This past January, the impossible finally happened; during the State of the Union Speech U.S. President George W. Bush finally admitted what’s been obvious to a lot of people for a long time now. “Keeping America competitive requires affordable energy,” said Bush. “Here we have a serious problem: America is addicted to oil, which is often imported from unstable parts of the world.”
I may have got this quote from CNN.com, but it sure as hell wasn’t news. President Bush went on to talk about the need to find new sources of sustainable energy in his typical way of explaining things to people, as if he were the first and not the billionth to think of them. But chances are that not one of the White House speech writers that work on the State of the Union brought up the fact that American automakers currently had the technology if not the will to create cars that run on electricity and would produce zero emissions. That’s right; the future would be now if it weren’t for the conspiratorial winds of no change, at least according to Chris Paine, director of Who Killed the Electric Car?
In the 1990s, as California choked under a constant cloud of smog, the state passed an incredibly strict series of deadlines for reducing emissions and forcing the auto companies to produce zero-emission vehicles. General Motors had actually been able to develop and mass-produce the EV-1 that was cheap and easy to power, and although the range was limited, it was perfect for commuting and highway driving. GM put together a team to promote the EV-1 as an environmentally friendly alternative, even giving cars to several celebrities like Tom Hanks and Mel Gibson. The popularity of the EV-1 seemed to have no place to go but up. Unfortunately the car companies were talking out of both sides of their mouths for as they were developing electro-cars, they were suing the California Air Resources Board to reverse its mandate for zero emissions. With the change of political climate in the year 2000, the mandate was overturned and all the EV-1s were quietly picked up and taken away. Now the car only exists as a few models given to universities and car museums.
While Who Killed the Electric Car? is a conventional documentary in a lot of ways, one cannot deny the degree of passion that Paine brings to the subject. His condemnations are fierce, blaming everyone from GM to the oil companies to Washington to consumers for the demise of the EV. The film also has no shortage of criticism for proponents of hybrids and hydrogen fuel cells, which according to the movie’s experts require a total of five “miracles” for them to become practical, not the least of which is that fact that the average hydrogen car would cost about a million dollars.
So much of this film is heart wrenching to watch, like the testimonials of GM employees who thought they were building the future only to have their company betray them or the EV fans that put together nearly $2 million to buy the 71 remaining cars off GM only to see them all hauled away on a series of flatbeds regardless. But worst of all is when Paine takes a helicopter to the GM testing ground in the Arizona desert where perfectly good electric cars are being crushed and shredded–the safest, cleanest, most practical electric car ever manufactured being hauled off to the scrap for seemingly no other reason than that there was no room for it in contemporary America where oil runs the Monopoly board. Still though I think that Paine could have taken it further, and I never get a sense that these guys that conspired to scrap the EV-1 really have their feet put to the fire.
Who Killed the Electric Car? definitely works as a cautionary tale and as a call to action. It’s one of those movies that should be a point of interest to anyone who thinks big business will lead the way in the environmentally friendly future to come and should make people ask not who killed the electric car, but why can’t I get an electric car?