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The 2006 release of Chris Paine’s “Who Killed the Electric Car” conveniently coincided with two events that fueled the speculative fervor surrounding the movie’s main premise: the electric car – a zero-pollutant-emitting, oil-addiction-breaking miracle machine – met an early demise at the hands of greedy oil companies and car manufacturers at the turn of the century. Gas prices were in the middle of rising to heights unseen since the 1970′s (only recently have prices begun to drop), and Al Gore had just turned the public’s head to the perils of global warming with the release of his movie “An Inconvenient Truth.”
Paine states that, in 1990, the California Air Resources Board created the Zero-Emission Vehicle mandate that required any car company wishing to sell cars in California to make a small percentage of their vehicles produce zero emissions, or to be electric-powered. General Motors began production on a line of electric cars called the EV1, and the cars, Paine argues, were an instant success among the California elitist crowd.
The ensuing decade saw the eventual disappearance of the electric car from every market, and the film details the efforts of GM, Honda and Toyota to keep the cars out of the hands of consumers willing to buy out the leases on the cars they had signed for earlier. Protestors even staged a mock funeral for the EV1, dressing in black funereal garb and throwing roses onto the tarp-covered windshield of an electric car.
This is where Paine produces the crucial elements of both sides of the argument. Consumers, the car companies say, were unwilling to pay full-price for a new car that came with driving limits as severe as the original electric car. The battery could only last for 60 miles, they argue, and most Americans demanded more reliability in their automobiles.
In debunking this argument, Paine draws upon a wealth of sources, from the famous to the mundane. Martin Sheen narrates the film in an incredulous voice, his tone seeming to ask, “Can you really believe that they did this? Do you believe me yet?” Paine’s interviewees reflect this skepticism, and the director skillfully edits semi-logical arguments to form a coherent attack on the automobile industry’s moral fiber.
Paine interviews a former GM employee responsible for marketing the electric cars, the inventor of the electric car batteries, members of the California Air Resources Board, and a plethora of other scientists, activists, and former GM board members. Ralph Nader, Tom Cruise, and Mel Gibson also chime in. Although, Gibson severely undercut his credibility by sporting an oddly multi-colored beard that drew laughs from the audience each time he spoke.
Paine’s argument becomes quite compelling, though not quite objectively presented. The narrator says that “the car companies had two choices (to react to the Zero-Emission Vehicle Mandate): to comply with the law, or to fight it.” The argument is that the electric cars were so efficient that car companies would lose enough money from the loss of sales in oil filters and other combustible-engine parts to scare them into removing the electric car from the market. Combine this with the oil industry’s natural interest in making as much money as they can from the remaining black gold in the earth, and you get a collusion-rich atmosphere ripe for murder. The murder of the electric car.
One thing Paine fails to analyze is how many emissions really come from an electric car. After all, an economist will tell you that there is no such thing as a free lunch, and a like-minded environmentalist would say something similar about the drive to the diner. Just how much coal does the battery require to charge? How does that number compare with the oil used by a regular car? Paine fails to answer these questions thoroughly.
Paine targets the Bush administration as bearing responsibility for the electric car’s premature death. Instead of promoting zero-emissions autos, the Bush administration signed onto a lawsuit with several oil and car companies against the state of California and promoted research into hydrogen-powered fuel cells. Is it any surprise that an administration stocked with former oil executives promotes an “alternative” fuel source that remains decades away from useful application? A movie titled “Who Killed the Electric Car” would probably think not, and Paine’s unapologetic assault on those he believes responsible for the death of the electric car provides audiences with just enough confrontational fodder to believe him.