Film follows not-so-surprising fall of electric car
September 7, 2006
Stanford Ovshinsky is strongly reminiscent of Aspenite Klaus Obermeyer, in looks and spirit. Ovshinsky, like Obermeyer, is an indefatigable octogenarian, and an inventor. The Bavarian-born Obermeyer makes pioneering skiwear; Ovshinsky, a native of Lithuania, is one of America’s most prolific patent-holders, with numerous electronics innovations to his credit.Among Ovshinsky’s inventions was a battery that significantly increased the driving range of the electric car. The limited range was seen as the biggest barrier to a full embrace of the electric car. (This, despite the fact that the average driver puts 29 miles – well within the range of even the pre-Ovshinsky battery – on her car in the average driving day.) Ovshinsky’s invention was a triumph for the electric car industry, and for General Motors, a half-owner of Ovshinsky’s company, in particular. Or so Ovshinsky thought.
In fact, Ovshinsky was censured by his corporate partner for announcing the new technology. In an equally curious move, GM sold its share of the company to the oil giant, ChevronTexaco. What, Ovshinsky wondered, would an oil company want with an electric battery?By this point in “Who Killed the Electric Car?” a documentary by Chris Paine, the answer is obvious. ChevronTexaco – like such powerful entities as GM, the California Air Resources Board and the Bush administration – wanted to whack the new battery, and with it, the electric car. The reason for the planned murder is the obvious one, money. The electric car – exhaust-free, gasoline-free, low-maintenance – would not make GM, or any American automaker, any money in the short term. Those corporate dinosaurs were too heavily invested in the internal-combustion technology that had lasted a hundred years to handle the sharp turn to electronics smoothly.”Who Killed the Electric Car?” would play like conspiracy theory if the evidence of this killing weren’t so clear and damning. Director Paine has assembled an overwhelming body of testimony to indict GM and its co-conspirators: the California Air Resources Board, which rolled back regulations requiring a certain percentage of cars sold in the state have zero emissions, and the federal goverment under George W. Bush, which offers far greater tax incentives to Humvee owners than to electric-car owners.
The electric car actually had a heyday in mid-1990s California, when the state’s regulations were in effect. GM rolled out its EV1, which gathered a small, devoted following. (Many of them appear in the film as testimonial spokespersons; if the documentary has a flaw, it’s that the early scenes feel like a long-format infomercial.) “It was the crest of the wave that was coming in. We thought it was the new thing that would change the way everyone travels,” says Greg Hanssen, an energy company executive.The forces aligned against the EV1 were too potent to let that happen. When GM got the zero-emissions regulations relaxed, so that they only had to respond to consumer demand, they made sure demand was low by advertising little and ineffectively. When leases ran out, GM refused to renew them, and eventually took back every EV1. A cache of the vehicles was covertly stashed in the Arizona desert, where they were tracked down and filmed by EV1 supporters.The film’s capping scene is when a GM spokesman vows that all EV1s would be used for research or recycled for parts. As he speaks, we see footage of the cars, crushed into dust, never to be used for anything. The last EV1 left intact is shown, in the final sequence, in Los Angeles’ Petersen Automotive Museum, alongside other cars from an ancient time.It is all too sad that such a fate seems ordinary, predictable and business-as- usual.”Who Killed the Electric Car?” shows Saturday through Monday, Sept. 9-11, at the Wheeler Opera House.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org