“Who Killed The Electric Car?”

Movie Poster Who Killed the Electric Car

“Who Killed The Electric Car?” asks, and hopes to answer, just that. The film is a documentary about the fate of the GM EV-1 project and similar ev projects by other auto manufacturers, written and directed by Chris Paine. (Image courtesy of Wikipedia. This is considered to be a fair use of promotional material.)

I’ve been looking forward to this film coming to my town for about a month or so, and it finally did this weekend. “Who Killed The Electric Car?“, as I understand it1, began as a something of a humorous look at the Los Angeles drivers who were going ga-ga over these cars. However, the when Paine rented a helicopter to fly over the GM testing grounds near Mesa, AZ that all changed. He discovered that GM was destroying the majority of these cars. You see, no one (and that means no one, not Mel Gibson nor Tom Hanks nor even a California State Senator) had been allowed to purchase an EV-1, only lease one. When the term of that lease ended, GM simply stated that the driver had no option to buy and failure to return the vehicle would result in legal action. In this way, the company was able to collect all the cars and dismantle them. Ford, Honda, and Toyota all have taken similar actions with the majority of the electric vehicles they produced in the late 90\’s.

The film itself is remarkably well made, especially considering this is the only film that Paine has ever written or directed. The subject matter is dealt with openly and fairly, with no heavy handed damning that hangs over so many documentaries with political overtones. The final answer is that (sorry if you consider this to be a plot spoiler), pretty much all of the parties involved had a hand in the demise of this remarkable little car. From the federal and state governments, to oil and car companies, competing technologies and even down to us as consumers, we all played a role in shooting our collective feet. The one suspect who does get a pass is Stan Ovshinsky and his wife, Iris, who invented the NiMH batteries that were used in later versions of the EV-1 (which gave it significantly greater range on a single charge). Actually, the interviews with him and others really do set part of the tone for the film. That is, the technology of these cars and even more recent advancements really can allow for practical electric vehicles.

Chelsea Sexton from Who Killed the Electric Car?

Chelsea Sexton, a former GM EV-1 specialist, appears in the film Who Killed The Electric Car? You can read an exclusive interview of Chelsea at Cinematical. (Image courtesy of Cinematical.com)

One of the real stars of the film is Chelsea Sexton, who worked for Saturn for three years, beginning at the age of 17, and then went on to be a sales rep and publicist for the EV-1 program. She had been involved with trying to GM to sell the remaining cars back to the buying public and since has been active working for non-profits in the green-tech sector. She is remarkably personable and presents a pretty good case for these cars. That being said, all the interviews are good and the subjects are all allowed to speak for themselves and speak their mind2 I did feel as though some of the interviews were cut shorter than I would have liked, as there are so many different suspects that could have had more evidence against them and defense. However, given the relatively short length of the film (it weighs in at around 1:45) and the fact that pretty much everyone involved is found to be guilty of the car’s demise, it would be hard to demonstrate any sort of editorial bias.

The film, despite it’s court overtones and dramatic title, is surprisingly upbeat. It’s a real call to arms for America’s ingenuity and resourcefulness. I think that one thing is made very evident by this film: we have the technology to really move the automotive industry forward in this country at our fingertips right now. I’ve heard all my life how someday we’ll have the technology to build these wonderful machines and, as described in this film and as I’ve observed myself, the current line is that someday we’ll all drive hydrogen powered cars. Why do we keep putting up with waiting for this ideal mirage of a technology? "Who Killed The Electric Car?" gives a convincing argument that waiting is going to hurt the environment and our wallets for no real good reason. This was part of our decision to buy a hybrid vehicle: it may not be the perfect choice for people who don’t want to spend so much for gas, but it’s the best choice on the market right now.

We may not have the chance to drive electric cars anymore (and we never did on the East coast, anyway), but that doesn’t mean we can’t demand change. If Detroit won’t listen (and while Ford seems to grudgingly respond, Detroit in general isn’t budging towards green-friendly cars and production), then Europe or Japan will. We need look no further than the very successful Toyota Prius for evidence. Just a few weeks ago, despite years of PR to inform people that you didn’t need to plug in a Prius, Toyota announced they were going to pursue a plug-in option for their hybrid in response to consumer demand for one. All those hackers who were pushing for 100+mpg finally got Toyota’s attention. That’s a great lesson for all of us.

  1. This is based on a Washington Post article about the film and the EV-1\’s recent removal from a display at the Smithsonian. However, filmmaker Chris Paine hasn’t stated this himself in a couple of interviews I’ve read and seen. []
  2. You can read the entire list of interview subjects, as well as a short bio on each, in the official press kit put out by Sony Pictures Classics [.pdf]. []

Green America: Why Environmentalism Is Hot

In the face of the coming onslaught of pollutants from a rapidly urbanizing China and India, the task of avoiding ecological disaster may seem hopeless, and some environmental scientists have, quietly, concluded that it is.

In the face of the coming onslaught of pollutants from a rapidly urbanizing China and India, the task of avoiding ecological disaster may seem hopeless, and some environmental scientists have, quietly, concluded that it is.