World of Knowledge (Australia) - - World Events -

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.

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