The electric car stages a comeback

Imagine a future without the combustion engine

If you like a good murder mystery, check out the movie Who Killed the Electric Car?( The sequel, Revenge of the Electric Car (, is due out next year. And, if you’re an early adapter, you’ll want to read about the new cars coming out at Jeff vonKaenel is the president, CEO and majority owner of the News & Review newspapers in Sacramento, Chico and Reno. His column, Greenlight, appears weekly in this space.

Ten years ago, there wasn’t an electric car to be found. Now, suddenly, electric cars are back. In the next few weeks, the Chevrolet plug-in hybrid Volt and the 100 percent electric Nissan Leaf will be available in Sacramento. In the next few years, virtually every auto manufacturer will announce an electric or plug-in car.

How did this happen?

I posed this question to the electric car gurus at SMUD, Bill Boyce and Daniel Gehringer. Both have dedicated the last 10 years of their lives to promoting electric cars. They paused, looked at one another, and said, “Have you seen Who Killed the Electric Car?

I checked it out of the library. I learned a lot. In a nutshell: California has always had a smog problem. In 1990, the California Air Resources Board passed the zero-emission vehicle regulation, which required that 10 percent of all cars sold in California be zero-emission vehicles by the year 2003. The car manufacturers freaked. If this took hold in California, it could spread across the nation. Immediately, they started working on ways to kill the mandate. One minute, there were almost 5,000 electric cars on the road, and the next, the car companies had taken them back and crushed them. They worked hard to convince the Air Resources Board that there was no market for these cars. In 2003, the ARB gave in and watered down the mandate. It seemed the electric car was dead. But reports of this death may have been premature.

Have you heard of the Prius? Toyota’s gamble paid off. Today, there are more than 3 million hybrids on the road. Even after the price of gas dropped and the economics of driving a hybrid weren’t as rosy, people continued to buy the Prius.

The other important factor was the war in Iraq. Back in 2002, many neoconservatives believed that war could be funded from oil revenues gained from controlling that region. Well, it did not work out that way. This war just cost too much, to say nothing of the unintended consequence of weakening American security. If the cost of this war were added into the cost of gasoline, no one would be able to afford to drive a gas-powered car.

And while there may still be a few people who believe that the solution is “Drill, baby, drill,” scientists tell us that these resources are limited. Unless you’re living in some sort of parallel universe, yelling can’t drown out the science on the environment and the reality of the economy.

Electric cars use less energy and create less greenhouse gases. Using electricity rather than foreign oil will preserve more American jobs and help us avoid oil-generated military conflicts. In fact, it is hard to imagine a future with the combustion engine as our major transportation vehicle.

So that’s the story. The electric car is back.