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CNN Exchange: Commentary

Paul: Who killed my electric car?

By Alexandra Paul
Special to CNN
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Editor's note: Alexandra Paul is an actress best known for her four years starring in the television series "Baywatch". She has been driving electric vehicles since 1990 and is a founding member of Plug in Americaexternal link. Paul can be seen in the documentary "Who Killed the Electric Car?" in theaters this summer.

LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) -- I drive an electric car. Not a hybrid -- a gasoline-powered car that gets some help from an electric motor -- but a full electric vehicle. I plug it in at night and can drive 100 miles the next day and go faster than 80 mph on the highway.

So don't think "golf cart"; these cars have power and pick-up.

While you won't see many electric cars on the road, they've been around longer than you might think.

In 1900, electric cars outsold both gasoline and steam vehicles because electric cars didn't have the vibration, noise and dirtiness associated with gas vehicles. But soon afterward -- with the discovery of Texas crude oil that reduced the price of gasoline, the invention of the electric starter in 1912 that eliminated the need for a hand crank, and the mass production of internal combustion engine vehicles by Henry Ford -- the electric vehicle went the way of the horse and buggy.

The energy crisis in the 1960s and 1970s revived interest briefly. There was another push in 1990, when General Motors Corp. unveiled the (ineptly named) Impact, a sporty, aerodynamic electric car prototype.

In 1998 the California Air Resources Board decided that if a car company could make such a car, it should, and mandated that 2 percent of vehicles sold in the state in 1998 must be emission-free, with that number rising to 10 percent by 2003.

Since California is a huge market, Honda, Toyota, Nissan, Chrysler, Ford and GM started building electric vehicles -- about 5,000 were manufactured. But by 2005 the mandate had been eviscerated because of pressure from those same car companies, and 4,000 perfectly good electric vehicles were crushed.

But did car companies really want electric cars to succeed? The success of electric vehicles would have threatened the status quo and core business models of two of the world's biggest industries -- oil and automobile. It is more expedient for these companies to give lip service to hydrogen in an attempt to appear "green." But hydrogen is a technology that experts say is decades away.

Because the small print in California's mandate allowed for car companies to manufacture only as many cars as there was interest in them, the game became to pretend there was no interest. Virtually no advertising money was spent to let you know electric cars existed, and even if you did find out about them salespeople actively dissuaded you from getting one.

As with any new technology, an electric vehicle was more expensive than its gas counterpart. Also, the limited range scared off customers, even though the average American drives only 34 miles a day and every electric car could go at least twice that far on a full charge.

These cars had great potential, but no media covered their subsequent crushing. It is only with the release this summer of the documentary "Who Killed the Electric Car?" that the full story comes out. This film chronicles the rise and fall of the General Motors EV1, an electric car I leased on the day it was released in 1996. Zero to 60 mph in 7.4 seconds, a top speed of 140 mph and a range of 120 miles. GM discontinued this car just a few years later. No car company today makes a mass-production electric vehicle.

My current electric vehicle, a Toyota RAV4 EV, also was discontinued a few years ago. This car costs me the equivalent of 60 cents a gallon to run. I never need to get a tune-up, change spark plugs or add water to the batteries or oil to the motor. The only maintenance for the first 150,000 miles is to rotate my tires. This car is quiet, fast and emission free. I plug it in every night at home, and it charges on off-peak energy.

Even if it were getting power solely from electricity derived from coal -- a common criticism of electric cars -- my vehicle uses 50 percent less carbon dioxide than a 24 mpg gas car (for a summary of more than 30 studies on the emissions of electric cars, hybrids and plug in hybrids, go to www.sherryboschert.com/FAQ.html). When I have to get new batteries, which I expect I'll will be when my car is 10 years old, the old ones will be over 90 percent recyclable.

The concern I hear most often about electric vehicles is their range. Well, at 100 miles per charge, my electric vehicle fulfills 98 percent of my driving needs, and I live in a city where everything seems to be 40 minutes away.

When I want to go further, I borrow my husband Ian's Toyota Prius. I don't like driving it. Am I supposed to be amazed when a car gets 43 miles per gallon? The average fuel economy mandate for cars in 1985: 27.5 mpg. For 2006: 27.5 mpg. No wonder our expectations are so low. Progress in fuel efficiency has been glacial compared to improvements in computers and cell phones.

There is a solution: The plug-in hybrid. This vehicle will run on pure electric power for up to 60 miles, and then automatically switch to gas (or a biofuel) if you drive farther. Because around 85 percent of Americans travel less than 50 miles a day, this means that most people who charge their cars at home each night would hardly ever dip into their car's gasoline tank.

The infrastructure to charge is already in place (electric outlets are everywhere), and the technology (batteries) has been tested in the field and greatly improved upon for over 15 years. National security experts, including former CIA Director James Woolsey, are advocates for these vehicles because they say these vehicles can help break our dependence on foreign oil. Environmentalists support them because plugging in means getting an average of more than 100 mpg. Consumers like them because they will be saving thousands of dollars in gasoline costs.

Once you have known the quiet smooth speed and the clean efficiency of an electric vehicle, you will never think "golf cart" again.

What is your take on this commentary? E-mail us

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the writer. This article is part of a series of occasional opinion pieces on CNN.com that offer a broad range of perspectives that express a variety of thoughts and points of view.

Your responses

CNN.com asked readers for their thoughts on Alexandra Paul's commentary. We received a lot of excellent responses. Below you will find a small selection of those e-mails, some of which have been edited for length and spelling.

The only way this country will ever become energy independent is when our leaders make the auto industry stop making inefficient cars. In the 60s, 70s and beyond, the only response to requests for more efficient cars was that it could not be done with along with being "green." I own two hybrids. It can be done!
Don Hulse, Boca Raton, Florida

She should be comparing her coal emissions to a hybrid, which she criticizes. ... And a hybrid does not have the severe limitations. Also, where the heck does she live? What would you do for heat in the winter in Minnesota? And what is your battery power and range when it is -15 degrees? Full electrics are impractical. That's why they're not being produced.
Bob, Vadnais Heights, Minnesota

This article should be spread far and wide. This whole $3 a gallon gas situation and the war in Iraq are all tied to a commodity that could be immediately devalued if our government (is it BY the people anymore?) had the guts to put their money where their mouth is. ... If Brazil can make itself so independent of oil, why can't the United States?
Kerry Johnson, Apple Valley, Minnesota

I wish that electric vehicles were a panacea to our energy woes. Whether you're taking gas prices, pollution or anything else, there is no free lunch. A storage battery is just that, storage for energy which comes from somewhere else, in this case, a power plant. Even if you charge during "off-peak" hours, that power plant is going to have an additional load on it, and will consume fuel and emit pollutants.
Gerrit Kroesen, Dickinson, Texas

I've never thought of myself as an alarmist or out on the fringes, but if the content of this article is correct, then the word "conspiracy" does come to mind. Have the "green" people been right all along?
Linda Goldberg, Larchmont, New York

I am baffled by Alexandra Paul's insinuation that car companies "killed" the electric auto due to some allegiance to the oil industry. This is whacky conspiracy nonsense at its best. Do you really believe Honda and Toyota base their strategic plans on helping rich guys in Houston? It is nonsense. They would make just as much money (or more) selling electric cars as gas ones. Honda is run by some pretty bright people. If the market was really there, they would be happy to make money off of it.
David, Austin, Texas

I applaud Alexandra's courage and patriotism in trying to free us from oil and improve the environment. Solutions to our "oil addiction" have existed for years, but entrenched industries collude with lawmakers to maintain the status quo.
Lee Busch, Somerville, Massachusetts

What of the incredibly harmful chemicals in these lead-acid, NiMH, and NiCad batteries? Eventually, these batteries need to be disposed of, and though these folks are under the dubious impression that driving electric vehicles is saving the earth, they're really just shifting the problem from dependency on petroleum to dependency on highly toxic, not-easily-disposable batteries.
A. Barr, Stevenson Ranch, California

It's excellent to see factual discussion about electric vehicles. It seems the media had long forgotten they ever existed, focusing instead on "hydrogen fuel cell technology" which is still mostly a pipe dream (and an inefficient one at that). The recent popularity of hybrids in America clearly indicates that we are ready for EV mass production. Now if only people knew these cars existed!
Kevin, Minneapolis, Minnesota

I am not surprised that the major car companies and oil companies squashed the electric car. It is not a new tactic -- history shows that public transportation suffered the same fate when electric buses were converted to gasoline driven engines with tires. This all happened because of the collusion of big business.
Karen, Warwick, Rhode Island

While on the surface an electric car sounds good, it is not as clean as it appears. Where does the electricity come from? It would be nice to say that it comes from hydroelectric plants (dams) or atomic energy, but the fact is that most electricity comes from burning fossil fuels. That is dirty, high sulphur, oil and coal. Unfortunately, it is mostly coal. The generation of electricity using fossil fuels is the primary cause of what is commonly know as acid rain.
August L. De Vico, Hillsborough, New Jersey


Alexandra Paul

Alexandra Paul is pictured here in her Toyota RAV 4 EV, an electric-powered vehicle no longer in production.

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