Revenge of the Electric Car – part 1
Thursday evening we went to see Revenge Of the Electric Car at the historic Normal Theater. The documentary followed GM executive Bob Lutz, Nissan president Carlos Ghosn, Tesla CEO Elon Musk, and renegade engineer Greg “Gadget” Abbot as they raced to bring an electric car to market.
I’ll probably have three or four posts about the documentary in coming weeks. But here’s one incident that stuck in my mind. It was about GM executive Bob Lutz.
Lutz was a top exec for GM who made the decision to destroy the EV-1 electric car. Not just to terminate the program, but to take the cars back from people who had leased them… and have them physically crushed. Later he came to regret the decision and backed the Chevrolet Volt. But he’s the archetype of the cigar-smoking, swaggering jerk of the auto industry who figures you can’t sell a car unless it drips testosterone.
So here’s the incident: He was at an electric car show and saw an urban policing vehicle. I think it was a T-Motion EV-1, very small and efficient-looking and clearly made for parking enforcement and dense traffic. There was a young woman, a model, standing next to it, which is common at car shows. He smirked at her and said; “Honey, tell you what. I’ll run away in my Corvette ZR-1 and you see if you can catch me in this thing.”
The model smiled back at him; I’d pay money to know what she was thinking at the time. My guess would be a reference to some body part. But the point of the story isn’t Lutz being a jerk; it’s Lutz misunderstanding the world.
Let’s say a policeman is driving her little urban electric police car. It has a top speed of, maybe, 50 miles an hour and is so small she could drive it on a sidewalk if she had to. It looks like it’s equipped with all the basic cop equipment though, and probably features a super-reinforced passenger cage as many tiny cars do now.
Now let’s say Bob Lutz does something stupid in his ZR-1 where our electric-car-driving officer can see him. Remember they’re in the concrete canyons, not the open road. She turns on her flashing lights, pulls out behind him and he decides to make a 500hp run for it. What happens next?
Most likely he gets stuck in traffic, but the officer can drive right between stopped cars and pull up behind him. But suppose he gets away and hits a highway on-ramp. He’s home free, right? No way the little electric cop car can catch him.
She doesn’t have to catch him. She’ll pull over and consults the video from her dash cam, isolating his license number on the touch screen and accessing the OnStar law enforcement channel. She’ll have OnStar cut the engine on his Corvette and then request backup. Just about the time mister Lutz realizes he’s been had, he’s swimming in flashing lights and sirens.
Economy, Information and “freedom”
Something like eighty percent of Americans live in urban areas now; a car capable of more than 100 mph is more of a burden than a symbol of freedom. The power isn’t in Lutz’ monster V8 engine; it’s in the information and connectivity wielded by the cop. All he can do is sit there and fume as she walks up to the door and tells him to keep his hands where she can see them.
Sure it’s fun to think about cutting donuts on the salt flats, or zooming down picturesque highways along the seashore, but in the environment where we actually live, the ability to maneuver and park means more than zero to sixty in four seconds. So much the better if the car can advise you of tangled traffic in time to take a different route, and best of all if it is very inexpensive to run. Then the owner has the freedom to spend money on something besides gasoline.
We almost lost GM entirely to Lutz’ mindset. Unfortunately it reflects our national mindset for living on Earth as well. It might help if we were more maneuverable, adaptable, and a whole lot smarter. We have too many Lutz-es in politics, broadcasting, and business already.
The documentary was next door to a mini auto show, where we saw a Nissan Leaf, a Chevrolet Volt, a Tesla roadster, and a Fisker Karma. I’ll have more to say about those next.
UPDATE: Revenge of the Electric Car, Part 2 – the auto show at the hotel next door to the theater