So, who did kill the electric car?
September 8, 2006
A murder mystery, a call to arms and an effective inducement to rage, “Who Killed the Electric Car?” is the latest and one of the more successful additions to the growing ranks of issue-oriented documentaries. Like Al Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth” and the better nonfiction inquiries into the war in Iraq, this information-packed history about the effort to introduce ” and keep ” electric vehicles on the road wasn’t made to soothe your brow. For the film’s director, Chris Paine, the evidence is too appalling and our air too dirty for palliatives.
Fast and furious, “Who Killed the Electric Car?” is, in brief, the sad tale of yet one more attempt by a heroic group of civic-minded souls to save the browning, warming planet. The story mostly unfolds during the 1990s, when a few automobile manufacturers, including General Motors, were prodded to pursue ” only to sabotage covertly ” a cleaner future. In 1990 the state’s smog-busting California Air Resources Board adopted the Zero-Emission Vehicle mandate in a bid to force auto companies to produce exhaust-free vehicles. The idea was simple: We were choking to death on our own waste. The goals were seemingly modest: by 1998, 2 percent of all new cars sold in the biggest vehicle market in the country would be exhaust-free, making California’s bumper-to-bumper lifestyle a touch less hellish.
Given that some companies, including GM, were already creating prototypes for electric cars that could be mass produced, the mandate didn’t seem unfeasible or unreasonable. Electric cars have been around about as long as the automobile and, believe it or not, Phyllis Diller. Paine’s resume is peppered with Hollywood credits, which may explain why, in addition to the usual expert talking heads, he has tapped so many celebrities and pseudo-celebrities.
Presumably Paine thinks audiences listen to the famous and almost famous, which is certainly the case with Diller, who delivers a nostalgic ode to the first electric vehicles while in front of an ornately framed painting of Bob Hope. Both the comedian and the filmmaker certainly know how to grab your attention.
Henry Ford and cheap oil helped keep electric cars off the road, leaving the fast-growing highway system to the spewing, sputtering internal-combustion engine. Oscillating between interviews and an array of punchy visuals, including industrial and nonfiction films, Paine lays out how the country’s romance with gasoline-thirsty cars quickly turned into the craziest kind of love. By the 1950s, the zoom years of Jack Kerouac and James Dean, Los Angeles pedestrians who braved the city’s streets could be seen covering their mouths with handkerchiefs, trying to filter the air. Many decades and smog alerts later, the state took bold action. What happened next, Paine explains, is a familiar story of corporate greed and governmental corruption, mixed in with flickers of idealism and outrage.
It’s a story 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.” 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. Established in 1999, this partnership is a joint effort of the federal and state agencies, fuel cell companies, car manufacturers like GM and energy peddlers like Exxon to explore the potential (note that word, potential) of vehicles powered by hydrogen-cell fuels.
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Why would a company like Exxon back a zero-emission vehicle technology that ” according to some of the authorities interviewed in the film, like Joseph J. Romm, an assistant secretary in the Department of Energy during the Clinton administration and author of “The Hype About Hydrogen” ” is a long way from real-life roadways? The answers may not surprise you, particularly if you are predisposed to watching a film titled “Who Killed the Electric Car?” But they’re eye-and-vein-popping nonetheless. As Paine forcefully makes clear, the story of the electric car is greater than one zippy ride and the people who loved it. From the polar ice caps to Los Angeles, where many cars truly are to die for, it is a story as big as life, and just as urgent.