Over the Christmas holiday, I watched "Who Killed the Electric Car", an interesting documentary on the history of electric vehicles in the 90s. The story primarily covers the vehicles created after California's historic mandate to make 2% of all vehicles on the road zero-emissions vehicles, and the subsequent development of the EV-1 by GM.
The short answer to the film's title question is that GM killed it, and in a very emphatic manner. When the leases on the EV-1s expired, GM did not allow owners to renew the lease or purchase the cars, but instead forced them to return every EV-1 to GM, where they destroyed. No question about it, GM wanted those vehicles gone.
One of the lessons I picked up from this is how easy it is to buy into hype. The EV-1 was a workable electric vehicle -- it had good acceleration, decent styling, and a range of 120 miles, which is good enough for any normal commuting. But shortly after the vehicles were coming out, many questions were raised about battery life, recycling, accident danger due to acid spills, total environmental impact, etc. And I remember giving these arguments some weight, since they are legitimate concerns.
The problem is, although these concerns are legitimate, they are also mostly non-issues when you dig into them. The batteries could be completely recycled, battery life is mostly a problem with lead-acid batteries rather than the NiMH batteries the EV-1 used, acid is far less dangerous in an accident than gasoline, and even if more coal-fired plants were built to provide the electricity, they still put less carbon in the atmosphere total than a gas burning car.
And whoever raised these issues, probably knew all that.
Ultimately, I think the problem was that the electric car was forced upon the manufacturers, and most companies are unwilling to promote a product that makes their existing product line obsolete. No existing car manufacturer wants to touch these for fear of making their existing cars look bad.
Which is why my hopes are with a couple new companies making next-generation electric cars with state-of-the-art battery technology. Tesla Motors, a new silicon-valley startup, is building a line of high-performance electric sports cars, with a range of about 250 miles. Full production won't start until 2008, and it will probably be a year or two after that until we see something a bit more affordable, but hopefully they'll have a sports sedan out in time to replace my Subaru STi.