Who Killed the Electric Car?

Politics is an often ruthless business and pastime, and it’s not unusual for partisan flamethrowers on both the right and the left to wrap themselves up in certain issues, portraying their party as the only one that cares about issue X, Y or Z. This leaves the other party with the choice of ceding the debate, arguing on principal (such a distasteful option in our sound-bite world) or, seemingly more often than not, denigrating the arguments of opponents by deriding their perspective, attacking their research and subverting endeavors at substantive change instead of compromising and entering into a partnership for genuine societal betterment. Nowhere is this behavior more reckless or repugnant than in issues relating to environmental protection measures. After all, do we not all breathe the same air, suffer the same caprices of weather and natural disaster, and ultimately find ourselves and our fates bound inexorably to that of our host, this Earth?

The stirring new documentary Who Killed the Electric Car?, from neophyte director Chris Paine, provokes both thought and blood-boiling outrage in this realm, detailing as it does, in compelling case study form, the great premium placed on the maintenance of the constipated status quo — on protections for corporate profit over public interest.

The story centers on one of the fastest, most efficient production cars ever built. It ran on electricity, produced no emissions and catapulted nascent American technology to the forefront of the automotive industry. The lucky few who drove it never wanted to give it up. So why, in a systematic act of automotive ethnic cleansing, did General Motors recall its entire fleet of leased EV1 electric vehicles, in one case refuse an aggregate consumer purchase offer of more than $115,000 per vehicle and eventually destroy the cars in secret in the Arizona desert?

To understand that is go back more than 15 years. In 1990, with smog alerts threatening public health and daily quality of life in one of the country’s most populated states, the California Air Resources Board (or CARB) targeted the chief source of that problem: auto exhaust. Inspired by a recent announcement from General Motors about an electric vehicle prototype, the Zero Emissions Mandate was born, requiring two percent of all new vehicles sold in California to be emissions-free by 1998, and 10 percent by 2003.

What followed was a carefully plotted murder by numbers. Cognizant that a frontal assault would not only come across as unseemly but also likely wouldn’t work, General Motors and a variety of other big business interests — with no gas, no oil changes, no mufflers and rare brake upkeep, one can see how the vehicle was a threat to the multibillion dollar automotive maintenance industry — colluded to quietly snuff the most radical smog-fighting mandate since the catalytic converter.

How? By everything from rolling out low-end product and marketing it in elliptical fashion to purchasing a controlling interest in revolutionary battery technology that would extend radius capability and then sitting on its promotion and implementation. Essentially by paying lip service to the notion of change while working behind the scenes to help perpetuate the false impression of electric vehicles as undersized, underpowered and inconvenient, and thus help foster the appearance of muted consumer demand. With that in hand, Big Auto could argue the law was an unfair business restriction, which they did. When the federal government, under the Bush administration, joined a lawsuit against CARB and the state of California, the writing was on the wall. The law was repealed, and billions of dollars in federal money instead diverted to hydrogen fuel cell research that is 15-20 years off, instead of hybrid-electric technology that could manufacture cars getting 100-plus miles per gallon today. (Angry yet?)

While admittedly canted, Who Killed the Electric Car? doesn’t pin the blame on just General Motors or a single villain; it’s equally an indictment of a corrupted and corroded system. To this end, the film includes an impressive roster of interviewees, including former Carter administration energy advisor S. David Freeman, former GM board member Tom Everhart, the American Petroleum Institute’s Edward Murphy, ex-CIA Director James Woolsey, authors Paul Roberts and Joseph Romm, consumer advocate Ralph Nader, Los Angeles Times auto critic Dan Neil, former CARB chairman Alan Lloyd — a divisive figure — and celebrity EV drivers Mel Gibson, Alexandra Paul and Peter Horton. One of its most plaintively convincing voices, however, might be former EV1 sales specialist turned activist Chelsea Sexton, who in clear-eyed and detailed fashion relates the compromised launch of the electric car.

In examining the brief life and death of EV1, its cultural and economic ripple effects and how they reverberated through the halls of government and big business, Who Killed the Electric Car? emerges as an emblematic tale of the disincentivization of technology, and how consumers are strung along like junkies. After all, for how long now have we been hearing about radical fuel economy improvements “in the next five to 10 years”?

Many of the important safety standards and other automotive improvements we have and take for granted today — seat belts, airbags, fuel economy standards — all had to be rammed through via legislation. We currently have political leadership — fueled by complicit consumer silence on this issue — that has abdicated its responsibility on this front and become a lapdog of industry. While it may be casually derided by those with contrary financial investment as agitprop, Who Killed the Electric Car? piercingly demonstrates how technological advancement occurs only when it aligns with monied interests, and argues persuasively for the idea that we all deserve better. (Sony Pictures Classics, PG, 91 mins.)


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