Who Killed the Electric Car?

Who Killed the Electric Car? is pretty much what you’d expect – a 90-minute infomercial about the electric vehicle crossed with a scathing expose of the evil oil and automotive industries.

The protagonist of the film is a bright-eyed redhead named Chelsea Sexton, who joined the marketing team for GM’s prototype electric car, EV1, fresh out of college. Other good guys include scruffy-faced celebrities like Peter Horton and Ed Begley, Jr., who you may recall from the Simpsons episode where he drives a go-cart powered by his own sense of self-satisfaction. In this cameo, he eulogizes the EV1 at a staged funeral for the car in 2003, where activists dressed in black placed flowers on the hood.

The film traces the history of the electric car, from its inception at the turn of the 20th century to its demise at the turn of the 21st. The main focus is the cars’ surge in popularity in recent years with the 1990 Zero Emission Vehicle Mandate, and its abrupt disappearance when the California Air Resources Board (CARB) modified the mandate, prompting car companies to recall and destroy all existing electric vehicles. Although there were waitlists for EV1s at the time of the recall, GM claimed that there was little demand, and EV1 drivers were prohibited from purchasing the vehicles, despite their best efforts.

GM almost seemed to oppose to the EV1 from the start, as evident by an ad campaign that used menacing warnings and imagery of a nuclear wasteland. It is bizarre to think that a company would intentionally sabotage its own product, until you consider that an effective ad campaign for electric vehicles would, by definition, place gas cars in an unfavorable light. Additionally, EV’s have no internal combustion engine and would thus require little maintenance. It is also likely that car companies resent having restrictions placed on them by regulatory agencies. By the time we learn that GM was responsible for the purchase and elimination of the trolley system, it is no wonder that Ralph Nader describes these guys as “going backwards into the future.”

The film frames a David and Goliath-like battle of a handful of grassroots environmentalists armed with nothing but homemade protest signs and a whole lot of heart, against a cold-blooded hodgepodge of car companies, oil companies, a floundering CARB, the government, the Hydrogen Fuel Cell , and finally, consumers themselves who are impervious to change. All of these “Suspects” contribute to an inevitable “nuclear time bomb” which, after seeing a shot of California’s landscape covered in an ominous cloud of smog, does not seem like a far-fetched conclusion.

Along with the scare tactics we see all the typical documentary ingredients, in this case footage of CARB meetings, cars being crushed and shredded, federal paperwork, and statements from ruddy-faced guys in suits that directly contradict their actions. But the most absorbing element of the film is Chelsea, who really brings the electric vehicle issue to life as a sweet kid who wanted to make a difference in a corporation she believed in. When she cries at the car’s funeral she is shedding real tears of frustration and failure.

The average viewer is not likely to fall into any of the bad guy categories except “consumers”, and we as consumers are left wondering if any of us would actually run out and purchase an electric car. The EV’s were not without their flaws, the most glaring of which was the limited amount of distance one could drive them. Though with inflated oil prices, increased tension in the Middle East and global warming, alternative fuel is starting to seem less like an alternative and more like an inevitability. But as a large HumVee driver with a large dog said, “people want a big car”.

The silver lining proposed at the end of the film is the Plug-in Hybrid , which has steadily been gaining momentum in the automobile market since its conception in the 1990’s. Toyota’s Prius is currently the most popular hybrid, ironically, as the US program of hybrid vehicles is what prompted the Japanese to compete in the first place. With the number of hybrids increasing, the question is no longer why, or how do we incorporate electric cars into our lives, but when will this new technology become part of our mainstream culture? By the end of the movie, Chelsea is hopeful again.