September 21 - September 27, 1995

Are Detroit And Big Oil Behind The Recent Bad PR For Battery-Powered Autos?

B y  M a r k  B r y a n t

Electric Vehicles ARE generally regarded as a quaint idea, under-powered, without much range and not very practical. However, new technology and state mandates are putting new and improved versions on the road, reasonable alternatives to the pollution-belching internal combustion engine.

Yet a recent study in Science magazine undercut those claims for environmentally friendly vehicles. The New York Times reported it under the headline, "Lead-Based Battery Used in Electric Car May Pose Hazards."

The news ignited protests by defenders of electric vehicle technology--and good science--who blasted holes in the flawed study. Some proponents even pointed to dark motives, the status quo feeling threatened by new ideas.

The May 9 Times article reported a study by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, which, to quote the newspaper, suggests that "emissions from mining, smelting and recycling the lead needed for a large fleet of electrical vehicles would pose serious threats to public health."

The study says, "A 1998 electric car is estimated to release 60 times more lead per kilometer of use relative to a comparable car burning leaded gasoline." And, "Electric Vehicles will not be in the public interest until they pose no greater threat to public health and the environment than do alternative technologies, such as vehicles using low-emissions gasoline."

In the Times, an economist for the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, was quoted as saying, "This could be the kiss of death for electric vehicles."

Critics called it bad science leading to wrong conclusions. More interestingly, though, some said the study reveals a subtle David-and-Goliath battle: the makers of Electric Vehicles vs. the oil industry and auto companies. Just part of a transparent effort by opponents of electric vehicles to change public opinion.

One of those wading in to do battle is Mary Ann Chapman, president of EcoElectric Corporation, a Tucson business that is building and selling electric vehicles. Aside from picking apart the glaring technical flaws in the study, she and some others make some unsettling claims.

One is that the study, which got plenty of media attention, was tainted from the start. One of the research grants came from the Green Design Consortium of the Carnegie Mellon University Engineering Design Research Center. From Carnegie Mellon's own description, the consortium is "open to industrial partners interested in participating and guiding consortium projects."

Aside from any possible bias from the start, the study is sloppy and inaccurate, "containing errors that would shame a high school engineering student," wrote the editor of Current EVents, the publication of the electric vehicle industry. Others, published in the August 11 edition of Science, described it as "absurd," "amazing" and "the analysis...does not appropriately support its conclusions."

Other rebuttals came from the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Gas Guzzler Campaign, The Advanced Lead-Battery Consortium and others, which quickly noted some of the many flaws:

1) The study apparently ignores the 188 million batteries already in use by conventional vehicles. About 97 percent of those get recycled

2) The study estimates 10 million electric vehicles on the road in the next decade. Not a chance. Last year, American car companies sold 15 million cars and trucks. Even if all states adopted zero-emissions standards, there's no way that many would be on the road that soon.

3) The study uses data from a 17-year-old test vehicle as an example of current technology. "It is rather like comparing a Model T Ford with a Chevrolet Corvette," writes David Goldstein, president of Program Development Associates, an electric vehicle and battery consulting firm in Maryland.

Cleaner, more efficient batteries will soon replace lead-acid batteries. The bigger the market, the bigger the incentive for improvement. New technology for Electric Vehicles includes nickel-metal hydride, lithium polymer and composite flywheels.

4) The lead emissions estimates in the study are at least three times too high.

5) The report bases some of its findings on assuming that General Motors' electric vehicle, the Impact, has a battery pack weighing 3,032 pounds and the car's range is 50 miles. Actually, the whole car weighs less than that, the batteries weigh 1,150 pounds, with a range of 75 to 90 miles.

6) The study ignores the emissions of all the nasty pollutants that would be displaced by electric vehicles.

Enough people wrote to Science that the study's authors wrote in a rebuttal that reaction "has been astonishing in terms of the level of attention, venom, and desire to defend EVs."

For Chapman, the study is just an early salvo in what she expects to be a much larger battle over the fate of vehicles that could supplant the need for gasoline. The bigger picture, she believes, is one that has the oil industry and car companies pushing out alternate-fuel vehicles.

For starters, American Petroleum Institute has a budget of $10 million to discredit alternative fuels, particularly electric vehicles, she says.

This should come as no big surprise. Chapman notes: "Both the oil industry and the major automakers clearly have a long history of working together to achieve mutual objectives. In the 1920s, major oil and automotive interests killed electric trolleys in Los Angeles and other metropolitan areas by buying them and shutting down, in order to make the country dependent on individual transportation and petroleum. They succeeded. This is documented, unquestionable history."

Mandates in California, New York and Massachusetts call for a rising fraction of cars sold to be zero-emission vehicles. This has already ignited opposition.

Oil companies argue that the nascent electric-vehicle industry, and domestic fuels such as natural gas and ethanol, should not be subsidized, that it should be a level playing field.

Yet the oil industry gets oodles of tax breaks and other benefits. A Domestic Fuels Alliance study in March said the oil industry got more than $123 billion in preferential tax benefits from 1919 to 1973. In 1990, the Congressional Budget Office put subsidies at $28 million annually.

The Domestic Fuels Alliance states: "The petroleum industry is financing an aggressive lobbying, litigation, public relations and advertising campaign aimed at delaying the development and growth of alternative fuels and alternatively fueled autos. The motivation is to retain market dominance for conventional gasoline, and future dominance for reformulated gasoline, now required by the government for use in American's most heavily air-polluted cities."

Detroit first argued that electric cars could not be practical. Now they say they'll cost too much. "The Big Three price their electric vehicles at $100,000 and assert that by 1998 they will cost $12,000 to $20,000 more than comparable conventional cars and trucks," wrote Jessica Mathews, with the Council on Foreign Relations. She argues their prices are inflated to discourage sales of the new technology. Other American producers are selling electric vehicles at much lower prices. And once the economy of scale kicks in, the cost of owning and operating one will be comparable to gasoline vehicles, says a study from Tufts University.

A big "if" remains that Electric Vehicles will succeed. Or how other fuels will fare. But in a country renowned for innovation and independence, it would be a shame to see the opportunity quashed by industries enmeshed in self-interest.

"The real danger," notes Chapman, "is the way in which major corporations are using their financial might to unduly limit our transportation options and efforts to clean up the environment and establish U.S. energy independence."

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