The first startling fact revealed in WHO KILLED THE ELECTRIC CAR? is that the concept isn’t new. A century or more ago, the electric car gave gasoline-powered ones a run for their money before falling by the wayside because of a starter issue. The other startling facts come thick and fast as this documentary by Chris Paine tells the tale of nefarious doings perpetrated for reasons that will raise both the hackles and the righteous indignation of its audience. That part starts with the mock solemnity of a funeral for the eponymous electric car, and then unfolds the story of who and what ended its modern ife, unmasking villains and victims, the latter, who, for the most part, have yet to realize that a fast one was perpetrated upon them.
Spiced up with celebrity clips, including Tom Hanks who opines that driving an electric car is saving America, the film mostly features smooth-talking corporate spokespersons and passionate advocates for clean energy face off as the film lines up the murder suspects: car companies, consumers, big oil, hydrogen cells, the California Air Resources Board, and battery technology. It then cogently and with a whiff of snarkiness, including showing a sequence under the narration of a corporate shill that directly contradicts what he’s saying, either makes the case or debunks it. As it turns out, few are innocent, but the measures taken by the worst offenders boggle the mind. Forced by a state mandate to come up with a zero emissions vehicle to reduce pollution, the car companies, as the film puts it, could either comply or fight. They chose to do both. Manufacturing a car that they would not sell, only lease, mounting an ad campaign for it that scared consumers, and refusing to manufacture enough to meet the demand that arose despite those efforts. One of the commercials is included and its bleak shadows and somber tone is more suitable for warning about the dangers of nuclear fallout. The car companies also sued California to repeal the mandate, a suit that was joined by Bush administration, rife with former oil men and women who are identified by their names and former positions. In considering the oil companies, the film takes the position that there are no reasons beyond greed for them to pay for ads that carefully misinform the public about the drawbacks of vehicles that run on a fuel source in which they would have no share, and at the same time to enthusiastically support hydrogen cells, which is a fuel source from which they could potentially reap profits. And it backs it up. When someone else in the film mentions that the price of gas while their filming only a year ago is over $2 a gallon, it’s a concept that comes home in a very real way.
The talking heads are well chosen. There are the people who drove the cars, and whether they are regular folk or celebrities such as Hanks or a biblically bearded Mel Gibson, they all share the same, you’ll pardon the expression, passion about driving one, and the same mixture of grief and indignation about the companies not allowing them to keep them. On the other side of the drawing board, there’s the boyish inventor of venerable years who is still not over the shock that ensued when the car company for which he worked developing a more efficient battery for the electric car was livid over his telling the press about it. There’s Wally Rippel, an engineer who helped develop the technology musing on the short-sightedness of everyone involved letting it all disappear. But of all the talking heads, it is Chelsea Sexton, formerly a marketing strategist for GM’s EV1, who emerges as a heroine, fighting the system from the inside while still working for GM, and after the program was shut down, continuing the fight with grassroots organizations such as PlugInAmerica.org. She is unfailingly optimistic and upbeat about the future of electric cars, even while shedding a few tears while visiting the last EV1 in existence, mothballed in a museum.
Thirty years after Jimmy Carter tried to wean the country off oil, we import more oil and have less fuel-efficient car engines running on it. In the fine tradition of such works as Barbara Tuchman’s “The March of Folly” and Noam Chomsky’s “Manufacturing Consent”, WHO KILLED THE ELECTRIC CAR? addresses how that happened, but it also asks the larger questions of who manufactures consumer demand and, more insidious, what are the economic and political ramifications for the United States both domestically and in the world economy if it remains hopelessly addicted to oil? There is no way to see this film and not be unsettled by what it reveals.