by: Michael Hoexter
I saw Chris Paine’s documentary “Who Killed the Electric Car?” a few months back at the San Francisco Film Festival and it opened my eyes to two different issues of great contemporary importance. One of the issues is very obvious and straightforward to those who are familiar with the movie. To those who haven’t seen it yet I’ll give a brief synposis of this vital documentary film.
“Who Killed the Electric Car” is structured in the form of a legal inquest into “who killed the electric car?” Most of the footage of the movie was shot in the period 2002-2005 when GM and some of the other major auto manufacturers were trying to recall the small fleet of electric vehicles that had been leased to the public and subsequently were crushing those that had been recalled. In Hollywood, a vocal group of celebrities and electric vehicle advocates were protesting the recall and destruction of the vehicles, in particular GM’s revolutionary EV-1. Using inter-titles, documentary footage and interviews with engineers, former GM employees and car lessees are organized around the following questions: “Did the consumer kill the EC?” “Did the state of California?” “Did the auto manufacturers?” “Did the Oil companies?” “Did Batteries?” “Did the Hydrogen Fuel Cell?” etc. While clearly a documentary with a point of view, there is much valuable information for electric car skeptics to ponder.
I came away from the documentary with a new appreciation of the potential of electric cars, which of course was the message of the documentary. After study of the issue beyond simply watching this very enjoyable but disturbing movie, I am joining a growing chorus of voices advocating that electric drive transport (electric cars, electric trains, electric trucks) be developed and brought to market as soon as possible for a host of environmental and energy efficiency reasons. Ulf Bossel’s formulation “an electron economy” which I discussed last week is as good as any slogan for how most clean energy can be delivered; while electricity is not practical for every application, there are too many uses for which electric vehicles and electric motors can rapidly become the best option in terms of utility and environmental impact.
But for me the most striking and chilling thing about what the documentary portrayed was how poor, uncoordinated or even destructive (!!) marketing can stifle demand for a valuable product and, temporarily at least, change the course of history. Now, the documentary points out many “culprits”, but one of the most striking things for me in the movie were the vaguely menacing print ads that GM posted about the EV1 (see the movie… I don’t have a web link for these ads). Of course, these ads expressed GM’s ambivalence about being “forced” to market the EV1 by the California Air Resources Board and also probably the fact that the project was at least initially (as any new vehicle would be) a money loser.
Still, if GM anticipated being able to suppress California’s determination to market Zero Emission Vehicles (the law under which the manufacturers built the electric vehicles), it made short-term internal corporate sense (but sense in no other way) to not get the public interested in EVs. If governmental authorities on either a state or a national level had shown more interest and backbone on this issue, GM might have needed to commit more fully to making sure the EV1 succeeded. Despite its efforts, advocates maintain, there was a waiting list for the EV1 and demand had arisen for the car.
If we engage in a “what if” for the moment, let’s say GM pumped up demand for the EV1 by as the movie suggests “draping beautiful women” over the car in its advertisements. In all probability there would have been a long run-in where GM would continue to lose money on the EV1. On the other hand, GM would have started to outflank the other automakers in what is now (post-Katrina and pre or post oil peak) an obvious run towards at least the APPEARANCE of superior fuel economy and technological innovation that Toyota and Honda to a lesser extent has been able to achieve through creating and marketing the Prius [or the hybrid Civic, etc.]. While the Japanese manufactures have also enjoyed higher quality ratings and therefore a more secure market share in conventional vehicles over the 90’s and early 2000’s, GM’s commitment to a leadership position in electric vehicles may have paid off if GM had taken a 7-10 year perspective and anticipated that non-petroleum fuels would be our future.
Marketing then, because of the lower internal costs and time horizon of a marketing campaign as opposed to the development of a new product, let alone a new technology, can be deployed for a whole host of reasons to either boost or downplay the efforts of departments within the same organization. Marketing by itself is amoral, neither good nor bad. I am an advocate of principled form of marketing that I am terming “green marketing” because I believe that the amoral tools of marketing need to applied to help the positive benefits of green technologies and practices come to public awareness. Green marketing is using marketing to support long-term thinking by corporations and governments to help create a sustainable future. The chilling tale of the EV1 is the story of how marketing can help kill in the short term something that in the long run needed to be born anyway.