Who Killed the Electric Car? (2006)

Brian Holcomb

In Chris Paine’s witty and very partisan documentary, we are presented with the sad but familiar tale of corporate greed and corruption shaping our daily lives -- shaping it without our support, but with our apathy.

Who Killed the Electric Car?

Director: Chris Paine
Cast: Martin Sheen (Narrator) Chelsea Sexton, Tom Hanks, Mel Gibson, Ed Begley, Jr.
Distributor: Sony Pictures
MPAA rating: PG
Studio: Sony Pictures
First date: 2006
US DVD Release Date: 2006-11-14

Imagine plugging in your car overnight for a charge that would allow you to drive for about 300 miles before needing to be charged again and costing you the electrical equivalent to 60 cents a gallon of gasoline. Imagine no exhaust or emissions since the car would have no need for an internal combustion engine. Imagine what driving this car would do for both the environment and the US' national "addiction" to oil. What kind of future would be in store for a country with zero dependence on the resources of the Middle East?

In Chris Paine’s witty and very partisan documentary, we are presented with the sad but familiar tale of corporate greed and corruption shaping our daily lives -- shaping it without our support, but with our apathy. It is a David and Goliath story in which David learns he cannot defeat a Goliath that has so many heads. In this fable, Neo-Con body snatchers are everywhere, working in our government with letters of recommendation from their former jobs in the oil industry. No problem in a country where the division is supposed to be between Church and State -- not State and Commerce.

As you might guess from the title, Who Killed the Electric Car? takes the form of a classic whodunit. The body is found on the road, the murder committed by several interested parties in tandem. Not exactly "Colonel Mustard on the Interstate with the Oil Can", but close. It’s also a murder mystery set in Hollywood, where many former drivers of the electric car still live, apparently having trouble moving forward, following its bloody demise.

Now, I was alive and kicking back in the late '90s, those dog days of the 20th century when most Americans couldn’t get enough of Starbucks and had given up grunge for Pop. Looking back, I remember hearing about some plug-in vehicle that the Hollywood folks were driving around LA like a fleet of futuristic golf carts, but as a product intended eventually for the consumer American market, the car was virtually unknown. By the time most people became aware of it, the EV1 was already extinct.

Oddly, its history goes back to the future. It seems that battery electric vehicles were all the rage at the beginning of the last century before being wiped out by the gasoline powered combustion engine. No less an expert than Phyllis Diller appears to tell us all about it. She’s interviewed in the film with a framed portrait of Bob Hope behind her to remind us that Hollywood used to like Texaco. Diller tells us that even though everyone liked the quiet running and clean electric cars, they were soon on the scrap heap. Like the domination of the cheap and cheaply made Wal-Mart products today, Henry Ford’s Model-T arrived with just the right price tag for Americans to switch from quality to economy.

In '90, the California Air Resources Board passed the ZEV (Zero Emission) Mandate which required 10 percent of all cars sold in the state to meet zero emission standards. This encouraged General Motors’ electric vehicle program and the production of the EV1 in 1997, over a thousand of which were produced, 800 of those made available to the right Southern Californians for three year leases.

The "right Southern Californians" included many in the Hollywood community such as Mel Gibson and former Baywatch star Alexandra Paul. Gibson states in the documentary that the lease application was pages long and asked very specific and oddly personal questions that were far beyond anything one could imagine. He jokes that they wanted to know "where all of your birthmarks were located". Tom Hanks tells David Letterman all about the advantages of the vehicle. The only drawback was that, in the beginning, the car could only go for about 100 miles per charge. Hanks tells Dave, "That’s more than enough for my needs." For her part, Alexandra Paul ends up protesting the destruction of the remaining EV1s and is promptly arrested.

All of these proud former owners of the EV1 gush wildly over their memories of driving it, of its speed and convenience as well as the general coolness of driving a car that made a "Whoosh!" sound. Gibson compares it to driving the Batmobile out of the Batcave.

But the good times would be short lived. By 2003, pressured by an Axis of Evil led by the Bush Administration, the ZEV Mandate was reversed and once their leases were up, the EV1s were taken away to be destroyed. The future seems to rest on hydrogen fuel technology. A technology the film claims to be at least 30 years in the future or maybe never. In any case, hydrogen fuel does not antagonize Chevron.

Paine gives a kind of half-hearted support for the gas-electric hybrids, but he cannot hide his profound disappointment by demonstrating how the improvements of battery technology today would make the electric car run for over 300 miles on a single charge. As Ed Begley, Jr. says while giving the EV1 its eulogy, "cars that can go for 300 miles a charge are not for everyone, just 90 percent of the public."

Throughout the film, Paine does everything he can to play on the peculiar love Americans have for their vehicles. A relationship that seems to be handed down from the days when horses were the main mode of transport. The personification of the EV1 sounds silly but it works well enough in the film. It’s quite amazing that Paine is able to instill actual pathos with footage of the vehicular "Holocaust" perpetrated by GM on its own creation. Crushed EVs seen piled up in a junkyard like a mass grave is, strangely, a truly sad sight to see.

So who did kill the electric car? The usual suspects, of course. Paine rounds them up and holds them to a guilty verdict. These include the spineless California Air Resource Board led by Alan J. Lloyd, who allegedly buckled under government pressure to reverse the ZEV Mandate, General Motors, which pulled the plug on the car, the oil industry, which likes selling its black gold, and consumer faith itself, which needs a lot of reassurance. The film’s most effective argument is that although we are all to blame, the bad guys should be blamed more.

The DVD extras contain about 15 minutes of deleted scenes, a short featurette called, "Jump Start to the Future" which discusses various energy technologies in development, and for some reason, Meeky Rosie's music video, "Forever".

There are only a few EV1s still in existence. One of which was donated by GM to an auto museum where it sits in some dark and sinister garage like the Ark of the Covenant at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark; stored away forever, collecting dust, its powers never to benefit mankind. "Bureaucratic fools!" was how Indiana Jones summed it up.


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