HAVE CORPORATIONS BEEN SUPPRESSING TECHNOLOGICAL PROGRESS FOR 100 YEARS?
An unusual funeral procession passes through the shimmering Los Angeles heat on 24th July 2003. Melancholy bagpipe music blares out as hundreds of mourners join the convoy to the cemetery. However, it’s not a person being taken for burial, but an EV1 – a futuristic, fully functional electric car. It has to die. Its killers? The automotive and oil industries.
Whether it’s the BMW i3, Volkswagen e-up! or Toyota Prius, what manufacturers are now pitching as a new idea and environmentally friendly innovation is actually a technology that’s over 100 years old. A rarely known fact is that at the beginning of the 20th century, there were more electric cars than ones with internal combustion engines in North America. But electric motors have one big drawback: they require neither petrol stations nor petrol – the substance that powers the most powerful network in the USA. Until the 1980s, eight of the ten largest US firms either built cars or delivered oil. And the $350 billion conglomeration of General Motors (GM), Ford and Chrysler – as well as oil producers such as Exxonmobil and Texaco – fought any attacks on their business model. When photovoltaics company Ovonics developed a battery that enabled a car to travel 160km on one charge, the oil and car industry called foul – and effectively forced the production of EV1S to stop.
It was a misjudgment by the company’s founder Stanford R. Ovshinsky: “We made a mistake of having a joint venture with an oil company… it’s not a good idea to go into business with somebody whose strategies would put you out of business, rather than building the business.” The EV1 works perfectly, costs no more than an ordinary car and would have had thousands of customers – but it was still sacrificed, as GM board member Tom Everhart admits: “GM hasn’t really tried to get the car on the road quickly.” That’s because you couldn’t buy the cars, only rent them. Over 1,000 new cars were scrapped – and one was symbolically buried.