Who Will Resurrect the Electric Car?

Two years ago, the controversial documentary film "Who Killed the Electric Car?" caused quite a stir, with its claims that GM went out of its way to discredit and destroy the electric car it had developed, the EV1, preferring to keep its customers hooked on the gasoline engine. At the time, the director of Sony's electric car post-mortem, Chris Paine, hoped to follow it up with a documentary that he'd call, "Who Saved the Electric Car?" Evidently he gave up for lack of plausible protagonists. Perhaps it's time for him to take another look.

The auto industry turnaround wizard Carlos Ghosn, CEO of Nissan and Renault, is promising to be the person who will breathe life back into the idea of an all-electric, zero-emissions car. Reporting on Nissan's recent performance the week of May 12, Ghosn said that Nissan would introduce an electric car in the United States and Japan in 2010 and market it worldwide in 2012. Nissan's strategic partner Renault announced earlier this year that it will produce electric cars for sale in Israel and Denmark. But Nissan would be the first to market an electric car globally, and the company is eying a whole range of electric vehicles, from city cars to small vans.

It seems to be Ghosn's intention to leapfrog the Chevrolet Volt, the electric car that GM plans to introduce in 2010. GM bills the Volt as a true electric car and not a hybrid, because its electric motor will always turn its wheels. But critics contend it's still a kind of hybrid, inasmuch as a backup gasoline engine will recharge its lithium ion batteries for ranges greater than 60 kilometers. Just recently, GM got much more specific about the Volt design, as described in Spectrum, but the issue of whether the car deserves to be called a true EV lingers.

Ghosn puts a formidable name and reputation behind the behind the old vision of a pure, zero-emissions EV. After taking the reins at Nissan, he engineered an instantaneous rescue, making him--a French citizen born in Brazil and raised in Lebanon--a national hero in Japan. In 2006, the year after he became CEO of Renault as well, Kirk Kirkorian tried to concoct a GM-Nissan-Renault alliance, with Ghosn at the helm.

Ghosn enunciated his electric vision this week in the context of disappointing financial results. Nissan's profits, though better than those at Fiat, Peugeot, VW or BMW, were deemed disappointing. And the company's most recent three year plan, for the first time since Ghosn took over, did not meet targets. Europe's financial press put more emphasis on those developments than on Ghosn's plans to resuscitate the EV.

Still, Ghosn's bold announcements make the quest for the EV a two-way contest, at least, and is sure to reinvigorate debate about what went wrong the last time around and whether things could go better now. "Who Killed the Electric Car?" made a good case that California air regulators had caved to industry pressure, seduced by the fantasy that hydrogen cars would provide a better path to zero emissions. But the film was weaker on technology, failing to fully acknowledge that car battery improvements had fallen short of expectations. Maybe it's time for director Paine to dust off his plans for "Who Saved?," taking recent advances in lithium ion batteries and supercapacitors into account.

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