On the death of the electric car

Recently, I saw the documentary movie Who Killed the Electric Car?. I recommend it as a sobering look at how a successful and innovative technology was strangled by forces that feared it would hurt their profits.

When my mind wanders to recollections of the film, the scene that sticks with me the most (well second most; the most memorable scene is all those cars taken away for destruction over the protests of their owners and supporters) is one whose significance is largely glossed over by the filmmakers.

It is at the point where the film is describing how, instead of battery technology, the car and energy industries are pushing for the development of hydrogen fuel cells as a clean alternative to conventional engines.

There is a specific scene, with President Bush, that takes place at a Shell station outfitted with a tank for “refilling” a hydrogen cell. The narrator’s criticism focuses on the fact that hydrogen technology is still at least 20 years away from being a practical alternative (if it ever gets there at all), while the electric car is practical today.

But to me, the most telling point was the Shell station itself. With electric cars, owners “refuel” their vehicles in their own garages at night, with a battery charger. With hydrogen, you still need to go to a Shell station (or equivalent) to refuel.

No wonder oil companies are aghast at the idea of a successful electric car. How many Shell stations would wind up going out of business if people never needed to use them again, because they could get all the fuel they needed from a wall outlet?

If the oil companies get their way (and they seem to be doing so), that future will never happen. At least not as long as their is oil in the ground and money to be made from selling it.

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