In 1900, most drivers preferred electric cars to gas or steam engines. After all, gasoline cars were noisy, smelly and, most critically, difficult to start. This changed radically with the invention of the self-starter for internal combustion cars in 1913. Within a few years, the electric car was almost completely wiped out, not to resurface for about sixty years.
Largely spurred by the oil embargo of 1973 and a burgeoning environmental movement, backyard tinkerers started to test the limits of golf-cart batteries and plastic car bodies. These entrepreneurs picked up the challenge of increasing the speed and driving range that was left off six decades earlier, and as a result, learned a lot about batteries and electric vehicle technology.
ZEV Standards in California
In 1990, the auto industry was forced into the electric car business when Californias Air Resources Board (CARB) took the audacious step of establishing a Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) program:
- 2% of the vehicles produced for sale in California had to be ZEVs, increasing to 5% in 2001 and 10 percent in 2003
The carmakers immediately stepped up their anemic alternative fuel programs, while teaming up with oil companies to wage a multi-million dollar lobbying and advocacy campaign to fight the CARB mandates. They stirred up public fears of increased taxes and lack of automotive choice. By 1996, CARB backed down on the 1998 deadline. In 2001, the program relaxed its standards to include partial zero emission vehicles.
Based on further changes agreed upon in 2003, the ZEV program is now scheduled to restart in 2005 with a set of complicated rules and tables which allow carmakers to use low-speed, low-range electric cars, hybrids, full function electric cars and ultimately fuel cells to pass prescribed standards and quantities up through 2017. These ZEV mandates could significantly increase the number of hybrids on the road.
Fate of Existing Electric Cars
So what happened to the 4,000 battery-powered ZEVs placed in California by major automakers between 1998 and 2003? (Most of the cars were leased rather than sold.) Despite the overwhelming enthusiasm and advocacy of electric car drivers, Ford, GM, Honda, and Toyota have all scrapped their electric vehicle (EV) programs, saying there's just no market for the cars. At a mock funeral for their electric cars, a group of EV drivers expressed their condolences. One participant said, "Unfortunately, very few Americans had a chance to drive an electric car before it was canceled."
"Some of us still believe in electric drive and pure battery power," said Robert C. Stempel, the former GM chairman and chief executive who helped start the EV1 program. Forced out in the early 1990s, Stempel now runs a company that develops batteries and alternative automotive technology. Improvements in battery technology, especially with lithium ion batteries, may one day resurrect EVs by extending their driving range.
Many of the strongest EV advocates and engineers are now looking at gas-electric hybrids that, unlike the current commercial hybrid offerings, could be plugged in (so-called "plug-in hybrids") to provide much greater capacity for running purely on electricity.