV 1 developed a small but devoted following before being discontinued by its maker.
At the heart of this film is a mystery; who or what strangled this experiment in its infancy—the state of battery technology, inadequate consumer demand, hostile oil companies, an ambivalent GM or the various state and federal government agencies that dropped the ball?
The film is agonizing to watch, more a tragedy than a mystery. You just can’t help wondering how much further along we would be in if a viable electric car had caught on in the 1990s. Fast forward a decade later to the Southern California community of Torrance. A group of citizens is crafting revisions to the city’s strategic plan and “environmental stewardship” is listed as one of the city’s nine priorities.
As part of its “alternative fuels program,” the city now has a biodiesel fueling station and a hydrogen fueling station, and soon there may be electric car charging sites spouting up all over town as part of its “one mile, one charger” policy, which has the goal of making Torrance a place where no electric car driver will be more than one mile away from a charging station.
What makes this so interesting is that Torrance happens to be home to the Exxon Refinery, the largest producer of gasoline in Southern California. Oil wells dot the local landscape and freeways surround the city and two of the largest Japanese car-makers, Honda and Toyota, have their national headquarters in Torrance.
Not to mention the fact that a generation of baby boomers grew up listening to catchy odes to the internal combustion engine penned by Brian Wilson, who formed the Beach Boys in a garage in Hawthorne, a mere fifteen minutes away (depending on the time of day) on the Santa Monica Freeway.
And now these Boomers are starting to retire, and Torrance—along with other cities—has figured out a potential mobility problem, a generation of aging boomers no longer able or well-advised to drive spending their money on expensive cab rides. The city’s Transit Ambassador Program is designed to encourage seniors to use the local transit system. The goal is to both save money for seniors and to reduce carbon emissions in the region by substantially increasing ridership on local buses. Since 2007, the program has increased risdership by bout nine percent.
More recently, Torrance joined Stanford University and Google Inc. in Honda’s Electric Vehicle Demonstration Project. Nine city departments will help evaluate issues related to the introduction of the Honda Fit EV. It will provide feedback to Honda on the development of charging stations, analysis of CO2 reduction, energy consumption and effect on community-wide energy costs.
The transportation ambassador electric car demonstration programs are two of the three community projects that Torrance will be touting at the All-America City Award program in Kansas City next month. Torrance, Philadelphia, Kenai, Alaska and Lakeview, Oregon—these are just a few of the communities that will be presenting environmentally friendly or green energy projects to the jury of civic experts who will choose the winners.
And just as a footnote: on May 23, the day after Earth Day, a sequel to Who Killed the Electric Car? is scheduled to premier at the Tribeca Film Festival. Revenge of the Electric Car is a much more hopeful title. The ultimate revenge may by the fact that GM, EV 1’s maker (killer?) is now on the road to recovery thanks in part to its new Chevy Volt, acclaimed as “car of the year” by Motor Trend magazine.
Mike McGrath is senior editor and chief information officer for the National Civic League. A former newspaper reporter and magazine writer, he is editor of the quarterly National Civic Review, which will be beginning its centennial year of publishing this spring.
Mike’s posts will appear every Thursday on the State of the Re:Union website.