Who killed the electric car?

This is a documentary I can’t wait to see. On June 28th Sony Pictures Classics will be releasing Who Killed The Electric Car? in New York and Los Angeles and in other cities throughout the summer. Commentators in the movie include Joseph Romm (author of The Hype about Hydrogen), Frank J. Gaffney Jr. (Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense under President Ronald Reagan), Mel Gibson (an electric vehicle driver) and consumer advocate Ralph Nader. Check out the site — there’s good background information. This documentary’s release may further explain the timing of Tesla Motors’ coming announcement in early July.

Below is the movie’s synopsis:

It was among the fastest, most efficient production cars ever built. It ran on electricity, produced no emissions and catapulted American technology to the forefront of the automotive industry. The lucky few who drove it never wanted to give it up. So why did General Motors crush its fleet of EV1 electric vehicles in the Arizona desert?

WHO KILLED THE ELECTRIC CAR? chronicles the life and mysterious death of the GM EV1, examining its cultural and economic ripple effects and how they reverberated through the halls of government and big business.

The year is 1990. California is in a pollution crisis. Smog threatens public health. Desperate for a solution, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) targets the source of its problem: auto exhaust. Inspired by a recent announcement from General Motors about an electric vehicle prototype, the Zero Emissions Mandate (ZEV) is born. It required 2% of new vehicles sold in California to be emission-free by 1998, 10% by 2003. It is the most radical smog-fighting mandate since the catalytic converter.

With a jump on the competition thanks to its speed-record-breaking electric concept car, GM launches its EV1 electric vehicle in 1996. It was a revolutionary modern car, requiring no gas, no oil changes, no mufflers, and rare brake maintenance (a billion-dollar industry unto itself). A typical maintenance checkup for the EV1 consisted of replenishing the windshield washer fluid and a tire rotation.

But the fanfare surrounding the EV1’s launch disappeared and the cars followed. Was it lack of consumer demand as carmakers claimed, or were other persuasive forces at work?

Fast forward to 6 years later… The fleet is gone. EV charging stations dot the California landscape like tombstones, collecting dust and spider webs. How could this happen? Did anyone bother to examine the evidence? Yes, in fact, someone did. And it was murder.

The electric car threatened the status quo. The truth behind its demise resembles the climactic outcome of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express: multiple suspects, each taking their turn with the knife. WHO KILLED THE ELECTRIC CAR? interviews and investigates automakers, legislators, engineers, consumers and car enthusiasts from Los Angeles to Detroit, to work through motives and alibis, and to piece the complex puzzle together.

6 thoughts on “Who killed the electric car?”

  1. I’ve seen it. The movie is quite good and spreads the blame around rather lavishly.

    The upshot for most viewers will be that it is naive to think that the societal benefits of technological advances alone will mean that they will ever make it to market. If the implications of an advance mean loss of future business to a paradigm, the key players of that paradigm will lobby to kill it. And the ends justify the means they’ll resort to.

    In a sense, the EV1 was dead on arrival. If, in the future, a car is ever released for lease only, stay away. It’s a sure sign the manufacturer wants ultimate control and they think they can eventually crush it out of existence.

    It will be interesting to see if plug-in hybrids ever make it to market in a big way. 100+ mpg cars are hard for the oil companies to stomach (imagine if they were flex-fuel running on electricity and E85!). But, oil prices being what they are, the natives are getting restless.

    Movies like this will keep the oil industry’s PR people busy trying to save their clients from making obvious blunders. I wish them the luck they deserve.

  2. I saw the film at Sundance and it received a very positive reaction from the audience. The natives are getting restless indeed. No manufacturer will embrace 100+ mpg technology on their own accord. It takes consumer awareness of such technology to produce market demand. Rising petrol prices coupled with consumer awareness are what it takes to get the ball rolling. Americans should be calling upon Toyota, Honda, GM, to offer the vehicles they want and need. Let the manufacturers know you’re ready!

  3. Last night I was lucky enough to get a sneak peak at Who killed the electric car (IMDb page) which is due out in cinemas in Australia on 2 November this year.

    I’d heard a bit about the film, and I was keen to see it – it seems to be custom made for someone like me – a technology-junky with an environmental bent – and I wasn’t disappointed.

    The film primarily follows the fate of the EV1 electric car, introduced in 1996 to the Californian market by General Motors (under the Saturn brand) in response to California’s “Zero Emissions Vehicle” (ZEV) legislation that aimed to have 10% of cars sold in California having no tailpipe emissions by 2003. Electric cars were the chosen approach to solve the problem because General Motors (GM) had previewed a concept car, called the Impact, prior to the legislation being introduced and seemed the most promising and realistic technology at the time.

    If we are to believe the filmmakers, and the many people they interviewed, electric vehicles were a roaring success – with waiting lists for cars like the EV1 numbering in the thousands. (As an aside GM contests in the film that the waiting lists looked good on paper, but that individuals willing to put their money on the table were limited. Given Toyota’s backlog of orders for the Prius in the U.S. I tend to believe that GM are perhaps not completely on the level in this regard.)

    And yet GM, and other manufacturers, were not convinced and eventually withdrew the cars from the market. Through the non-renewal of leases, in what seems to me to be an unusual arrangement (it seems all electric vehicles were leased – no-one was able to purchase the cars outright). This meant that all of the cars “sold” to customers were eventually returned to the manufacturer where, contrary to car company claims, the cars were destroyed – even though the cars worked perfectly well and many customers wanted to pay out the residual on the lease to own the cars outright.

    After presenting some background, the film steps into a pseudo-murder-mystery mode – looking at the various factors that may (or may not) have been the cause of the electric car’s demise.

    I spent most of the film in disbelief, that such a promising technology that even I didn’t know existed (as someone who follows green-tech pretty closely I found that quite astounding) could end up on the scrap-heap. What was most surprising to me is that there seemed to be a significant amount of infrastructure in place to support electric vehicles, which is probably one of the biggest hurdles facing any alternative fuel initiative.

    The film goes into great detail about the vested interests and political maneuvering that caused the ZEV program to be revoked. A few minutes were devoted to hydrogen fuel cell technology which has replaced electric vehicles in the U.S. as the “next silver bullet”. The film made a pretty strong case that this re-focusing is a delaying tactic on the part of all involved, when a perfectly good technology already exists, and that hydrogen fuel cells were unlikely to be a realistic for some time to come, if ever at all.

    They also suggested that the Japanese car manufacturers, such as Toyota, saw the development of hybrids by U.S. manufacturers (which began to be developed as a “compromise” between the Californian government and car manufacturers) as a potential threat and decided to enter the game and develop their own technology. When the U.S. manufacturers dropped the ball, Toyota and Honda entered the U.S. market and have done extremely well. I couldn’t help but think of the parallels with the lack of government foresight in Australia regarding renewable energy, but I digress.

    By the end of the film I was feeling pretty angry about the whole thing – dumbfounded at how far backward things had gotten. (The film also takes a bit of a “bag everyone” approach – no-one comes out smelling rosy really, not even Toyota who are considered by many, including myself, as leaders in this area.) Thankfully the film took a quick detour and had a look at what’s on the horizon – plug-in hybrids, electric vehicles like the Tesla Roadster, conversions of existing cars to all electric drive-trains, and improvements in battery technology.

    The inventor of the battery technology that found its way into the second generation EV1 was a highlight, demonstrating some solar technology that looked very interesting. But most of all it showed that the glimmer of a better future that the EV1 represented is starting to find its way out into the world – in new technologies, alternative car companies, and evangelists starting to make a dent in the entrenched industries and vested interests. It just seems such a shame that the momentum created by the EV1 and the ZEV legislation is only just starting to be rebuilt.

    I’d definitely recommend the film – certainly got me thinking and inspired me. It demonstrated that with political willpower and strong public support, solutions exist to solve a significant proportion of the issues related to car emissions (namely smog/health issues and global warming).

    James Director of Used Car Parts UK

  4. They must take into account the macro trends of the economy if they want to be successful. This technology is is taking the lead, it just need a little pop up.

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