Who Killed the Electric Car? (2006)

“I’ve never seen a company be so cannibalistic about its own product.”

The documentary film Who Killed the Electric Car? states that in 1996, the first electric cars began to appear in California, but 10 years later, they’re “almost entirely gone.” The film explores what happened to the electric car, why it happened, and who is ultimately responsible for its demise.

In 1990, California passed the “Zero Emissions Mandate” with the idea that by 1998, with each year an increasing percentage of cars sold in the state would have to meet the Zero Emission standard. GM motors began producing its electric car–the EV1 that was available for lease only. But then some peculiar things began happening. In spite of a waiting list of those potential owners eager to drive these cars, political pressure built up–both in Sacramento and nationally–to squash the car.

How and why was this achieved? Well, listen to the interviews of the dedicated sales team, industry analysts, the eager owners (including Mel Gibson), versus the politicians who squashed the Zero Emissions Mandate, and consider the lawsuit filed by the auto manufacturing industry and the Bush administration.

But what is even more bizarre is the fate of the EV1s once the Zero Emissions Mandate was squashed. Not content to squash the law that was designed to help air quality, the EV1s were slowly but surely stripped away from their dedicated drivers–drivers so devoted to these cars that they set up round the clock surveillance outside of various locations when it became public knowledge that these perfectly good cars–with people ready to drive them–were destined for destruction.

Electric car technology was–and is–problematic. Journalist Dan Neil lays at least some of the blame of the car’s failure on the consumer. While the film argues that the average consumer needs to travel a typical 29 miles a day, the EV1’s limited battery capacity would be adequate, but what about the few times a year a driver must travel 150 miles–let’s say to the airport, for example, it’s a trip the EV1 couldn’t make. However, superior battery technology was on the horizon, according to inventor Ovshinsky, but his company was bought out first by GM, and then by–guess who…Chevron.

The film makes a strong case for GM and the giant Petroleum companies’ ultimate success in wiping the electric cars off the road and instead introducing SUVs. How ironic that instead of conserving petrol, the end result is more and more consumption. The film argues that minimum mileage standards would help America’s appetite for oil–and that’s not a bad idea. The maximum tax credit for an electric car is a measly $4,000 compared to the maximum tax credit of $100,000 for the behemoth gas guzzling Hummer. So instead of the electric car, we got stuck with the Hummer.

But in spite of all the dirty political wheeling and dealing that helped bury the EV1 in an automobile museum, this excellent documentary, directed by Chris Paine, ends on a surprisingly optimistic and refreshing note.


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