Who Killed the Electric Car?
In 1996, electric cars began to appear on roads all over California. They were quiet and fast, produced no exhaust and ran without gasoline. Ten years later, these cars were destroyed.
Who Killed the Electric Car? is a 2006 American documentary film directed by Chris Paine that explores the creation, limited commercialization and subsequent destruction of the battery electric vehicle in the United States, specifically the General Motors EV1 of the mid-1990s. The film explores the roles of automobile manufacturers, the oil industry, the federal government of the United States, the California government, batteries, hydrogen vehicles and consumers in limiting the development and adoption of this technology. A follow-up documentary, Revenge of the Electric Car, was released in 2011.
The film deals with the history of the electric car, its modern development, and commercialization. The film focuses primarily on the General Motors EV1, which was made available for lease mainly in Southern California, after the California Air Resources Board (CARB) passed the zero-emissions vehicle (ZEV) mandate in 1990 which required the seven major automobile suppliers in the United States to offer electric vehicles in order to continue sales of their gasoline powered vehicles in California. Nearly 5000 electric cars were designed and manufactured by Chrysler, the Ford Motor Company, General Motors (GM), Honda, Nissan, and Toyota; and then later destroyed or donated to museums and educational institutions. Also discussed are the implications of the events depicted for air pollution, oil dependency, Middle East politics, and global warming.
Who Killed the Electric Car? details the California Air Resources Board’s reversal of the mandate after relentless pressure and suits from automobile manufacturers, continual pressure from the oil industry, orchestrated hype over a future hydrogen car, and finally the George W. Bush administration.
A portion of the film details GM’s efforts to demonstrate to California that there was no consumer demand for their product, and then to take back every EV1 and destroy them. A few were disabled and given to museums and universities, but almost all were found to have been crushed. GM never responded to the EV drivers’ offer to pay the residual lease value; $1.9 million was offered for the remaining 78 cars in Burbank, California before they were crushed. Several activists, including actresses Alexandra Paul and Colette Divine, were arrested in the protest that attempted to block the GM car carriers taking the remaining EV1s off to be crushed.
The film explores some of the motives that may have pushed the auto and oil industries to kill off the electric car. Wally Rippel offers, for example, that the oil companies were afraid of losing their monopoly on transportation fuel over the coming decades; while the auto companies feared short-term costs for EV development and long-term revenue loss because EVs require little maintenance and no tuneups. Others explained the killing differently. GM spokesman Dave Barthmuss argued it was lack of consumer interest due to the maximum range of 80–100 miles per charge, and the relatively high price.
Who Killed the Electric Car? also showed the failed attempts by electric car enthusiasts trying to combat auto industry moves, and save the surviving vehicles. Towards the end of the film, a deactivated EV1 car #99 is found in the garage of Petersen Automotive Museum, with former EV sales representative, Chelsea Sexton, invited for a visit.
The film also explores the future of automobile technologies including a deeply critical look at hydrogen vehicles, an upbeat discussion of plug-in hybrids, and examples of other developing EV technologies such as the Tesla Roadster (2008), released on the market two years after the film.