MOVIE REVIEW: Who Killed the Electric Car?

Yesterday was a media-rich day for me. Besides reading Power by the People, I also got a chance to check out the 2006 film “Who Killed the Electric Car?”, which outlines the rise and fall of the GM EV1. It’s filmed in traditional documentary format, with cameos by Tom Hanks, Steve Martin, Mel Gibson, and other celebrity EV1 owners. It’s actually kind of amusing to see these people introduced as “blah blah, EV driver”, without the fanfare associated with their day jobs.

Who Killed the Electric Car?

The film starts out outlining the history of California’s Zero-Emissions Vehicle Mandate, enacted by the California Air Resources Board (CARB) in 1993. The mandate stated that in order to sell cars in California, car makers must create at least 10% of their vehicles to be zero-emissions. This led to the further development by GM of the prototype “Impact” car that had won the solar Grand Prix race in 1989. After developing a car that could be marketed, and introducing it at the L.A. Auto Show, GM released some cars for lease in California and Arizona, dubbing it the “EV1”. It was relatively inexpensive, quiet, and very fast. Soon, Ford, Honda, and other car companies were scrambling to make their own electric vehicles so they could compete in the California market. But they weren’t happy about having to devote R&D money to that quest.

The mandate stated that the only way car companies could get around having to produce zero-emissions cars was to prove that there existed no demand for them. So car companies set about doing just that. You’ll see some of the old commercials for electric vehicles, which come off looking more like public service announcements about some scary new disease than a car ad. GM claimed that while they had a waiting list of 4,000 people who wanted an EV1, that list only translated to about 50 car leases. Ask Chelsea Sexton, the EV1 sales representative who is interviewed throughout the film what she thinks of that, and you’ll meet a lot of skepticism. Many other arguments that the car companies used to “kill the electric car” are also presented, some actually funny in their logic.

Regardless of what the car companies thought about investing in electric vehicles, the death blow to the Zero-Emissions Vehicle Mandate came from within… when in 2003, CARB actually repealed the very Mandate it had drafted, due to pressure from the car companies and a powerful new lobby, backed by the Bush administration: Hydrogen Fuel Cells. Shortly after the mandate died its grizzly death (see the movie for details about the decline and the players behind it), GM bought the Hummer car line, and within a month, quietly closed its EV1 facility and laid off the staff there. Then something strange happened. GM began a systematic recall of its EV1 vehicles, threatening legal action against those who did not allow GM to personally come and pick up the cars. By 2004, there were no cars left in private hands.

If you’re still reading, this is a movie that you should see, so I won’t go into the details about the recall campaign and the protests that followed this unprecedented action. Suffice it to say that the car companies promised one thing and did entirely something else, stifling real technological advances in the process. And governmental regulators? Well, I’ve never loved ’em, but it’s very disheartening to see how the oil industry, the car companies, and legislators colluded to feed a gas-hungry economy more high-fuel toys. Like tax credits: $4,000 for an electric vehicle, or $100,000 for a vehicle over 6,000 pounds (ie. the Hummer). 100k for owning a Hummer? On what planet does that make sense? Certainly not this one.

So, yes, watch this movie. It’s as much about how the long fingers of corporations and the government have entwined our lives as it even is about the technology behind the EV1. But that is a valuable lesson to learn, especially if you’re someone planning to make a change in the world. Just watch what happens to the Oshanskys when they introduce a new battery technology to the car companies. It isn’t pretty. But in the end, the message is positive. Progress can be stifled, but it cannot be stopped. Good technologies WILL find their way the marketplace if there is a demand for them. It is up to us, the consumers, to demand products that embrace alternative energy technologies, rather than letting the powers-that-be spoon feed us their idea of the future.

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