• Jun 22nd 2006 at 12:03PM
  • 60
You don't have to spend much time talking with Chelsea Sexton to realize she is passionate about electric vehicles. Sexton has been part of the EV debate that started in the 1990s with the debut of General Motor's first mass-production all-electric vehicle, the EV1. Sexton worked for GM, leasing the EV1 to customers and working on marketing strategies, until late 2001, when she was laid off and GM stopped the EV1 program. The EV1's story is told in the new film "Who Killed The Electric Car?", which features Sexton and others talking about the strange fate of the cars that were once hyped by Hollywood stars, then found a fanatic consumer base, and are now out rusting in the desert. Sexton found time for an exclusive Q&A with AutoblogGreen.

ABG: Do you think "Who Killed The Electric Car?" accurately portrays the EV1 story?
Sexton: I do, actually. I've been really proud of Chris [Paine, director] and Dean [Devlin, executive producer]. That is part of what has enabled all of us to have a good level of trust going into it because it is their story, too. The director and the executive producer were both drivers of these cars [EV1s]. We knew they'd do right by the story. I've been really impressed with how well Chris told that complex story in a precise and compelling way.

ABG: How did you get involved in the film?
Sexton: (laughs) I leased them their cars. I've known Chris for about nine years and I actually leased Dean his car but also his father Don Devlin was one of my very first drivers, the guy to whom the film is dedicated. In some ways, Don is responsible for our ability to tell the story with such accuracy because he was, from the very beginning, saying the auto companies do not want to do this and he made us pay attention all along. It was very rewarding to get to tell the story for Don in the end.

ABG: There is a scene in the film where you go see an EV1 in an underground parking garage, I think in a car museum. Is this the last EV1 in existence?
Sexton: No. There are about 40 that GM gutted and donated to museums and universities, basically in an effort to get some brownie points in the end, I guess. The Peterson [Automotive Museum] got one of them. Another one that is kind of making a lot of waves right now is the one in the Smithsonian because they got the only intact car, but they just removed it from display. The Washington Post wrote a big article on it a few days ago. The other interesting component is the wing that the EV1 sits in was paid for by General Motors. GM donated $10 million to the museum and now, on the eve of the film coming out, they remove the car. There's no conspiracy theory involved, but it certainly is a big coincidence.

ABG: The films shows there was quite an activist movement to save the EV1, and you were part of this group. How should activists approach such battles in the future?
Sexton: I think, more and more, it's imperative that consumers ask for what they want and not settle for the status quo. Part of that comes from having worked within the industry and I know how it works. The typical industry model for automotive is, "We're gonna build something and convince the customer that they want it" not, "Let's ask them what they want and build it." This is one of those cases where this was absolutely been proven. Just last year, as a good little example, Life and Times [Los Angeles-area PBS show] did a story on auto enthusiasts and they went to Hummer and to Prius and they came to us last at the vigil. While they're setting up we were just chatting, and they said, "We just went to Toyota and we asked them about all this grassroots demand for plug-in hybrids and the Prius seems like the obvious first car to start with and people are making them in their garages. Why don't you build a plug-in Prius?" and they said, "Because we don't have to. So many people are buying the gas-burning version we don't need to build anything else." That's sort of the perfect distillation. As long as we buy what they're making, they won't make anything else. It is necessary that consumers get involved, whether that's protesting or grassroots pressure or simply voting, not just politically but with your wallet and not buying something that isn't truly what you want. We have to get involved if we're going to end up seeing in the showrooms the cars that we really want to drive. Because that's what it's about in the end. It's not about, Oh my gosh, this one little car. It's about the choice that consumers have been denied. I'd never tell a Hummer driver that, "You can't have the choice to drive a Hummer." Choice is one of the cornerstones that we hold up as an American value. Similarly, we want the same choice, to drive something cleaner, especially something that has been proven to be viable in the market.



ABG: And people were interested in driving the EV1. Was this because it was a zero-emission vehicle?
Sexton: People buy cars for different reasons, many of them emotional. A lot of reasons people buy products in general are not necessarily the most logical on paper arguments. But there is absolutely a segment of folks who want a car that is clean or a car that is smooth and quiet, or a car that doesn't pollute or a car that doesn't rely on the Middle East. I mean, if you as Jim Woolsey [former head of the CIA, currently a partner in Booz Allen and works with Set America Free and Plug-In America, where Sexton is director] why he wants one of these cars, it has nothing to do with the environment. He's an environmentalist, but that's not his primary motivation. It's all about domestic energy. There are more and more, as time goes on, all kinds of varying reasons why people like these cars, which is what makes it such a common ground, technologically.

ABG: The movie ends by showing the plug-in hybrid as the next best car. What do you think the future of electric cars will be in America?
Sexton: I think for pure electrics, the next stage is going to come out of the smaller companies, the Teslas of the world. That car is wicked fun to drive; it's a very cool little car. In terms of the major automakers, I see them first going to plug-in hybrids, partially because there is a very broad market for it and partially simply because it's not a purely electric car and there is such an emotional fight right now. The more we want them the more they're not going to make them and it's almost come down to that particular fight over principle. So they are more likely to make plug-in hybrids, and that's fine. In our experience, the best way to get people to use less oil is to give them the option to use none, even if that's just for twenty or forty miles a day. That still gets most people through their daily commute and when you need to go further you have that back-up tank that you can put gasoline in, and eventually we'll be putting ethanol in or biodiesel or something else. I'm fine with the plug-in hybrid. I don't see it some sort of compromise in a bad way.



ABG: What kind of car do you drive?
Sexton: I drive a Saturn. I've had about eight of them. I won't buy a hybrid, so I drive a good little economical gas car, as little as possible and I won't buy another car until I can buy one with a plug on it. Mostly, it's just what working in the industry and watching what we were showing and then watching the sort of diluted products that we came out with. I use the analogy of accepting Cs from your kids when you know they can get As. In the case of the Prius, paying thirty grand for that C? I'll wait until there's a plug-in hybrid available or an electric car.

ABG: Finally, who do you think killed the electric car?
Sexton: No single snowflake in an avalanche feels responsible. I certainly think that some foes played a bigger role than others, but I don't think that any one of those suspects could have done it alone. It's a matter of a confluence of events and people, industries and companies acting in their own best interests and people not asking enough questions. Also there was a certain amount of complacency. I don't have just one suspect. I know some folks do, but having been in the middle of it, I know it took more than one.


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  • 60 Comments
      • 7 Months Ago
      So the EV1 only appeals to idiot lefty tree huggers like Ed Begley Jr. (and Mel Gibson, as a matter of fact. Please don't tell Mel I called him an idiot). Let them buy theirs and lower the overall demand for oil, thus helping the rest of us pay a bit less at the pump, if nothing else. Freedom is a wonderful commodity, and should be fiercly defended.

      Did anyone besides me notice that the world's largest auto maker is now Toyota and not GM? That's the first time in my lifetime that GM wasn't the world's largest car maker (I turned 49 on the day before Memorial Day, for the record.) Is the incredible success of the Prius a factor in this transformation? GM could have converted the EV1 into a hybrid with a smidgen of difficulty (like using a Briggs and Stratton engine rather than a car engine) and kept its market share. Instead, they shredded the EV1s to junk. They're getting theirs.
      • 7 Months Ago
      Nice interview Chelsea. We're all behind you!!!

      I would love to drive an electric car.

      My motivation comes from losing a brother in the Iraq War. I have no doubt that the only REAL reason we are in Iraq is because they have oil. People are dying to support our addiction to oil. It is time to end our dependence on Middle East oil.

      As far as why the car companies won't build an electric car????

      Edison said. "Necessity is the mother of invention" He is wrong. MONEY is both the mother and father of invention.

      The big car companies won't make an electric car until it can make "more" money than a gasoline powered car.

      I think Chelsea is right, the electric cars will come from smaller companies, like Tesla, not from the big car companies.

      Electric cars need to grow the way computers, cell phones and PDA's did. They are expensive at the start, but over time, as more and more are sold, the price slowly comes down until they are affordable by the average consumer.
      • 8 Years Ago

      I have found the discussion on the electric car very interesting as we have been developing a high power density ICE that has advantages for some alternative fuels and hydrogen in particular. Our prime advantage is in power density so our engine is ideal for a Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle. Power density is a key factor in vehicle efficiency and particularly for the electric vehicle. It naturally follows that if you are to add a prime power unit to an electric vehicle that it needs to be as compact and light as possible to minimize the energy used to carry it around until needed. Therefore it will be essential that a hydrogen PHEV has a very high power density ICE/generator unit to be a viable vehicle. Our Pivotal Engine tech nology is the key to developing such a vehicle. We are keen to make contact with people who have an interest in developing an ideal PHEV. Our web site is www.pivotalengine.com

      I would like to make contact with Chelsea Sexton.
      • 7 Months Ago
      Electric cars only displace pollution, not eliminate it, unless we use a non-polluting method of generating the electricity they use. Until the government gets serious about FUSION nuclear power generation, we only substitute one form of pollution for another.
      • 7 Months Ago
      Hi Chelsea A couple of us have been considering building an elecrtic motorcycle. Do you know anyone who might volunteer to help us build the amp./controller? Also do you know where the best place is to purchase the batteries?
      • 9 Years Ago
      Hi all,

      I love that this topic has inspired this much discussion! Let me see if I can address some of the points raised...

      The largest automakers produced and leased or sold vehicles because they were required to do so by a law in California, the Zero Emissions Vehicle Mandate. The ZEV classification was derived by the state, not the automakers or anyone else, and refers to tailpipe emissions, not well to wheels pollution. In theory, any zero-emissions car could have been built to meet the mandate, but the only ZEV technology that is currently viable is electric technology- in theory, hydrogen fuel cells would also qualify, but their viability is a whole other discussion.

      While it's no surprise that an industry might not embrace it's regulations (who among us likes to be told what to do?), it's also important to note that as cynical as we may have become about the role of government, it took government intervention and laws to bring us some of our most important automotive safety and environmental advances- among them, seatbelts, airbags and catalytic converters. Had the CA mandate not been eviscerated after a lawsuit brought by the auto industry and the federal government, we'd have as many as a million electric vehicles on the road in California today- not to mention the other states that follow CA's air quality policy lead.

      Several types of full performance EVs were produced- the two seater EV1 and Chevy S-10 pick-up from GM, a RAV4 EV conversion from Toyota, the Honda EV+ (which, similar to the RAV4, was a small SUV), the Ford Ranger pick-up, and the Nissan Altra station wagon. None of these vehicles were represented as "the car for everyone", just as there is no single gasoline vehicle on the road today that's the car for everyone. Yes, many people had a second car, though most didn't use their gas car nearly as much as they'd expected once they tried the EVs and found that they were not only efficient and convenient, but fun. These were, by and large, represented as commuter vehicles, with a range of between 60-140 miles, depending on the vehicle model and battery type. Battery technology continues to improve, however, and current lithium technology would make the EV1 a 250-300 mile range car. Alternatively, plug-in hybrids (PHEVs) are an excellent choice for single car households, or those that regularly need to drive further than a full battery electric car would allow. Yes, there are small companies developing kits to create PHEVs now (mostly for the Prius, though others are in the works), namely Energy CS(E Drive)and Hymotion. We applaud those companies as well as the smaller EV companies on their vision and willingness to take on the Goliath auto industry. Still, we would like to see the larger automakers make these cars because at their economies of scale, the incremental cost is much lower. We're getting encouraging news in that direction- just the day before "Who Killed the Electric Car?" premiered in Los Angeles, General Motors announced that they would display a PHEV in the next Detroit Auto Show, Toyota is doing R&D on a PHEV, and Chrysler is testing a few dozen PHEVs on the roads as we speak. We're excited to hear this- but the primary factor in getting these cars from concept to market is still consumers asking for it. Otherwise, we stand a good chance of repeating EV history.

      Regarding electricity generation, only 2% of the electricity generated nationally comes from oil. Nationally, just over half of our electricity comes from coal. While it's true that coal generates pollution, several studies have shown that even given the consideration of coal-fired plants, electric vehicle are approximately 45% less polluting than gasoline cars when it comes to global warming gases (mainly CO2). Additionally, it is estimated by several utility companies that, because most electric vehicles charge at night with off-peak power, the national grid could accomodate tens of millions of vehicles on our current generating capacity. In the time it would take to get that many electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids on the road, more renewables will be added to the grid, and cleaner coal technologies will either prove themselves or not- but either way, the grid will become cleaner with time, making electric cars the only kind of cars that will get cleaner with time. But even today, electricity is a viable choice- it is cleaner, cheaper and domestic.

      (As an aside, I find it interesting that people tend to compare the overall pollution of EVs taking into consideration the generation of electricity, with the tailpipe emissions of gasoline vehicles- without holding them accountable for the generation and refining of gasoline...)

      Electricity is not, however, mutually exclusive from other alternative fuels. Between the national security issues and the potential for natural disasters, we have learned that relying
      • 9 Years Ago
      It's interesting to see people continue to dodge the cultural issue, even here in the posts (chad, lithous).

      Supposedly, we Americans are capitalists, and regardless of the reasons the EV1 was built, the fact remains that GM refused to allow people who wanted to buy their product to buy it, at any cost.

      GM was offered total legal and fiscal absolution for any consequences of putting the existing cars into private hands, and yet they refused to do so - turning down PROFIT while making up specious claims of LOSS.

      I don't know why they did it, but that's the issue here for anyone who believes in the virtue of a fair marketplace. It doesn't matter whether you like electric cars or not, what matters is that a supposedly for-profit corporation did something that sure looks like racketeering to me... GM screwing their own stockholders for the benefit of oil producers.
      • 9 Years Ago
      Hey Steve!

      I agree, there are many talented and passionate
      folks who worked on the EV1 program for General Motors (and who had counterparts in the other auto companies) who did and do deserve better than to have their own company portray the best car they
      ever built as antiquated technology. Luckily, however, many of those folks are still there- and while it's unfortunate that GM gave away their
      lead and are definitely followers in the hybrid world, it's important to keep in mind that no one, even Toyota, has made a plug-in hybrid available to consumers. It's still a door that's wide open to
      any carmaker that produces a credible product, and more importantly, sincerely gets behind it. We've been through enough to know not to believe anything until we see it, but I think it's a mistake to give
      up on our own.

      As to CARB, the ZEV mandate will be revisited this year through a technology review, and new decisions will be made next year as to what vehicle technologies the automakers can use to comply. If the mandate hadn't been eroded through the 90s and
      ultimately gutted in 2003, there would be up to a million EVs on the road today- not including the states that follow CA's model. We are the constituents of the State of California, and it's up to us to make sure history doesn't repeat itself.
      • 9 Years Ago
      MikeinNC...the EV doesn't fit your lifestyle, because I assume you live in North Carolina, where it does get cold. Cold weather limits battery range (or in some extreme cases, inhibits battery activity). So, now you have a commuter vehicle that is a 8-9 month a year proposition for you. All for the cost of a high-end luxury car.

      The automakers can't look at it as "the huge amount we lose on one vehicle, we'll make up for in volume!"

      "Who Killed the Electric Car?" ignores one simple part of the equation that decides if any product lives or dies...economics.
      • 9 Years Ago
      Cherly,

      The EV1 was an electric car, not a utopian need no fixing car. It still has brakes, cooling systems, and more that will need repair. In fact a car company would love this since they can sell repair certifications for such vehicles. As well these cars are not going to replace hundreds of millions of internal combustion engines overnight so the regular mechanic is not out of a job.

      And as for the prius being on back order and they will not improve them you couldn't be further from the truth. Irrelevant that they are on back order, you can buy a Honda hybrid if you so desire. Honda will improve their hybrids if Toyota does not. Then toyota loses sales. Competition will improve them and so will economies of scale.
      • 9 Years Ago
      chad, the me it's about national secutity. I'm all for clean air (we all are) but it's about energy independence and bringing America back to the forefront in the world without having to rely on fuel from terrorist states. There are many reasons for us to get off of fossil fuels. Take your pick.

      Most people drive less that 30 miles a day. I drive about 55. The EV1 would easily fit my commute. 95% of the time I'm with my family we drive my wife's Volvo V50 (small wagon). Instead of $40 a week in fuel I'd spend about $7 in electricity. Considering a savings of $132/month and $50 less for the car lease than my current lease that would add up to $182/month it would put in my pocket. It would prove inconvenient about 2% of the time (have to swap cars with my wife for the day if I was going more than 100 miles). Yes, that electricity is probably derived from fossil fuel but I'd use much less of it and the opportunity to charge your car via solar roof panels would further reduce that load as well as power plants having the ability to get that energy outside of standard fossil fuel.

      Whether it makes sense for you personally doesn't mean it wouldn't fit a lot of people's lifestyles. Certainly enough to justify the cost of a vehicle that's already engineered and in production.

      Don't discount wind and solar. They are getting more efficient by the day and certainly begining to stack up to fossil fuel as prices increase. Why wouldn't anyone want cheap clean energy?? It's not a political issue. It's just plain common sense.
      • 9 Years Ago
      "The typical industry model for automotive is, 'We're gonna build something and convince the customer that they want it' not, 'Let's ask them what they want and build it.'"

      BINGO! Precisely what I've been saying for years! That's why I continue to hang on to my old car, even though I can afford to buy any one of the new/flashy models being paraded around. When someone actually does come out with a car that has all the features I want, I'm snapping up a dozen of them.
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