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Chris Paine: Who Killed the Electric Car? (2006)

It came and went and we hardly noticed

Reviewed by CHRIS KNIPP
The issues behind our over-consumption of non-renewable resources and our creation of global warming aren't due so much to technological challenges as to business interests opposed to change.
Chris Paine's "Who Killed the Electric Car?" is another nifty little documentary salvo against the corporate establishment--specifically, the branch of it profiting from petroleum products and gas-fueled internal combustion engines--who won't let us drive clean, efficient, non-polluting automobiles. What's astonishing is that GM's sporty little EV1 electric cars for private use were brought out, systematically withdrawn, and actually, astonishingly, shredded, just over the last decade. This isn't some quixotic scheme from fifty years ago, but a vehicle Tom Hanks and Mel Gibson enthusiastically drove--it went fast as the dickens, Hanks told David Letterman. In fact huge improvements in the car were introduced--in 1999. They were banished only three years ago. What did the public hear about this stylish, virtually silent little car? Next to nothing. The manufacturers claimed their advertisements for it were purely "informational." In other words, they weren't designed to sell cars. Sounds fishy, doesn't it?

Half the cars on the road were electric up till 1920. Then as now, they rode clean. (How messy it is to produce their battery power is another issue.) Women liked them. Where'd they go? Maybe an internal-combustion-engine producers/big oil coalition squashed it back in 1920; it certainly did in 2003. As the film title implies, the filmmakers seek to spell out who all the culprits are and how a perfectly logical and eco-friendly transportation idea was abruptly shelved, despite its apparent success.

George W. Bush says we've got to overcome our addiction to oil. He's actually declared that. But the alternative fuel for cars he most champions is hydrogen cells, a costly-to-develop, far-in-the-future method that may even be dangerous. Though the film doesn't specifically say so, this is probably a scam on Bush's part to support big oil by focusing on a substitute that's useless and decades away. The trouble was, Stanford Ovshinsky's nickel metal hydride rechargeable batteries really worked. But various people stepped in to nix Detroit's production electric cars.

Though petroleum resources are running out, selling off what's left of them is going to be immensely profitable to whoever controls them.
The issues behind our over-consumption of non-renewable resources and our creation of global warming aren't due so much to technological challenges as to business interests opposed to change. The film points to the fact that though petroleum resources are running out, selling off what's left of them is going to be immensely profitable to whoever controls them. And that's why it's important to businessmen to keep gas fueled cars on the road for as long as possible. But that means we will be way behind in technology in 10 or 20 years, when GM could have been a leader: Bush and his buddies are being typically shortsighted here.

The GM EV1 was produced in part in response to the CARB (California Air Resources Board) "zero emissions" mandate in 1990. CARB members had seen electric prototypes and knew production was feasible; the mandate required companies to produce a certain number of "Zero Emissions Vehicles." GM complied, but was ambivalent. Executives wanted to produce the best production model electric vehicle possible, and they pretty much did, except for perhaps limiting its battery mileage range unnecessarily. If alternatives to conventional cars were on the way, it made sense to be in on the ground floor in producing them. But all the company's vested interests were in the old kind of cars. And GM didn't like being forced by CARB to produce another kind. And of course, in its early stages the EV1 wasn't profitable. It was far from having a long range, though since most people drive under 60 miles a day, one user quips the electric car would only serve 90% of the public. But most car owners sometimes drive more than 100 miles in one day, and want a car that they can use on longer, if infrequent, trips. So the unnecessary 100 mile limitation was probably a real deterrent to sales to a broader public than LA environmentalists and actors. Gibson and Hanks no doubt had other cars for long trips.

GM wound up sabotaging the new cars they'd done their best to make well. And CARB wound up helping them do it, holding rubber-stamp hearings to approve the discontinuation of the EV1's. Chairman Lloyd mumbles things about how he's a hydrogen cell man. Translation: he's a Bush/Big Oil guy. It happens all the time. Sure, the electric car had limitations, But so long as the bottom line and expediency are what come first, we're not going to see viable alternatives to our polluting world.

Paine's sprightly, well-constructed film shows us all the voices in the debate, from industry executives down to people who enthusiastically drove EV1s, but were only allowed to lease them so they could be taken away later. Some of these EV1 users, such as champion and protest organizer Chelsea Sexton and actresses J. Karen Thomas and Colette Divine and a whole group of others, including Martin Sheen, Tom Hanks, and Mel Gibson, are still vocal from time to time and even willing to wear out shoe leather as advocates for the alternative cars. A few industry execs can be seen telling outright lies. In particular, one insists the withdrawn EV1s will be saved and the parts recycled. The company snuck them away and smashed and shredded them, right in front of demonstrators.

Questions remain. How much CO2 does it save to drive an electric car along the road? What hope is there now for other alternatives to gas-run internal-combustion vehicles? How can we convert over to a lifestyle without so many individual-occupancy automobiles? (Somewhat ironically, the EV1 held only two people: it wasn't a model of the basic efficiency of transporting more people in a vehicle at a time.) What about public transportation? What about a more geographically efficient world, where people don't have to move from place to place so much? What about overpopulation? It's also ironic that this film seems to see the solution in simple more efficient cars. But Chris Paine and company do very well their job of focusing on the trajectory of the GM electric car and the forces that moved it along and then took it away, and there are many lessons in this story for all of us. For a bigger picture, go to see Davis Guggenheim's "An Inconvenient Truth," which presents Al Gore's devastating depiction of global warming. That's the issue movie of the summer. But "Who Killed the Electric Car?" is very instructive and much more than a footnote.
©Chris Knipp 2006. Chris Knipp is a San Francisco-based artist and writer. View his work at

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This story was published on July 28, 2006.