Film Review: “Who Killed the Electric Car?”

by Gaetana Caldwell-Smith / September 2006 issue of Socialist Action

Actor/activist Martin Sheen narrates director Chris Paine’s documentary, “Who Killed the Electric Car?”—which should be on a double bill with Al Gore’s film about global warming, “An Inconvenient Truth.”

In one of the opening shots in “Electric Car,” as a sleek silver sedan zooms silently down a freeway, Martin Sheen narrates that this GM electric car was available for leasing in 1996. He goes on to state that a little over a hundred were made and all were snapped up as soon as they came off the assembly line.

A mere 10 years later, the cars disappeared from the nation’s roads. Why? Who “killed” the electric car? Paine’s well-crafted, riveting film attempts to answer these questions. He rounds up the usual suspects: Oil companies, guilty (obviously); batteries, not guilty; consumers, guilty (for not grokking the advantages of EVs); U.S. government, guilty (by fighting against the EV and campaigning for the expensive and problematical hydrogen car).

Paine interviews some of the people who leased EV1s from GM. All extol the car’s merits: Speed, range, comfort, ease of handling, convenience (plug it in at home or work). The best features: no visits to the gas pumps, no concerns about maintenance or of replacing oil. Best of all—no toxic emissions.

Celebrities leased them. Director Paine interviewed everyone from Phyllis Diller to Mel Gibson on the subject. Tom Hanks couldn’t say enough about his car on the Dave Letterman show. Soon, hundreds added their names to waiting lists for electric cars.

As Sheen narrates, archival film clips show electric cars zipping along 100 years ago. People liked them then because they were quiet and didn’t scare the horses. To start these electrics, you didn’t have to crank, just press a button like turning on your lights. But after the gas-run internal combustion engine was perfected, gas overtook the electric and Henry Ford was launching a car a minute.

Over time, the gasoline-driven vehicle brought on a serious health hazard: smog. The film points out the fact that for every gallon of gas burned, 19 pounds of CO2 is released into the atmosphere.

The federal government gave GM incentives to develop a Zero Emission Vehicle, an electric car. So, GM created the EV1. The California Air Resources Board (CARB) backed the car, too, saying it would solve the smog problem.

But as momentum grew, oil company PR teams quickly devised arguments against the electric car. Any positive claims were swiftly “Swift boated” by oil company propaganda. There was no demand for the car, they said, yet facts delineated by GM EV spokespeople belied this.

Positive evidence was refuted by “experts.” One oil company ad stressed the prohibitive costs of an electric car whose batteries would allow only a limited range. Thing was, once enough people bought the car, the price would drop. Also, surveys showed that people generally drive less than 30 miles roundtrip anyway.

In a film clip, consumer advocate and 2000 Green Party presidential candidate, Ralph Nader, talks about the absurdity of GM canceling the EV project, saying, “We’re going backwards into the future.”

EV proponents who attended a CARB meeting with Big Oil and Big Car were cut off, while automakers and oil company reps were allowed their say. The result: CARB killed the EV mandate in April 2003. GM then decided to recall the EV1. Drivers who had already leased them would be threatened by GM with theft if they didn’t turn in their cars.

The film depicts a mock funeral for the EV1s and bereft EV1 drivers sleuthing out the whereabouts of their recalled cars. One scene shows armored police handcuffing and arresting many protesters blocking trucks hauling their cars away. It’s a sorry sight to see stacks of mashed, packaged electric cars waiting for the giant shredder.

On the heels of the EV1’s demise, the big automakers’ propaganda spinners sold America the SUV and the Hummer (Schwarzenegger was one of the first to buy). Incentives included federal tax rebates of up to $100,000.

Oil companies try to blame battery technology for the “failure” of the electric car. Chris Paine interviewed an older couple, the Ovshinskys, in their workshop. Together, they had developed a more powerful battery that would allow cars to go up to 150 miles between charges. Texaco convinced them to sell them their patent “for further development,” effectively shelving it.

The film also makes it clear that should the electric car catch on, oil companies are afraid that people would switch. With rebellion all across the Middle East and the Persian Gulf making dependency on oil so worrisome, oil companies should be afraid.

Among many images from the film, one stays with me: Somewhere in Arizona, as the last EV1 is being hauled away to the shredder, strapped to a flat-bed truck, on an otherwise deserted two-lane highway, a lone bicyclist pedals past in the opposite direction.

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