Chris Paine's documentary-cum-elegy Who Killed the Electric Car? begins with a funeral. It's July 2003, and the black-beribboned deceased at the Hollywood Forever cemetery is Saturn's EV1, a sleek, battery-powered coupe. Mourners in dark glasses read eulogies ... "goodbye to a friend, to an idea." Cars die all the time, you might say, but as Paine's film makes clear, few are so coldly murdered.
Unlike the EV1, Paine's film starts a little slow. We get historical background and this summer's second primer in the carbon-dioxide cloud that's choking our planet (cue footage of collapsing glaciers). While a gallon of gas run through a car produces 19 pounds of carbon dioxide, the contemporary electric car produces no exhaust.
Therefore, it seemed the likeliest successor when California passed a zero-emissions mandate in 1990, stipulating that auto manufacturers must offer emissions-free cars or risk being ousted from the state. General Motors developed the EV1, and assigned it to its Southern California Saturn division for marketing in 1996. The car was quickly embraced by both green celebrities and regular folks; soon there were other electric vehicles on the road, including Honda EV Plus, Ford's Think and Ranger truck, and Toyota's RAV4 EV.
The cars had pluses ... no gas, quiet, no messy engine parts, fast pick-up ... and minuses, chief among them that the cars had to be charged every 70 to 80 miles. A group with the populist moniker Californians Against Utility Company Abuse sued over a small surcharge designed to build publicly accessible car-charging stations. It was the first salvo in the war against the electric car, and not surprisingly, the group turned out to be a front for the oil industry.
It's here that Paine's story picks up speed, and becomes truly fascinating. The unsuspecting electric car drives into a regulatory and politically expedient house of mirrors, where friend turned to foe, and Big Auto and Big Oil stomped all over Sacramento. In one perverse scenario, electric-car manufacturers scrambled to prove that, despite waiting lists, there was no demand for their own product. Beleaguered electric-car owners banded to together, but to no avail. The leased cars were reclaimed (virtually none had been available for purchase) and just like that, several thousand clean-running, economical cars of the present ... not of the future ... vanished. Their eventual fate will shock you.
In the film's latter half, Paine doles out blame among the usual suspects ... Big Auto; oil, gas and car-parts companies; politicians; and even the consumer, though it's fair to say GM never broke a sweat to market the EV1 the way it, say, made a military vehicle, the Hummer, a suburban "necessity." Ironically, footage from Los Angeles' clogged streets often coincidentally features billboards touting the iPod and various mobile phones ... pieces of miniaturized technology, spun off from hidebound industries, that the consumer had no idea he needed until instructed.
Who Killed is a straightforward documentary, comprised mainly of talking-head interviews intercut with stock footage of clogged freeways. In practice, several sides of the electric car's story are presented, though Paine's bias is clear. Paine was an EV1 leasee (a fact I learned from an interview, not in the film), and presumably part of the well-organized Los Angeles electric-car-owners group.
Despite its repetitiveness and occasional insider-obsessive feel, I was fascinated by the EV1 story. I knew almost nothing about the electric car, its introduction and subsequent demise, though that's no surprise, since this saga played out almost exclusively in California. And, without a doubt, GM's shifting relationship to its own successful creation is one of the oddest, and most infuriating, business stories I've encountered.
Gas prices have never been higher; the Mideast is in meltdown; and BP just cut off our much-lauded "national" oil supply. After Paine's tribute, I was ready to drive away in my new electric car tonight. But alas ... Paine, though, remains optimistic about future, cleaner cars, citing both the inevitability of change and America's natural resource of thinkers and tinkers.
But that's off in our unseen future. Back here in the present, the electric car made one last stand, in March of last year. Like many Los Angeles street dramas, it ended in a police confrontation. But in truth, the electric car had already suffered a dozen separate deathblows, and had no chance.