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 V.15 No.30 | July 27 - August 2, 2006 

Film Review

Who Killed the Electric Car?

Environmentally aware documentary provides fuel for conspiracy theories

Rust in Peace
Rust in Peace

Who Killed the Electric Car?

Directed by Chris Paine

Cast: Mel Gibson, Peter Horton, Bob Sexton, Martin Sheen

Did you know there were more electric vehicles on the road 100 years ago, when the automobile was making its first inroads into American culture, than there were gasoline-powered vehicles? After all, electric vehicles are far cleaner, cheaper and more easily repaired than their internal combustion cousins. And yet, here we are a century later, and electric vehicles remain nothing more than a “pipe dream.” Why? That’s just one of the juicy think nuggets presented in the sober new documentary Who Killed the Electric Car?, a perfect companion piece to Al Gore’s global warming call-to-arms An Inconvenient Truth.

Unfolding like a murder mystery, the film begins by introducing us to our victim. It should have been General Motors’ crowning achievement: the fast, efficient, electrically powered EV1. The environmentally conscious car was introduced in the late ’90s after smog-soaked California passed its Zero Emission initiative. The initiative called for a certain increasing percentage of motor vehicles sold in the state each year to possess nonpolluting, non-internal combustion engines. At first, the auto industry complied enthusiastically, building brand-new divisions to research, produce and market these pollution-free cars of tomorrow. But, within a few years, California’s Zero Emission Vehicle mandate had vanished, sued out of existence by the auto industry and George Bush’s White House.

Mel Gibson is crazy. ... Crazy for electric cars, that is!
Mel Gibson is crazy. ... Crazy for electric cars, that is!

Who Killed the Electric Vehicle? makes a mighty convincing argument for murder (although political assassination might be a more accurate term). Not only was the electric vehicle killed off, its corpse was destroyed and all fingerprints were neatly erased from the crime scene. So who is to blame for this death? Is it, as the auto industry insists, negligent manslaughter on the part of consumers, who simply had no interest in a wimpy, short-range, specialty-use vehicle whose only selling point was that it might help save the environment? Or was it a contract killing handed down by Big Oil, hoping to preserve the value of their increasingly rare (and therefore increasingly profitable) product?

Who Killed the Electric Car? lays out the evidence and offers up the usual suspects, “CSI”-style. Was it the work of the auto industry? Big Oil? The California Air Resource Board? The scariest thing about this film is the realization that, if this is a murder mystery, then the one it most resembles is Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express--the one where, as it famously turns out, everybody did it.

Obviously, with its emphasis on environmental consciousness, its skunk-eyed look at corporate America and its narration by notorious Hollywood Democrat Martin Sheen, Who Killed the Electric Car? will end up preaching mostly to the converted. Talking-head interviews with the likes of Ralph Nader, Peter Horton and Ed Begley Jr. only succeed in confirming the worst fears of the left wing. But first-time director Chris Paine presents his timeline of events with matter-of-fact efficiency. It’s hard to imagine even the most dyed-in-the-wool neo-con finding credible excuses for some of the clues that have been left behind at this crime scene.

If suspending production on the EV1 was simply a matter of shutting down an unprofitable enterprise, why did GM go to such extreme lengths to wipe out any trace of the EV1’s existence? If electric vehicles were done in by their own shortcomings (limited range, slow speed, lengthy recharge time), what to make of the numerous scientists and homebrew tinkerers who readily offer up batteries capable of holding 300-mile charges and delivering faster-than-a-sports-car acceleration (several of which were actually available when the EV1 went into production)? Why has President Bush pinned so many hopes on a pie-in-the-sky technology like hydrogen fuel cells when electricity is so much cheaper and easier (and, it’s worth pointing out, already developed)?

Who Killed the Electric Car? tries to follow Michael Moore’s “documentary as entertainment” credo (minus the angry, ambush-style journalism). Occasionally dressing up the parade of talking heads with some fun graphics and ultimately trying to paint a happy, “David vs. Goliath” face on the whole tragedy does offer a bit of sugar with the medicine. But this film’s strength is in its nitty gritty detail and not in its window dressing. The documentary goes a long way toward countering assorted corporate myths. Why, for example, have we always seen movie stars like Tom Hanks, Mel Gibson, Peter Horton and Alexandra Paul hawking electric vehicles? Doesn’t that support Bill O’Reilly’s contention that only Hollywood wackos care about causes like this? In fact, it’s a former salesperson for the EV1 who points out demand was so high for the vehicle that GM required purchasers to fill out an extensive résumé to “prove” their worthiness. Dealers figured their best strategy was to concentrate on celebrity clients, who could spread the word and help bump up sales.

There are those who will still argue that Who Killed the Electric Car? doesn’t provide enough hard facts about fuel efficiency, profitability and environmental impact. But, argues the film, that’s not the point. The electric car was buried in its infancy long before such issues could even begin to be addressed. Was the EV1 put out of its misery, or strangled in its crib? It’s something you’ll think about long after you see this film--most likely while pumping $70 worth of gas into your car.

 

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