Sunday, June 27, 2010

Blame GM for the Oil Spill

Is General Motors responsible for the oil spill in the Gulf?

Well no, not directly. But GM did hava a hand in it indirectly. How so? By facilitating the manipulation of demand for petroleum. How so? By refusing to market electric vehicles.

American demand for oil lead to drilling in deeper and deeper water. Our demand for oil has lead to taking bigger and bigger risks in the Gulf of Mexico. And GM could have reduced demand for oil. How so? With electric vehicles, such as the GM EV1 (which was canceled back in 2000 – for no good reason).

Even today, the Chevrolet Volt, GM's electric hybrid (scheduled for sale in 2011) will still burn gas. For ten years now, GM has avoided building an electric vehicle – and left American customers with no alternative but to buy electric golf carts to commute in.

GM has had the technology to build practical electric vehicles for a decade. And now they have even better battery technology, but still they refuse to sell an electric vehicle.

The Chevrolet Volt is expected to have a 375 lb battery module with a capacity of 16 kWh. Had the final design GM EV1 had these batteries, it's battery module would have weighed 440 lbs less – reducing the EV1 curb weight by 15%. In automotive design, that's significant.

The EV1 had a 75 to 150 mile (and more) range. With a 15% reduced curb weight, its range would have been significantly greater. Also, the EV1's acceleration would have been significantly quicker than 0-50 in 6.5 seconds.

These specs show that the technology for a practical all-electric car, made by GM; is well within the capacity of GM. In fact, hybrids such as the Volt are more complicated. With a hybrid, you have to develop two systems instead of one. For a Volt to be all-electric, all you have to do is leave out all that secondary gas-powered stuff (and all that hybrid controls stuff), and add more batteries. With this knowledge, it is easy to see that an all-electric Chevrolet Volt would have been easier to build first.

So why didn't GM build it?

An all-electric Chevrolet Volt's range would have been limited, which would have resulted in a smaller market. But, so what? The all-electric Volt would just have to be marketed differently. A company called “Better Place” appears to be doing just that. And, of course, Nissan will soon be selling the Leaf electric car (at a reasonable price). Which leaves GM still selling fossil fuel cars – when they had the first modern electric vehicle on the road a decade ago.


The answer may lie in how the GM EV1 was canceled back in 2000. Although almost all EV1 lease customers were very happy with their electric cars, they legally had to return them when GM recalled them (for no good reason). All of the EV1s were destroyed (which was never done with any discontinued GM car). And most damning; Texaco ended up with the patent to the EV1 NiMH batteries, which they never sold again – and sued to keep other companies from using.

GM's story of what happened is that the EV1 would never have been a commercial success. This could be true. But if so, why did Texaco (now Chevron) buy the patent to those batteries? If the project wasn't practical, the patent would have been worthless. No. GM's story doesn't make sense. Especially when just six months after acquiring the battery patent, the Chevron subsidiary Cobasys sued Toyota in what resulted in Toyota halting it's Rav4 electric vehicle program too.

What does make sense is that Texaco likely offered GM an astounding amount of money for that battery patent. Texaco may have offered GM way more than they ever would have made selling and leasing the EV1. Without risk, GM could make more profits than they ever expected, right up front. And Chevron could sue any other company that used this battery technology. Hence, no other electric cars could be made using these batteries – slowing down by a decade the production of electric vehicles – and likely increasing petroleum profits by billions.

But you'll never hear this from GM. They probably couldn't tell us if they wanted to. They likely signed a non-disclosure agreement with Texaco (now owned by Chevron). Who knows, maybe they even made a back-room deal not to build electric vehicles at all... that seems like the only good reason GM hasn't even tried to build an electric vehicle in the last decade – and still won't.

As I have pointed out here, it would have been easier to design an all-electric Chevrolet Volt. In fact, GM already did it a decade earlier with EV1. GM simply sold out when they sold their battery patent to Chevron ten years ago. And now; when we're so desperate for oil we've been willing to risk it all in the Gulf of Mexico – we get inevitable results.

Who knows; this isn't likely the end of the story. Maybe this could happen again. Maybe some oil company will try to buy up the patent for these newer batteries. I wouldn't put it past them.

Which brings me to my point:

Abuse of patent law like this should be illegal.

No one should be able to buy a patent to something to keep it from being built. That was never the intent of patent law. And until we force our government to change this law; we too will be partially responsible for the oil spill in the Gulf, the pollution we poison ourselves with, and the climate that is becoming less and less habitable for an advanced society.

1 comment:

~~Just Me in T~~ said...

Yup there is definitely a back room story to the demise (before) of the electric car
Nearly a decade ago electric cars were coming out of GM in droves to satisfy a California mandate to have a certain percentage of electric cars on the road by a certain time. GM would not sell the electric cars; they would only lease them. People loved the cars and many were on the roads running smoothly, efficiently and economically. The oil industry and GM worked to change the law in California. GM recalled all the leases and the company destroyed nearly every car in a crusher.