In 1990, the state of California passed a law mandating a certain percentage of cars sold in California after 1998 be “zero-emissions” — putting out no hydrocarbons. It was a bold and interesting idea, even if it was an unfunded and onerous mandate. If it had been North Dakota, auto executives would probably have laughed and gone about their day, but California has the largest population of any state and the 8th largest economy in the world. What goes in California may well go for the rest of America. And so car companies set about developing zero-emissions vehicles that they could have in the marketplace by 1998. The California legislature wisely didn’t specify the type of the vehicle or technical specifications; they simply said “no emissions.” This is, ideally, how government ought to interact with the business world (when it’s necessary) — setting the standard and letting companies figure out the best way to meet it.
By all accounts, GM’s EV1 answered the challenge brilliantly. A completely electric car that would go up to 80 mph, reaching 60 mph in less than 8 seconds, its chief shortcoming was a relatively short range — about 60-70 miles using the 1st-generation lead-acid batteries, but up to 150 miles using nickel metal hydride batteries introduced two years later. Anyone who has a cell phone or a laptop can guess that charging is not as instantaneous as a fill-up, so this was clearly not the car for long road trips. But in all other ways and for all ordinary purposes, it was a delightful car that won rabid loyalty from new drivers — all 800 of them. (An added bonus — it was almost completely silent.)
Unfortunately, GM and other car companies were fighting the California mandate at the same time that they were so effectively filling it. They used political muscle to weaken the bill, sued to have it ruled illegal, conducted a propaganda campaign to sour the public on electric cars, and finally browbeat the California Air Resources Board into backing off the idea. (The fact that the president of the Board was also a key player in promoting the competing hydrogen fuel cell technology appears to have greased the tracks there.)
Since GM (and others) always intended to fight and defeat the zero-emissions policy, their promotion of the electric car was grudging, at best. The ad campaign for the EV1 was neither widespread nor intended to be particularly effective; its images tended to be creepy and alienating, and its writing lacked the singular focus typical of car advertising. Those who wanted an EV1 had to fill out an invasive questionnaire, and even then they couldn’t buy the car; it was available only as a lease, and it remained always the property of General Motors.
The strategy was obvious — build the car, but make it look like a business failure, and when the legal battle is over, make it disappear. Although it now appears (with gas at $3.20/gallon here in Tacoma) that the EV1 could eventually have been a business success, it was doomed from the beginning by corporate managers who (a) didn’t like being told what to do by a smog-obssessed state legislature and (b) would rather profit by selling you SUVs now than profit by being leaders in the electric car industry ten to fifteen years from now. Hell, they’ll probably all be retired by then, and you can’t count future successes on this year’s balance sheet. (Unless you’re Jeff Skilling.)
And so when the dust cleared in the legal arena (where they had been aided by the oil companies and the Bush Administration, who were pushing hydrogen technology, which unlike the electric car remains impractical to this day), GM set out on one of the strangest campaigns in modern business history — it took back all 800 cars from the lessees, sometimes without their even knowing it was happening. Filmmaker Chris Paine took his car in to have a taillight repaired, only to be informed by the dealership a few days later that he no longer had a car. So he started a several-year documentary project, now in general release as Who Killed the Electric Car?, investigating what went wrong and how the EV1 and other electric cars disappeared.
As you can see from the above, it’s a lucid, informative movie, creating, by the end, a coherent and compelling narrative, and presenting a considerable amount of information in an accessible manner. It may be seen as part of a post-Michael Moore generation of activist documentaries, ones whose humor and provocation are subjugated to the primary concern of making a persuasive and logical argument, something Moore only really succeeded in doing in Bowling for Columbine. (It’s interesting to note that Columbine is also the only film in which Moore doesn’t seem to know the answer to his own questions in advance.)
Perhaps it was necessary for Moore to break down the doors and barge into the public consciousness before the editorial documentary form could really be accepted by a mass market. (There is, after all, something initially off-putting about paying good money for someone to tell you their theories about corporate greed, guns, and the environment.) And he’s probably left a permanent mark on the practice of documentary filmmaking — his cheeky pricking at corporate giants and gonzo-style involvement are evident in Morgan Spurlock’s Super-Size Me, and after the vitriolic accusations of inaccuracy and time manipulation in Fahrenheit 9/11, we’re probably all a little more aware of how documentaries are constructed.
Still, there was bound to be a mild swingback from Moore’s method, and in recent years we’ve seen some very fine editorial films, including the recent Al Gore/Davis Guggenheim global warming sermon An Inconvenient Truth and and Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott’s brilliant film essay on the dubious legal status of companies as “persons,” The Corporation. The latter film seems like an obvious stylistic influence on Who Killed the Electric Car?. The Corporation is structured around a mock psychiatric examination of “the corporation” to determine whether the “person” thus constructed is in fact psychotic; Electric Car frames its case, with somewhat less wit, as a murder investigation. Both films use colorful animated sequences as intertitles to separate the sections of their “case files.”
But Achbar and Abbott’s film is cool and cerebral in its presentation (though very entertaining). Electric Car‘s charm (though also its principal limitation) is its personal warmth and involvement. EV owners are shown as a kind of club, drawn from the heights of celebrity as well as the ranks of the ordinary consumer. The most articulate (and, frankly, cutest) of former EV drivers is Chelsea Sexton, who went to work for GM as a Saturn saleswoman at seventeen; she lived the reality of the Saturn hype for several years, selling a product she loved in a family-like environment. When the EV1 was announced, she volunteered to be part of the sales team. Despite GM placing some peculiar restrictions on people who wanted the car and creating an artificially short supply, she and the others were able to lease every car they could get their hands on; then they started creating waiting lists. Sexton clearly loved the car; her eyes light up when she talks about it, and there’s a touching scene where she goes to an automotive museum to visit one of the few remaining EV1′s. The proprietor of the museum puts on an official face of neutrality and expresses gratitude to GM for even allowing him to have “such an important part of automotive history.” “It shouldn’t be a part of automotive history,” she responds, near tears. When she tries to start the car, we discover that GM has sent a disabled EV1 to the museum.
That’s typical of GM’s whole approach to the car, which is to airbrush it out of history. If you can’t turn the car in the museum on, you can’t prove that it was a viable alternative to gas cars. Likewise, if no one has an electric car, no one else will become curious about them and try to buy them.
The latter half of the film follows the attempts of Sexton, Paine, Alexandra Paul, Peter Horton and others to slow the disappearance of the repossessed electric cars, staging a mock funeral for the cars to generate media attention, tracking them down in GM holding lots, producing photographic evidence that they were being destroyed, and eventually even being arrested for blocking the trucks delivering the EV’s to their doom. Ultimately, of course, they can’t do much, because GM legally owns the cars. But you can’t get over the feeling that these people have basically had their cars stolen. That’s the emotional pivot of the film, and although it puts forward its facts and its arguments quite convincingly, a lot of its force comes from this sense of outrage. That makes it somewhat less serious and scholarly than An Inconvenient Truth or The Corporation, more open to debate and sharpshooting. But it also makes Who Killed the Electric Car? more compelling, and (because it concentrates so specifically on electric cars) possibly a better spur to action.
After I saw the film, I walked out of the Grand and down the street, waved to Robin in the Kickstand, got in my car, and was about to drive home. But as I passed the theater again, I saw a man and a woman standing by the damnedest looking little car; I practically stopped right in the street. I pulled into a parking space and sat there for a few seconds. Were they there to show it? Were they part of an electric car marketing campaign? Or was this just a confluence of interests — electric car owners going to see a movie about electric cars?
It looked like they weren’t in a hurry to leave, so I got out and asked them about it. It turned out that it was a GEM, and it was basically only half an electric car, somewhere between a golf cart and the EV1. It only goes about 30 mph, and it’s basically only for neighborhood use. But it’s also less than half the price of an average car (about $6,500 base price, although doors cost extra), and pretty much maintenance-free. It uses three marine-type batteries that last for about 5 years, and it can take any normal urban road and even Tacoma’s infamous hills. (Like the Geo Metro, it uses 12″ wheels.) This is not a “car” that will ever win over Hummer drivers (though I’ll wager a few of them might perk up at the high performance hum of Tesla Motors‘ new Roadster), but it is an alternative for urban dwellers who mostly travel short distances (the guy I talked to commuted about 6 miles to work, from Tacoma to nearby suburb Fife) and are tired of paying through the nose for increasingly scarce gasoline.
“How much does it add to your electric bill?” I asked.
“Practically nothing,” he said. “About as much as a 100-watt bulb.”
His wife added, “We just don’t leave the back porch light on anymore. We’ve got dogs in the back anyway.”
He took me for a little ride around the block — the motor seemed to be working about at its limits going up one severe hill, but I never got the impression that it would slow traffic.
“We thought when we bought it that we’d have to allow more time to go to the grocery store. We do — not because it takes longer to get there, but because we have to stop and talk to people who are curious. I’ll come out of the store, and people will be gathered around it, like this — ” she puts a finger very close to the surface of the car — “and I have to tell them, ‘It’s all right, you can touch it.'”
So thanks to Shel and Dave, and all the other people out there looking for alternatives to oil addiction. I don’t know if I’ll ever own a GEM, but sooner or later, I’d love to have an electric car.