“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.