Thursday, August 24, 2006

Film Who Killed the Electric Car? (Chris Paine, 2006)

(I am documenting this after the fact and think we saw the film on August 24, but I may be wrong; it was the middle or end of August. This is the basis for my published review in the October 2006 issue of Saathee Magazine.)

In millions of barrels per day, total U.S. oil imports (crude and refined) in 1977: 8.8. In 2005: 13.5 . Maximum federal tax credit for electric vehicle (2002): $4000. For vehicles weighing 6000 pounds and greater (2003): $100,000.

I remember living through the oil crisis in the 1970s and having lines for rationed gas. President Carter in 1979 put measures in place to gradually improve fuel efficiency of vehicles, vowing to set the country on a course to reduce oil imports. Unfortunately, some later politicians seemed to forget that crisis and nullified many of the conservation measures, even removing solar panels that had been installed on the White House.

  • Jumping forward to 1990, California adopted a Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) mandate, requiring auto makers to sell 10% of its cars having no emissions from fueling or operation. Cars could be recharged at home or at public recharging stations. In 1996, the mandate was made more flexible in the face of auto industry pressure and in 2003 California further weakened it, no longer requiring car manufacturers to produce any ZEVs.

    General Motors (GM), which had developed the EV1 electric car for lease but not sale, almost immediately discontinued and recalled the leased vehicles. Contrary to company claims of recycling the car parts, GM was found trucking the clean functioning cars to Arizona and crushing them. Owners who have loved the experience and low cost of driving their cars protested and even Gandhian non-violent vigils and actions, as well as offers to buy the cars, are unable to stop the destruction.

    Why such a history especially with rising gas prices and the backdrop of conflicts at least partially over access to oil? The documentary film Who Killed the Electric Car? attempts to give insight. A variety of "suspects" are examined. Are car companies guilty? The filmmakers think so and imply that they only half-heartedly worked to develop and market the cars. The EV1 had no internal combustion engine, oil, filters, or spark plugs, and a break system requiring minimal repair. That was good news for the people fortunate enough to have been able to lease the cars, but provided very little after-market profit. How about oil companies? Their lobbies strongly opposed the adoption of electric cars which, after all, would reduce their sales. Batteries? Surprisingly not guilty; GM purchased a majority interest in nickel-metal hydride battery technology but chose to deliver an under-performing product that provided half the driving range.

    How about the U.S. government? Guilty as well, according to the film. Not only were earlier conservation measures stripped of their power, but in 2002 the current administration joined automakers and car dealers in a lawsuit against California's ZEV mandate. Instead of encouraging a proven and existing technology, it helped sign its death certificate and instead is gambling on hydrogen fuel cell technology. The film includes an interview with Joseph J. Romm, author of The Hype about Hydrogen, to make the point that hydrogen may be a long-term solution, but many impediments, including price (a vehicle currently costs $1 million and the fuel is very expensive and from non-renewable sources), creation of fueling infrastructure, and range (normal sized cars currently can't carry enough hydrogen to provide sufficient range) make it unlikely to be a solution for decades to come.

    The Clinton administration as well did little to increase corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards If anything, the filmmakers imply, government has stifled cleaner electric technology; there were more electric cars on the road 100 years ago than gas cars.

    The film features interviews with people such as Chelsea Sexton, who was an EV1 sales specialist married to an EV1 technician; consumer advocate Ralph Nader; S. David Freeman, former energy advisor to President Carter; R. James Woolsey, ex-CIA director; Phyllis Diller, a comedian who remembers early electric cars before 1920; and Iris and Stanford Ovshinsky, whose battery technology powered the EV1 and is used in many current hybrid vehicles. I found that the human interest was a welcome respite to a film that at times was too focused on pressing its case against the demise of the electric car.

    Anybody interested in efficient and renewable energy, as well as public policy, should see this film. Who Killed the Electric Car? informs well, though I wish it presented a little more history of the electric car. Documentaries can and should be interesting and not just educational; by and large this is, though at times it is a little repetitive. That said, overall the film is thought-provoking, and the frustrating story of the electric car's demise ends with some optimism for the future.

    7 stars out of 10

    Film websites

    Note: all pictures (inclusion forthcoming) are ©2006 by Sony Pictures Classics, and used with their permission.


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