Murder most foul



Amnesia is a lamentable American trait. Obsessed as we are with the here and now, we tend to erase even the recent past. Which is too bad, considering the value that can be gained by judging current events in their proper context.

Case in point: The flurry of press stories this week about the potentially bullish market for electric cars.

President Obama stopped in Michigan yesterday to publicize a factory - now under construction, with help from federal stimulus money - that will manufacture batteries for the newfangled vehicles. GM, Ford, and Nissan are currently readying their respective models, none of which will have gas tanks or internal combustion engines or carburetors or air filters or transmissions. The feds have put up $2.6 billion in stimulus bucks for energy-efficient cars, politicians in Michigan are ballyhooing the prospects of new jobs for the auto industry, and the auto industry is talking up these cars as the next big thing.

These developments were all duly reported in the stories out of Michigan. Yet none bothered to point out a crucial historical fact: If GM in particular had not worked so hard and so successfully to murder the electric car less than 10 years ago - "murder most foul," as a Hamlet ghost intoned - we would not be stuck at the starting gate today.

An AP story yesterday referred to the electric car market as "a sector with a promising but uncertain future." Perhaps it would have been valuable to provide some context, to recount, if only briefly, what happened in California well within living memory. The future was then, and GM willfully blew it.

For the full history, check out the award-winning 2006 documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? This is the short version of what happened:

Electric cars actually outsold gas-powered cars way back in 1900, but the discovery of Texas crude changed that equation. Goodbye, electric car. Fast forward now to 1990. That year, smog-ridden California (home of the nation's biggest consumer car market) crafted a set of state regulations that essentially compelled the auto makers to develop emission-free vehicles. The state rules mandated that, by 1998, two percent of  Californians' cars had to be electric; by 2003, 10 percent. Well, it just so happened that GM had an electric prototype on the drawing board anyway, and in 1996, it actually introduced the EV1, a model that could be powered by plugging it into a socket. GM made a few of these vehicles, and leasing roughly 800 to willing Californians. Several other car companies did the same thing, building a few thousand more.

But GM's green sensibility was merely for show. Clearly, the electric car threatened the economic interests of the usual suspects. Early in this decade, GM, working with its allies in the oil industry and the Bush administration (sorry, Bush fans, but this is the factual record), filed a string of lawsuits that ultimately succeeded in watering down the California emission rules. Meanwhile, GM slow-walked its marketing of electric cars - while pouring big bucks into advertisements for its favorite gas-ingesting, zero-financing behemoth. That would be the SUV.

After buttressing the status quo, GM then proceeded to call back the smattering of electric cars that it had leased. Then it shipped the cars to a remote location in Arizona, where they were flattened and destroyed. Other car companies did the same. The '06 documentary has this process on film, a visual metaphor for a perpetually purblind auto industry.

GM has since insisted that it tried very hard to market the electric cars in California. Yeah, right. Just look at GM's history; its corporate culture has always been allergic to socially conscious innovation. After World War II, GM  came up with a small, inexpensive, efficiently engineered gasoline car - nicknamed the Cadet - but it was strangled in its cradle because the brass didn't think it would yield enough profit.

We're all upset about the sluggish job market, understandably so, but perhaps the situation would not be as dire (at least in Michigan, and in other locales where battery manufacturing might already be thriving) if American auto makers hadn't declared war on the future 10 years ago. It would have been nice to see this historical context in yesterday's news stories.

And it would have been nice to read the sheepish confession, uttered three years ago by Bob Lutz, a GM product development executive. He said that the decision to crush all the EV1 cars, "from a PR standpoint, was probably the dumbest move we ever made."

Actually, the "PR" dimension was the least of it.


But let's cruise to the weekend on a lighter note. Here's an AP story that reminds us, yet again, about why we love South Carolina:

(AP) Alvin Greene action figures are here - thanks to a South Carolina minor league baseball team. The Charleston RiverDogs will give out statues of the Democratic U.S. Senate candidate at Saturday's game. Greene, who shocked the political establishment by winning the primary without campaigning, has suggested that manufacturing action figures of himself could spur economic growth in a state with chronically high unemployment.

The statues are actually Statue of Liberty figures the team planned to give away as a different promotion. But after hearing Greene's idea, the RiverDogs decided to put a picture of his face on the statues instead.

The RiverDogs are known for their promotions. They set a record for having no fans in the stands on Nobody Night. They tried to have Vasectomy Night on Father's Day 13 years ago, but canceled it when some fans complained it was too crass.