“Who Killed the Electric Car?” asks some tough questions
In March, 2005, in a secure, fenced parking lot behind a General Motors office in Burbank, California, several dozen identical-looking cars were put on transports and hauled away to be destroyed for scrap metal. Unbelievably, the cars were not old or inoperable– quite the contrary. While the former drivers of the cars watched in frustration, these nearly perfect commuter vehicles– emission and gasoline free– were junked; the remnants of a failed attempt to offer a viable alternative to the combustion engine.
The fact that only a few individuals know the details of the promise and demise of General Motors’ EV-1 car shapes the purpose of Chris Paine’s documentary “Who Killed the Electric Car?”
While not exactly a “fair and balanced” account, (President Bush is impugned, while President Clinton, during whose terms many of the events occurred, gets off easy), Paine’s film is less one-sided and certainly not as self-indulgent as Al Gore’s nonetheless interesting “An Inconvenient Truth.” But Paine’s film has a significant advantage– he doesn’t have to embellish the facts much because they are well documented, and all the key players are still alive to talk about them.
Though electric vehicles have been around since Henry Ford’s model “T,” for decades they enjoyed little success. It wasn’t until the early 90s that GM unveiled a battery-powered car that seemed to have real promise. With gas prices starting to soar and smoggy skies finally starting to worry consumers, the EV-1 arrived with an eager sales team ready to launch the revolutionary product in Los Angeles. Using interviews with former salespeople, GM executives, scientists, celebrities, (some of the first to jump on the bandwagon), and other elated lessees (the EV-1 could be leased but not purchased), the film chronicles the short lifespan of a car that at the very least was a quirky but promising technological wonder.
Quick and quiet, the EV-1 could only go about 100 miles before needing a charge, which could be done easily overnight at the driver’s home. Like all new technologies it had some drawbacks, among them a prohibitive price (which would come down as more were sold), and rather unconventional styling-some would say “ugly.” (Other manufacturers like Toyota retrofitted their regular cars with the technology.)
As “Who Killed the Electric Car?” explains, a variety of factors were involved in GM’s decision to shut down the program and confiscate all of the cars. Of course the oil companies stood to lose the most, but the film also documents the lack of backbone demonstrated by the California Air Resources Board, the small-minded, contradictory policies of GM itself, and the seemingly apathetic consumer base. But was the car really given a chance?
Both entertaining and anger-inducing, “Who Killed the Electric Car?” is a fascinating study of how, even in a country where (supposedly) the consumer is king and technology rules, corporate greed wields the mightiest sword of all.
How quickly would you buy a version of your favorite Honda that emitted perfectly clean air, would go a whole week on a charge and would allow you to laugh at your neighbors who were paying nearly $3 a gallon for gas? And ponder this: If we were all driving battery operated cars, would there even be a war in Iraq to discuss?
Rated PG for brief mild language