Review: Who Killed the Electric Car?

Chris Paine's documentary "Who Killed the Electric Car?" examines the factors that contributed to the demise of General Motors' innovative EV1.

Who Killed the Electric Car - EV1 with flowers on windshield

Former lessees of GM’s EV1 held a mock funeral to mark the “passing” of their electric cars, all of which were rounded up and crushed by the automaker.

Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics/Matt Bohling

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What if you could have a car with all the power and speed you’d expect, but that’s also clean, quiet and doesn’t need gas? Considering the price of gas these days and instability in the Middle East, who wouldn’t want to ditch a gas-guzzler in favor of a better alternative?

Those cars do exist, but according to a new documentary film, you won’t be driving one now or anytime soon. Who Killed the Electric Car? follows the recent history of the battery-electric car. In 1990, General Motors funded the EV1 prototype, a sporty car and an engineering marvel. Given this emerging technology, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) issued a mandate requiring an increasing percentage of new cars sold in the state to have zero tailpipe emissions.

At first, automakers such as HondaToyota, Ford and GM created electric vehicles to comply with the mandate. But then something odd happened — GM and others sued CARB to drop it, even as eager drivers joined long waiting lists to lease electric cars. With rising pressure from the automakers, the federal government and the oil industry, CARB eventually dropped the mandate.

How could this have happened? To answer this question, Who Killed the Electric Car? focuses mostly on the EV1 and its lessees. It’s a feel-good story up until GM’s puzzling recall — and subsequent destruction — of the EV1 fleet.

The film is packed with emotional testimonies from former EV1 lessees who fought and pleaded to keep their cars. Ironically, GM cited lack of consumer interest as its reason for the recall, which begs the question: Why didn’t GM promote the EV1 more? Aside from the 800 lessees, few people, especially outside of California, even knew the cars existed.

“I’ve never had a product I had to beg to lease, and then fight to keep,” says former EV1 driver Peter Horton. “I’ve never seen a company be so cannibalistic toward its own product.”

The lucky few who leased EV1s never wanted to give them up — the cars had great range (75 to 130 miles), cost just pennies a mile to operate, and required no gas, oil or mufflers, and almost no brake changes. Typical maintenance consisted only of recharging the battery at home, refilling the windshield wiper fluid and rotating the tires.

In classic “who-dunnit” style, writer/director Chris Paine also explores a number of compelling theories (some would say conspiracies) about the demise of electric cars in California. Did it happen because automakers and the auto parts industry stood to lose billions in revenue for parts and maintenance? Because oil companies were concerned their monopoly on fuel was in jeopardy? Because of ineffective leadership within CARB? Because of industry-loyal politicians? Or was the EV1 just a fad, with consumer acceptance limited to a small but vocal group of quixotic Californians? In the end, the blame is spread among all these groups.

But Who Killed The Electric Car? is not only about the electric car. The documentary is a statement about Americans’ transportation choices, and about how industries and governments manipulate them. And even though electric cars have been defeated (for now), the documentary ends positively. MOTHER EARTH NEWS readers already know there’s never been more hope for the future: Recent advancements in batteries, gasoline-electric hybrid vehicles and plug-in hybrids are driving significant change in our transportation options.

The movie is now available on DVD. To learn more about electric vehicles, read Drive an EV and Never Buy Gas Again and Why We Need Electric Cars

Update: 7/20/06 - Director Chris Paine tells everyone Who Killed the Electric Car on Podcasting Debut!

LA-based director Chris Paine had his EV taken from him, as did many other folks who leased GM's ridiculously eco-friendly, forward-thinking electric car. He and his producer Dean Devlin decided the world needed to hear the whole account of Who Killed The Electric Car? in the their new documentary. Listen to this interview, go see the movie, and then decide for yourself.

6/2/2007 2:46:26 PM

EV1 was a great car: the range of the 1999 Nickel version was up to 160 miles on a charge. We hooked a fast-charger to it, bypassing the dumb magnecharger, and it worked great. Even the 1997 EV1 with Panasonic lead batteries went up to 110 miles on a charge. But the real issue is, why did GM crush them ALL?? All of the 1999 version were crushed. Why? ------------------------------------------ Vice Chairman Lutz GM Corp. Via Email to Dear Mr. Lutz: When I asked you "why not use Lead or Nickel batteries for the Volt", and later upgrade when Lithium ever becomes available, you answered on Mar. 13 only "Boy, are you messed up on batteries!". To date, you have not provided a substantive answer to this important issue, the most important and crucial of the 21st Century. As the lead article in the EVA magazine points out this month, the Volt is receding into the future, superceded by more and more fantastical concept cars using Fuel Cells and other ideas. I'd like to know, with a straight answer, whether GM is just dissimulating about plug-in cars. Not just assurances. Talk is cheap. If GM were actually looking for customers, instead of a Public Relations triumph, why aren't you courting the natural demographic which would purchase a Volt, the former EV1 drivers? GM has a lot of apologizing and explaining to do about why the EV1 had to be rushed into the crusher in 2005, while now, in 2007, after the movie about GM killing it, GM now claims that it was a viable experiment. The rush to crush was so imperative, GM had two would-be customers arrested, jailed, convicted, sentenced and fined. Instead, GM could have just sold the EV1 to these two ladies, Alexandra Paul and Colette Divine, or just waited for a few months before crushing the last of these EV1. Exactly why did GM crush the EV1? GM's guilt, and GM's dodging the issues, don't give one a feeling of confidence about the Volt or your ho

6/1/2007 9:59:52 AM

Kent Beuchert claims to be an expert on EVs, but his statements belie an ignorance instead. The EV1 was vastly superior to EVs of the earlier era in almost every way. Ranges exceeding 140 miles were common and acceleration equal to some of the fastest cars on the road made this an exceptionsl EV. Today's EVs canbe made to travel over 300 miles, and fast charging has been available since 1998. But the benefits to driving with electricity are much more than acceleration. The cars use no oil. Hundreds of us still drive the Toyota RAV4 EVs and Ford Ranger EVs that were saved from destruction and, according to a recent survey, 48% of those drivers use solar to power their homes and cars. In my case, my 3 kW PV system powers my car and house. My electric bill for last year was only $44.08, that's for my house and car for the whole year. When you drive with electricity, none of your money goes to the oil companies, and by extention, the Saudis and other middel eastern despots. According to a recent report from the Energy Dept., there is enough excess power capacity at night to power 84% of the American fleet without adding any new capacity. That's 180 million vehicles! By the time we've made even a few million vehicles, we'll have added enough solar and wind to the grid to handle all of additional load from them. By the way, the average American drives about 1000 miles per month. A 2 kW PV system will generate that much power and will last for 40-50 years. It will cost about $10K-$15K. How much do you think you'll spend in gas over the next 40-50 years? And who will you be giving your money too for that gas? EVs are silent. Consider how life will be when the noise of the freeway is only the sound of the tires on the road. The air pollution from tailpipes is responsible for thousands of American deaths each year. That all goes away when we all drive EVs. The cost of Lithium Ion batteries is dropping fast, and the cost of

5/31/2007 11:26:19 AM

As an expert on electric cars, I must object to the many mistakes and misleading statements made here. The EV-1 was not the wonder car the film claims - it was, in fact, no improvenment over the Detroit Electric built in 1907 in terms of driving range (which John Hollis foolishly claims was "great") and time to recharge (6 to 8 hours). The film has now conned another ignorant soul whose only "knowledge" of electric cars is what is contained ina very fictitious and silly film that looks to conspiracy theories to explain what any 7 year old knows - the car's batteries were 1) too heavy 2) too expensive ($25,000) and didn't last long enough - about 5 years, making the costs per mile very high 3) took too long to discharge. The car costs 4 times what an equivalent ICE vehicle cost, one which could take the owners on trips, vacations, and destinations more than 30 miles away. The EV-1 didn't meet the needs of anyone except the most hearty treehugger (and one who owned a second car).