Frontline asks what happened to the electric car as teens build hybrid cars

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America was slow in developing an electric car, so go figure a group of inner-city high school students doing just that - with huge success - as featured in the next “Frontline” PBS TV show July 17.

With a clever title “Fast Times at West Philly High,” this award-winning "Frontline" PBS TV show asks: how can a group of inner-city high school students “from one of Philadelphia’s toughest neighborhoods best the odds and build the next great super-hybrid car?” This new episode of "Frontline" airs Tuesday, July 17 at 10 p.m. ET (viewers are asked to check your local listings). In turn, a “Frontline” overview for this television program also asks America this question: “Who killed the electric car?” In addition, viewers of “Frontline” - with students at home - are reminded about the “Frontline Teacher center” that offers viewers “new classroom activities with streaming video, downloadable lesson plans and web-exclusive resources to accompany Frontline programs in the classroom.” While most of the nation’s schools are still out for summer break, this next “Frontline” TV program about a Philadelphia high school is a good reminder, say the show’s producers, that Frontline also “educates” as well as offering entertaining television.

Fast Times at West Philly High explores the viability of hybrid cars

Prior to the July 17 premier of the “Frontline” TV presentation of “Fast Times at West Philly High,” Frontline reminds viewers of a previous documentary - at “NOW on PBS” titled “Electric Car Dreams" - that asks: “Will green energy and electric cars drive a new global climate change plan?"

In turn, both Tuesday night’s Frontline TV program, and previous investigations - about what went wrong with the electric car in the U.S. - reminds Americans that it was back in 1976 that Congress passed the “Electric and Hybrid Vehicle Research, Development and Demonstration Act,” with the law intending to “spur the development of new technologies including improved batteries, motors and other hybrid-electric components.”

However, "somebody killed the electric car."

At the same time, Frontline uses the award-wining 2006 documentary film “Who Killed the Electric Car?” as background for viewers watching this Feb. 17 PBS broadcast of “Fast Times at West Philly High,” that spotlights a team of young auto builders who “take on some of the world’s smartest and richest engineers to compete for a $10 million prize.”

The “prize” is explained as the “Progressive Insurance Automotive X Prize,” and is a global competition that challenges teams to invent cars of the future. They must be safe, reliable, street-ready, and get at least 100 miles per gallon. The group from West Philly is the only high school team to ever make it this far in the prestigious and rigorous competition.”

Why big oil and the GOP may have helped kill hybrid technology

At the same time, Frontline’s extensive research on the electric and hybrid car controversy references “Who Killed the Electric Car?” film that explores the roles of automobile manufacturers, the oil industry, the U.S. government, the Californian government, batteries, hydrogen vehicles and consumers in “limiting the development and adoption of this technology.”

For instance, the overview statement for “Who Killed the Electric Car?” explains how this film documents that “the U.S.federal government under the George W. Bush Administration joined the auto industry suit against California in 2002 - pushing California to finally abandon its ZEV mandate regulation.”

The film notes that “Bush's chief of staff Andrew Card had recently been head of the American Automobile Manufacturers Alliance in California and then joined the White House with Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, and other federal officials who were former executives or board members of oil and auto companies. By failing to increase mileage standards in a meaningful way since the 1970s and now interfering in California, the federal government had again served short term industry interests at the expense of long range leadership on issue of oil dependency and cleaner cars.”

In turn, both students and teachers from West Philadelphia High School – a public high school serving one of the most disadvantaged neighborhoods in Philadelphia – pushed back against those who tried to “kill the electric car,” and so as to “defy expectations as they design and build two super-hybrid cars for international competition and compete for the chance to be part of a technological revolution,” states the “Frontline” press release for this PBS TV program that airs July 17.

High school students develop hybrid cars

What’s also interesting about this upcoming episode of “Frontline” titled “Fast Times at West Philly High” is how students from West Philadelphia High School built these hybrid cars without any help from the mega-sized auto manufacturers, or without multimillion-dollar start-ups to prove “the viability of these cars; while Frontline also spotlights “the potential that exists within our young people.”

The teens at West Philly High are led by math and science teacher Simon Hauger, who started the program as a way to keep at-risk kids in school. “The basic assumption is that if you give students a problem to struggle with, something that’s real and relevant, it gets them thinking about what they’re passionate about and interested in,” says Hauger who pushes his students to solve real-world problems through hands-on learning.

“They take ownership over their learning, they get excited about it, they create a vision for themselves, moving forward as a learner, and that’s really what we want,” adds Hauger in a preview of the TV program that airs July 17.

At the same time, the focus for PBS and its “Frontline” TV program is to educate; while also entertaining Americans with good television that makes one think.

For instance, the Frontline archive on the subject of the electric car, offers this time-line about what killed the electric car in a country “controlled by vast wealth tied to the mega-billion dollar oil industry” that, it seems, would be much happier if Americans continued to purchase $3, $4 and even $5 a gallon fuel for their cars.

Frontline’s timeline about why no mass produced electric car in America today:

-- 1976: Congress passes the Electric Hybrid Vehicle Research, Development and Demonstration Act. While the law was intended to spur the development of new technologies, the film “Who Killed the Electric Car?” explains how powerful oil company lobbyists influenced Republican lawmakers to literally “kill the electric car.”

-- 1988: Roger Smith, CEO of G.M., agrees to fund research efforts to build a practical consumer electric car but, again, the efforts are killed by powerful Capitol Hill lobbyists.

-- 1990: California passed its “Zero Emission Vehicle” (ZEV) mandate, which requires two percent of the state’s vehicles to have no emissions by 1998 and 10 percent by 2003. In turn, the law is repeatedly weakened over the next decade by powerful Washington GOP insiders and super powerful oil companies.

-- 1997: Toyota unveils the Prius in Japan; making it the world’s first commercially mass-produced and marketed hybrid car.

-- 1997 – 2000: Only a “few thousands all-electric cars are produced in America; while all the major automakers’ talk about an advanced all-electric production programs but big oil again keeps the lid on this technology, states film makers.

-- 2002: The Bush Administration joins G.M. and Daimler Chrysler in a law suit against the California Air Resources Board (CARB) to “repeal the ZEV mandate first passed in 1990;” thus helping to “kill the electric car,” states Frontline.

-- 2006: Tesla Motors publicly unveils the ultra-sporty “Tesla Roadster” that will be sold in 2008, but who can afford a base price of “$98,950 for an electric car,” asks Frontline.

-- 2008: Presidential candidate Barack Obama says he will “push to have one million plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles on America’s roads by 2015.”

Overall, high school students who produced two hybrid electric cars – that’s showcased on the July 17 PBS “Frontline” TV program “Fast Times at West Philly High” – explain that despite all the big words by lawmakers that America would someday have electric cards; these students quickly learned that there’s something huge preventing this from happening, and that’s big oil.

Thus, this Frontline television program details how the same “bumpy road” that existed back in 1976 – when Congress passed the “Electric Hybrid Vehicle Research, Development and Demonstration Act” – is still happening today in 2012 with “somebody out there trying to kill electric car manufacturing in the U.S. today.” However, thanks to these high school students from West Philly High, there’s real proof that hybrid electric cars can be manufactured so all Americans can save money on gas.

Image source of the film poster for “Who Killed the Electric Car,” from 2006 that is referenced as background for both recent and the new PBS “Frontline” TV report for July 17 titled “Fast Times at West Philly High.” Photo courtesy Wikipedia


Submitted by Paul Scott (not verified) on
Kudos to Frontline for telling this story. I remember contacting Frontline when we first started the protests against the crushing of the EVs in 2004, the story captured in Chris Paine's popular documentary, "Who Killed the Electric Car?". At the time, Frontline didn't consider it a worthwhile subject to cover. Neither did 60 Minutes. We owe a lot to Chris Paine for persevering to get his movie made so this story could be told. I look forward to seeing what these high school students have done. Santa Monica HS, a couple blocks from my home, has done a similar effort with an environmental group led by science teacher, Ben Kay, leading the students on a conversion of a VW beetle. It seems the youth of today see more clearly than their parents the importance of getting off of oil. While the oil companies sure are guilty for their efforts to kill the EV, we should shine the light on the consumers for continuing to ignore the benefits of electric drive technology and believing the misinformation put out by the oil industry. They should be better. They should think through the false notions they've been fed and do the right thing by trading in their gassers for a car that uses cleaner, cheaper, domestic renewable electricity.

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