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Sierra Daily

Oct 28, 2011

Not-So-Electrifying Progress

Runabout 4A new exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History unintentionally shows just how far we haven’t come with electric cars. Electrifying Cars, part of the museum’s larger America on the Move exhibition, “showcases two cars—a 1904 Columbia electric runabout, the best-selling car in the United States at the turn of the century and a 1913 Ford Model T touring car, a gasoline car equipped with an early type of electric starter and electric headlights. The cars, along with a battery charger for General Motors’ EV1 and images of additional electric models, car owners and power sources, follow the historical, cultural and physical development of the electric car.”

The museum’s collection includes an actual 1997 GM EV1, but it hasn’t been on public display since a few weeks before the 2006 release of Chris Paine’s documentary film Who Killed the Electric Car? (Pure coincidence, the museum said at the time. They just needed the space.) Material about the museum’s EV1 is available online:  Pages from a 14-year-old EV1 owner’s manual offer enticing verbiage that only a few drivers -- among them the owners of the all-electric Nissan Leaf (on sale since 2010) and Tesla Roadster (on sale since 2008) -- can experience today. “You will be among the first to experience life without oil changes or smog checks. You will no longer need to get a tune up. And you will never hear a mechanic say, “Sounds like you need a new muffler.” The document’s kicker, now a lot more ominous given that GM unceremoniously scooped up and crushed almost all the EV1 models in 2003, is: “You have so much to forget.”

Maybe we’ll get it right this time. A couple of months ago, my colleague Brian Foley noted the Obama administration’s commitment to electric vehicles and a recent study by Pike Research forecasting an annual market for plug-in electric vehicles of 289,000 by 2016 and 303,000 by 2017. And Paine's follow-up doc Revenge of the Electric Car paints an encouraging picture of our electric car future. (Though there's still that lingering EV trepidation: The New York Times describes the film as "a snapshot of a major industrial shift on its way to a tipping point.")

For updates on the all-electric vehicles almost ready to hit the market, go here, and check out the Sierra Club's Go Electric campaign.

-- Reed McManus

Image: 1904 Columbia electric runabout. (National Museum of American History)

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