Who Killed the Electric Car?
Who Killed the Electric Car? is a 2006 documentary film that explores the birth, limited commercialization, and subsequent death of the battery electric vehicle in the United States, specifically the General Motors EV1 of the 1990s. The film explores the roles of automobile manufacturers, the oil industry, the US government, batteries, hydrogen vehicles, and consumers in limiting the development and adoption of this technology.
It was released on DVD to the home video market on November 14, 2006 by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.
The film deals with the history of the electric car, its development and commercialization, mostly focusing on the General Motors EV1, which was made available for lease in Southern California in the late 1990's, after the California Air Resources Board passed the ZEV mandate in 1990, as well as the implications of the events depicted for air pollution, environmentalism, Middle East politics, and global warming.
The film details the California Air Resources Board's reversal of the mandate after suits from automobile manufacturers, the oil industry, and the George W. Bush administration. It points out that Bush's chief influences, Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, and Andrew Card, are all former executives and board members of oil and auto companies.
A large part of the film chronicles GM's efforts to demonstrate to California that there was no demand for their product, and then to take back every EV1 and dispose of 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 79 cars in Burbank before they were crushed). Several activists are shown being 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 reasons that the auto and oil industries worked to kill off the electric car. Wally Rippel is shown explaining that the oil companies were afraid of losing out on trillions in potential profit from their transportation fuel monopoly over the coming decades, while the auto companies were afraid of losses over the next six months of EV production. 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.
The film also explores the future of automobile technologies including a deeply critical look at hydrogen vehicles and an upbeat discussion of plug-in hybrid electric vehicle technologies.
The film features interviews with celebrities such as Mel Gibson, Tom Hanks, Alexandra Paul, Peter Horton, Phyllis Diller, and Ed Begley, Jr., a bi-partisan selection of prominent political figures including Ralph Nader, Frank Gaffney, Alan Lloyd, Jim Boyd, Alan Lowenthal, and ex-CIA head James Woolsey, as well as news footage from the development, launch and marketing of EV's.
The film also features interviews with some of the engineers and technicians who led the development of modern electric vehicles and related technologies such as Wally Rippel, Chelsea Sexton, Alan Cocconi and Stan and Iris Ovshinsky and other experts, such as Joseph J. Romm (author of Hell and High Water and The Hype about Hydrogen). Also featured in the film are spokesmen for the automakers, such as GM's Dave Barthmuss, a vocal opponent of the film and the EV1, and Bill Reinert from Toyota.
The film was written and directed by Chris Paine, and produced by Jessie Deeter, and executive produced by Tavin Marin Titus, Richard D. Titus of Plinyminor and Dean Devlin and Electric Entertainment. The documentary was featured at the Sundance, San Francisco, Tribeca, Los Angeles, Berlin,Deauville, and Wild and Scenic Environmental Film Festivals and was released in theaters worldwide in June of 2006. The film features a score composed by Michael Brook and also features music by Joe Walsh, DJ Harry and Meeky Rosie.
The last half hour of the movie is organized around the following hypothesized culprits in the downfall of the electric car:
Lots of ambivalence to new technology, unwillingness to compromise on significantly decreased range, increased cost, lack of cargo and passenger space for the environment.
Somewhat limited range and reliability in the first EV-1s to ship, but moderately better later.
Fearful of losing business to a competing technology, they supported efforts to kill the ZEV mandate. They have also bought patents to prevent modern batteries from being used in US electric cars.
Negative marketing, sabotaging their own product program, failure to produce cars to meet existing demand, unusual business practices with regards to leasing versus sales.
The federal government joined in the auto industry suit against California and has failed to act in the public interest to limit pollution and force increased fuel economy.
California Air Resources Board
The CARB, headed by Alan Lloyd, caved to industry pressure and repealed the ZEV mandate. Lloyd was given the directorship of the new fuel cell institute, so had an inherent conflict of interest. Footage shot in the meetings showed how he shut down the ZEV proponents while giving the car makers all the time they wanted to make their points.
Hydrogen fuel cell
The hydrogen fuel cell was raised as an alternative that distracted attention from what was presently possible to what might some day be possible.
The movie's conclusions:
* Consumers — Guilty
* Batteries — Not Guilty
* Oil companies — Guilty
* Car companies — Guilty
* Government — Guilty
* California Air Resources Board — Guilty
* Hydrogen fuel cell — Guilty
General Motors (GM) has responded through a blog post entitled Who Ignored the Facts About the Electric Car? by Dave Barthmuss of their communications department. He does not address the movie directly, since he claims not to have seen it, but tells GM's side of the story, about their big investment before and since the EV1, the limited market in spite of their efforts, and how they maybe could have handled the decommissioning better. A quote:
Sadly, despite the substantial investment of money and the enthusiastic fervor of a relatively small number of EV1 drivers — including the filmmaker — the EV1 proved far from a viable commercial success.
He notes investments in electric vehicle technology since the EV1: Two-Mode Hybrid, plug-in hybrid, and fuel cell vehicle programs. The filmmakers suggested that GM did not immediately channel its technological progress with the EV1 into these projects, and instead let the technology languish while focusing on more immediately profitable enterprises such as SUVs.
Unlike the movie, GM is bullish on hydrogen, according to Barthmuss:
Although hydrogen fuel cell technology was cast as a pie-in-the-sky technology by the moviemakers, GM is making great progress in fuel cell research and development and is on track to achieving its goal to validate and design a fuel cell propulsion system by 2010 that is competitive with current combustion systems on durability and performance, and that ultimately can be built at scale, affordably.
The movie pointed out that General Motors' customer survey may have served to lower demand. GM called interested customers and emphasized drawbacks to the car that were disputed by EV1 drivers. CARB officials have been quoted claiming that they removed their zero emission vehicle quotas in part because such surveys purported to show that no demand existed for the EV1s. Critics interviewed in the movie contend that the cost of batteries and electric vehicles would have been reduced significantly when mass production began, due to economies of scale.
Karl Brauer, editor-in-chief of Edmunds.com, a popular auto market web site, wrote his own criticism of the movie,contrasting the interpretations in the movie with his own in a rumor/fact format. For example, regarding how GM negatively marketed the car:
1. Rumor: There were 5,000 people who wanted an EV1, but GM wouldn't let them buy it.
Fact: There were 5,000 people who expressed interest in an EV1, but when GM called them back and explained that the car cost $299-plus a month to lease, went between 60 and 80 miles on a full charge, and took between 45 minutes and 15 hours to re-charge, very few would commit to leasing one (not too surprising, is it?). The film likes to quote a figure of 29 miles as the average American's daily driving needs, but that is a national figure and the EV1 was only sold in California and Arizona, primarily in Los Angeles. Anyone wanna guess what the average L.A. resident's daily driving need is? I'm betting it's higher than that national average....
Mr. Brauer's conjecture that "the average L.A. resident's daily driving need is...higher than that national average" is supported by a federal report that in 2001 the average Los Angeles commute was 16.2 miles (32.4 miles daily round trip), which was the highest of all American cities, though that distance is still much less than the typical electric vehicle range. Mr. Brauer also ignored the information provided in the film, that better battery technology is now available and could extend the range to 200-300 miles.
Metacritic gives it a 70, indicating generally favorable reviews.
With brief quotes.
* NY Times review of the film by Manohla Dargis
"It's a story Mr. Paine tells with bite. In 1996 a Los Angeles newspaper reported that 'the air board grew doubtful about the willingness of consumers to accept the cars, which carry steep price tags and have a limited travel range.' Mr. Paine pushes beyond this ostensibly disinterested report, suggesting that one reason the board might have grown doubtful was because its chairman at the time, Alan C. Lloyd, had joined the California Fuel Cell Partnership."
The sequence is not correctly represented here, but the point of Alan Lloyd's conflict of interest is one made in the film.
* Hollywood Reporter Review by Michael Rechtshaffen
"Boasting a particularly articulate and colorful bunch of noncelebrity talking heads, including former Jimmy Carter energy adviser S. David Freeman and Bill Reinert, the straight-shooting national manager of advanced technologies for Toyota who doesn't exactly sing the praises of the much-touted hydrogen fuel cell, the lively film maintains its challenging pace."
* Film Threat review from the Sundance Film Festival by Pete Vonder Haar
"Like most documentaries, 'Who Killed the Electric Car?' works best when it sticks to the facts. Showing us the details about the California Air Resources Board caving in to the automakers and repealing their 1990 Zero Emissions Mandate, for example, is much more effective than coverage of some goofy mock funeral for the EV-1 with Ed Begley Jr. providing the eulogy."
* Review in OC weekly by Matt Coker,
"As most of the lazy media, prodded by the shameless oil men in the White House, spin their wheels over false 'solutions' like hybrids and biodiesel and hydrogen and ethanol and ANWAR, Korthof and his all-electric army continue to boost EV technology."
It's not really a review of the movie, but previews it, and includes an interview with EV activist Doug Korthof who says:
"We don't deserve the catastrophe in Iraq, and the two madmen arguing over oil supply lines seem intent on martyrdom for Iraq in a widening war. With EV, we need not get involved in seizing and defending the oil supplies of the Mideast; nor need we maintain fleets, bomb and incarcerate people we can't stand, give foreign aid to oily dictators, and so on. It's not anything to laugh about."
* Rottentomatoes.com reviews list with quotes (approximately 90% approval rating at Rotten Tomatoes).