Who Killed the Electric Car?
2006Director: Chris Paine
Cast: Martin Sheen, Chelsea Sexton, Stan Ovshinsky
here’s a scene in the 1991 satire Naked Gun 2 ½ in which a sinister Robert Goulet tells a roomful of shadowy big oil and coal executives that they are right to be frightened. He reels off a list of innovations—from light bulbs to electric cars—that could save vast amounts of money and energy, destroying their profits and making their products obsolete. Except, he assures them, no one will ever know. Naked Gun 2 ½ depicts a scheme to kidnap a scientist who advocates solar energy. First-time feature director Chris Paine uses this scene in his new documentary about a real-life plot unfolding at about the same time that climaxes with the kidnap and destruction of almost an entire fleet of such electric cars, the General Motors Saturn EV-1.
Who Killed the Electric Car? is chock full of details that provoke an “I never knew that!” response—where has the media been during all this? The movie also has three things going for it: a savvy understanding of America’s mixed relationship with the car, a crew of filmmakers who are both activists themselves and techno-literate enough to grasp some fairly intricate science and numbers, and the good fortune to premiere in the light cast by Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. The recent Los Angeles Film Festival even ran a Saturday double bill of both movies in downtown LA’s California Plaza as part of a Green Day with related parties and events.
Between 1996 and 2003, the Saturn EV-1 was available to lease in California and Arizona. There were actually nine electric vehicles on the road during this period, from Honda, Toyota, Nissan, Ford and Chrysler. Among them, only the Toyota RAV4 EV was for sale—one of the film’s producers bought the very last one sold. Paine concentrates on the Saturn EV-1 as the prototype and most important because of GM’s leadership in this whole affair. Actor Martin Sheen, adding The West Wing’s gravitas, narrates.
In 1987, after GM won a solar-powered car race in Australia, CEO Roger Smith directed their Saturn division to come up with a commercial electric car. Developed completely in California—Alan Cocconi built its first battery in his garage—the project remained a secret, outside Detroit’s loop. The two-seater EV-1 was unveiled at the 1990 Los Angeles Auto Show. Shortly after, aware of EV-1 and eager to combat the worst levels of air pollution in the US, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) passed the Zero Emissions Mandate. This required 2% of all new vehicles sold in that state to be emission free by 1998 and 10%—estimated between 1,000,000 and 2,000,000—by 2003.
But by 1996—nine months before the Saturn EV-1 was actually offered to the public—GM had lobbied CARB to soften their mandate and base the quota on consumer demand instead of percentage sold. Paine’s movie portrays how GM, in concert with the oil industry and other car-makers, went about actively undermining and then denying that consumer demand. This took effort, since the EV-1 was immediately popular, generating long waiting lists. Paine features a host of engineering experts, colorful inventors, fresh-faced advocates, and celebrities touting the EV-1. On late-night TV, actor Tom Hanks tells David Letterman, “That sucker goes,” then adds, “And I’m saving America!”
The EV-1 was quite fast, silent, clean, fun to drive, cost only about $5 to re-charge, and required little maintenance and parts replacement. Its brake system alone would cost the lucrative brake repair industry millions. When Stan Ovshinsky invented a battery that increased its range, GM bought the rights and told him to keep quiet about it—“I expected applause,” the white-haired, twinkly-eyed holder of 200 US patents ruefully tells Paine. Eventually, Chevron/Texaco bought the battery and put it on the shelf. After all, GM had also bought up competing trolley car companies and shut them down, thereby creating urban demand for cars.
There’s plenty of drama in Who Killed the Electric Car?. Both drivers and sales teams were so fond of the EV-1 that they organized when GM re-called its 800-car lease fleet. They protested. They held a mock funeral. They offered GM $1.9 million to buy back one 78-car lot. Chris Paine hired a helicopter and filmed EV-1’s crushed at GM’s remote desert proving grounds. When GM sued CARB in 2002 to completely dismantle its emissions mandate, the Bush White House joined up, offering legal support, tax credits for SUV’s, and the lure of hydrogen fuel cells. In one of the clearest sections, Paine demolishes the promise of hydrogen fuel cells, which are derived from fossil fuels and won’t be commercially viable for at least twenty years, enough time for the oil industry to get at the rest of those trillion barrels of oil still in the earth’s crust.
Chris Paine and company understand America’s romance with cars, but also our more everyday, enduring affection. Like all romances, this one has sometimes blinded us. There’s a wonderful montage of advertising and film clips that convey the illusion of mystery, wealth, glamour, and open road that cars promised mid-century. Then the dramatic fog drifting around a vintage Caddy’s giant chromed tail fins morphs into the brown smog hanging over a grid-locked freeway—that “inconvenient truth.” But don’t forget: this film appears during the summer of the wildly popular animated movie Cars, surely a descendant of The Little Engine That Could and all that conjures up. The EV-1 and its class-mates are zippy, compact, friendly. Easy to give personalities. Activist Chelsea Sexton, part of Saturn’s original and most successful 13-person sales team for EV-1 in California (until laid off in 2001 and now executive director of Plug-in America), calls them “my babies.”
Luckily (mostly) for audiences, Chris Paine and his crew came to this project with prior knowledge of the field. Most have driven electric vehicles. Paine and some of his producers are among the “digerati” who worked in computers and then turned to introduce digital innovation into filmmaking. They understand the science, have a coherent analysis of events and can articulate both. The text boxes and subtitles on-screen are hard to read and go by too quickly, but only occasionally does Paine let his own geek enthusiasm override good judgment about how much is too much.
Really this is a cross-over film. In format, a well-done but fairly conventional documentary, it might have enjoyed a modest theatrical run or screened on PBS. Instead, Who Killed the Electric Car? rides in the slipstream of Al Gore’s movie—and that, if you think about it, is really more a rock concert film than a documentary. That’s okay, because Gore’s film overcomes many people’s reluctance to listen to difficult, overwhelming, and confusing material. Films like Paine’s will benefit from curious, fired-up audiences, readier now to connect some dots.
Perhaps coincidentally, the activist organization MoveOn.org held some 300 rallies at gas stations around the US to demand that Congress stop accepting Big Oil’s money on the same day Who Killed the Electric Car? opened. In Washington, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History quietly removed its rare surviving EV-1 from display earlier this month. And violent rain squalls and flooding continue in much of the northeast. . .
Who Killed the Electric Car? opened in New York and Los Angeles on June 28th and goes into wide release on July 21st.