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Guest Editorial: ‘Who Killed the Electric Car — Again?’

January 11, 2012

The following is an opinion piece submitted to Business Fleet on the topic of electric vehicle manufacturing, demand and infrastructure:

“Who Killed the Electric Car,” a 2006 documentary about experiments with electric cars conducted by General Motors Corp. from 1996 to 1999, concludes by blaming GM for shelving the project and destroying the evidence of the inherent success of electric vehicles (EVs). Now it’s 2012 and it seems the electric car remains dead; the evidence surrounds us.

Electric car companies such as Aptera in California, well-funded and managed, with a jump-start on the game, have closed. Th!nk, a former EV subsidiary of Ford and beneficiary of Scandinavian largess and research, is bankrupt, again. Even Daimler has delayed plans for an electric version of the Smart Car, a project they've been developing for more than a decade.

Further, green transportation infrastructure developers are valued at their all-time lows. Ecotality, which manufactures and installs charging stations for EV's, has never experienced such growth, demand and support, yet their stock has plummeted from $54 to $1 since the collapse of the conventional auto industry. Leo Motors, a Korean developer of electric drivetrains, storage and fuel cell technology now trades at $.15 a share, reflecting barely an $8 million market capitalization.

I've spent three decades in the automotive industry and have monitored alternative modes and power sources for at least as long. There has never been a better opportunity for development of an EV; consider the convergence of the following:

-government support
-economic and ecological imperatives
-decades of preparation, development and experimentation
-the near collapse of the competing transportation model
-and of course, the issues around peak oil and our anticipation or dread regarding the impending, inevitable escalation of gasoline prices
-let me add one more; sheer popularity. So many people wanted EV's to succeed. I include myself as a supporter.

Yet, the market speaks loudly and does not validate the current model of electric vehicular transportation. The transportation infrastructure spending bill is coming up in congress and EV's have not made a dent. Our political leaders will direct massive spending at reinforcing the transportation infrastructure of the past.

Have we missed the opportunity of a lifetime, to change the way we move from here to there, improving our lives in the process? Can we halve our carbon footprint and perhaps even halve our transportation-related expenses in the process? I believe this is certainly achievable, but the missing element is challenging the culture that keeps us on our lemming-like trajectory.

The cultural change to which I refer concerns our mistaken belief that something more powerful will save us. "New technology will fix it, I hope," or "a new source of fuel will be discovered or invented," as if the new fuel or technology won't cause new, related problems. How about a culture shift that says, "Let’s turn to our roots, to simplicity." Less power means less cost and less pollution. We can have mobility and use less power.

We are stuck with our built environment, and we have to travel about to conduct our business and our lives … or do we? Materials can be delivered. Technology connects us without leaving home. People can work from home, often for less, and live lives in balance.

Want the big picture? We are the last modern nation that hasn't connected it's cities by high-speed rail. That's a massive infrastructure project and job creator, all about the future and sustainability. Mass transit is too. Our cities and towns need to be served by transit systems creatively designed to move people to work and connect homes to high-speed rail.

Project yourself into the near future, where you are confident in and regularly utilize transit and rail. Why have 300 horsepower cars, or two? My family could make the transition by keeping my old sedan, but the next car I buy will be an LSV, or low-speed vehicle or VV, a village vehicle. It's a cool, golf cart morph with a roof and windows that protect me from the elements. It connects to transit, which connects to rail and other cities. It plugs into an ordinary outlet in my garage. It costs less than $10,000 when new. I go to work, the grocery store and my children's school in it. It gets the equivalent of 400 miles per gallon. My old sedan lasts 15 years longer because it’s used so little. Imagine how much I've reduced my transportation costs and the positive impact on air quality.

This popular idea needs democratic support and infrastructure spending, because we need safe roads on which to operate these future Village Vehicles. Instead of building expensive new roads, we decommission a grid of existing roads, perhaps 5% at first, growing to 10% in a few years, creating greenways for Village Vehicles. Only small, lightweight, efficient VVs share these greenways. They can be the first car we let our kids drive. Just imagine the sustainable seeds we’re planting!

There is an end of the road for internal combustion transportation modes and recently a rejection of electric cars too. These EV's, proposed by the same players that brought us the cars of the past, are unnecessarily big, heavily armored and fast. They waste electricity instead of gas, and that’s still waste, not a solution. We need to think outside the box because we are burning fossil fuels inside the box, we are trapped and must get out to survive and thrive.

Markets and consumers will validate EV’s when they are appropriately sized elements of a concerted effort to directly solve the problems of safe, green transportation. Join me, look down the road, plan for our future and advocate for high-speed rail, mass transit and Village Vehicles.

Joseph McKinney is president of Oregon Roads Inc,. and in 2009 he co-authored the book “The End of The Road; the Transition to Safe, Green Horsepower.”

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