Jun 24, 2006 (From the CalCars-News archive)
Friday's Detroit Free Press and this week's issue of The Economist have extended stories that start out as movie reviews but evolve into extended discussions of the implications of the film for the auto industry, EVs and PHEVs.
bbrr Detroit Free Press
Documentary slams GM for ending EV1
'Who Killed the Electric Car?' to roll out next week
BY JUSTIN HYDE
FREE PRESS WASHINGTON BUREAU
June 23, 2006
Just as General Motors Corp. has begun to talk about turning a corner after months of bad news from losses and job cuts, a documentary rolling out next week accuses GM of putting its EV1 electric vehicle in an early grave.
"Who Killed the Electric Car?" examines California's fling with mandating electric cars in the 1990s and its decision to drop the mandate in the face of strenuous opposition from the auto industry. Like an auto version of "JFK," "Who Killed the Electric Car?" contends carmakers, government officials and others worked together to keep a viable alternative to gas-powered vehicles off the road
The film holds the entire auto industry responsible, but the EV1 gets most of the camera time, and GM is shown holding the smoking gun, or rather the smoking car crusher. But the auto industry has long had a rebuttal for the movie's title: Electric cars weren't murdered -- they committed suicide, due to technology that can't match the power and range of traditional vehicles.
Like "Roger and Me," which illustrates the negative impact of GM's decision to downsize in Flint, "Who Killed the Electric Car?" could create a public relations headache for GM. While many automakers have long dismissed electric vehicles as a dead end, the documentary's story could resonate with moviegoers spending $3 for every gallon of gasoline they used to drive to the theater.
The movie "illustrates the extreme enthusiasm and passion that EV1 consumers had for that particular vehicle," said GM spokesman Dave Barthmuss, who appears in the movie. "We just wish there would have been a heck of a lot more of them."
"Who Killed the Electric Car?" isn't some dorm-room video project. Its main producer is Dean Devlin, an electric-vehicle enthusiast who produced blockbusters "Independence Day," "Godzilla" and "The Patriot." It's narrated by Martin Sheen, features an interview with Mel Gibson and will be released in New York and Los Angeles on Wednesday by Sony Pictures Classics, the same studio that released "Capote" last year. The movie opens in Detroit on July 7.
The move is in the genre of Michael Moore's "Roger and Me" and "Supersize Me," opinionated documentaries that created bad publicity for the companies under scrutiny -- GM and McDonald's Corp. It's unwelcome attention for GM as it struggles to remake itself as a leaner company and stop its market-share slide.
Even before its release, "Who Killed the Electric Car?" has received several positive reviews, and one Hollywood trade paper said Wednesday it could be a contender in the documentary category at next year's Oscars.
"I hope it makes an impact in Detroit," said Chris Paine, the film's writer-director and a former EV1 driver. "A lot of people could have had jobs if they had pursued this in the proper way."
The movie quotes former GM executives and other auto industry officials on the limitations of electric vehicles, but eventually finds automakers, government officials and oil companies guilty of vehicular slaughter.
"I think we were fair with GM," Paine said. "It becomes a great American tragedy that the first time GM ever put their brand on their own car, they had it towed off and destroyed. The guts of that car are what could have rebuilt GM."
Built in Lansing, the EV1 was GM's first electric vehicle, shown as a concept in Los Angeles in 1990 and put into production in 1996. It could hit 60 miles per hour in 7 seconds, but could seat only two people and a little luggage. It ran silently, but had a range of 80 miles, which could drop precipitously for the lead-footed, and took several hours to recharge.
GM touted the cars in upscale magazines and with a television ad produced by George Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic, showing a crowd of household appliances gathering in a suburban street as an EV1 rolls up. The upscale targets were chosen due to the EV1's monthly lease prices ranging from $399 to $549, including the cost of a home recharging station.
The movie opens with a funeral that EV1 owners staged in 2003, and follows the history of electric vehicles, from the turn-of-the-century models to the unveiling of the production EV1 in 1996.
It shows clips and interviews with EV1 drivers enthusing about their vehicles, including Tom Hanks and Gibson, who said driving his EV1 made him kind of "feel like Batman."
The EV1 garnered the attention of the California Air Resources Board, which passed a rule in 1990 that said 10% of all vehicles sold by 2003 should emit no pollution. Other automakers, including Ford, Toyota, Honda and Nissan, came out with electric vehicles, but none reported strong customer demand, and the industry began to challenge the rule in and out of court.
The movie contends that oil companies campaigned against electric vehicles, that CARB and other politicians were swayed by a mirage of future hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles, and that automakers purposely tamped enthusiasm for the cars because they needed less service and fewer replacement parts, a big source of profits.
"There was no conspiracy at GM. We don't spend an excess of $1 billion to set a program up for failure," Barthmuss said. "We simply could not lose any more money and we had to move on. The vehicles, as great as they were, forced way too many trade-offs in a person's life."
Chelsea Sexton, an electric car enthusiast and former EV1 saleswoman quoted throughout the movie, contends there were thousands of people who were interested in the EV1, but that GM let few of them near a lease. GM says most of those interested dropped out when the car's limitations and costs were explained.
After leasing about 800 EV1s, then-GM Vice Chairman Harry Pearce told reporters at the 2000 Detroit auto show that GM had stopped building EV1s, saying there was "no particular need" for more. By 2003, CARB had repealed its mandate, and GM announced it was taking back all EV1s due to a lack of parts.
The movie follows a group of EV1 enthusiasts as they stalk their vehicles in hopes of saving them, setting up a 24-hour vigil around a parking lot full of EV1s and chasing a transport full of electric Toyota RAV4s. Paine eventually finds EV1s piled at GM's Arizona proving grounds, next to a crusher.
Barthmuss said the EV1 was a jump start for GM to build hybrid and fuel-cell vehicles and that GM is catching up on hybrids after Toyota and Honda took the lead on developing the gas-electric powered vehicles.
"We have to have advanced technology on the road in extremely large numbers -- hundreds of thousands of units, millions of units," he said. "The EV1 was not going to get us there."
The movie ends with an encomium for plug-in hybrids, which Paine and Sexton contend could be the savior of American automakers should they have the vision to produce them.
The movie "is really not about a car or GM," Sexton said. "It's about a viable choice the American public was denied."
Contact JUSTIN HYDE at 202-906-8204 or jhyde@....
Some of the points made in "Who Killed the Electric Car?"
POLLUTION: While electric vehicles produced no emissions, some opponents contended they simply replaced car exhaust with pollution from coal-burning electric power plants, an argument that one oil company made in advertisements. EV advocates say clean power sources were available.
MARKETING: GM hired award-winning adman Hal Riney for the EV1 campaign, but a former EV1 saleswoman and others say the ads were so avant-garde they frightened more buyers than they attracted. "We never saw a TV ad with an electric car scampering up a hill with a good-looking man or woman draped across it. That's how they sell cars," says David Freeman, an energy adviser in the Carter administration.
FUEL CELLS: The movie contends the California Air Resources Board was lured away from its demand for electric vehicles by unrealistic promises of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. Alan Lloyd, the CARB chairman at the time, says in the film it's not the government's role to specify what kind of technology automakers use to get cleaner air.
http://www.economist.com/books/displaystory.cfm?story_id=E1_SDRTTRD From The Economist print edition Jun 22nd 2006
A whodunnit on wheels
A curiously compelling documentary about electric cars
"HERE'S what happened: I fell in love with my car." So says Chris Paine, the director of "Who Killed the Electric Car?", when asked why he made the documentary that proved so popular at the Sundance film festival earlier this year and which goes on general release in America on June 28th.
Hollywood's love affair with cars is nothing new, of course. And it is not only petrol-heads or even just men who have found cars liberating. Who could forget the sheer exhilaration, at the end of "Thelma & Louise", when the heroines, surrounded by the cops on one side and a vast canyon on the other, put their foot down and fly to freedom?
Mr Paine's film is no ordinary car film, perhaps because the car he loved was no ordinary car. Mr Paine and Dean Devlin, the executive producer (best known for "Godzilla" and "Independence Day") both owned electric cars during the brief period a decade ago when the big car companies sold them in parts of America. They did so not because they wanted to, but because Californian regulators forced car companies to sell some "zero-emission" cars.
Grudging though it was in its greenery, General Motors did manage to produce the super-fast EV1-the most aerodynamic production car ever made. The EV1 proved hugely popular among California's green and gadget-loving set, the same crowd that is now rushing to buy the Toyota Prius. However, unlike today's hybrid cars, which are growing into a mass-market phenomenon, the EV1 and other electric cars bit the dust.
Motor companies insist that the reason the original battery cars failed was lack of consumer interest, but that view is turned on its head here. The film investigates various possible culprits behind the "murder" of the electric car in turn-oil giants, carmakers, consumers, regulators, hydrogen energy (a rival technology) and so on-before pointing the finger at the true culprit. To its credit, the film does this with great sophistication and without over-simplifying or distorting energy policy and politics.
If the only thing recommending this film were its intelligent take on policy, it would be a snoozer. Instead, it is quite gripping. The main reason is that the writers have cleverly turned their conspiracy theories into a whodunnit. In one heart-stopping sequence, activists sneak into GM's secret testing grounds via helicopter and film the company crushing the beloved EV1s-in direct contradiction to the company's public vow to save the car.
Go and see "Who Killed the Electric Car?"-not just to learn about how car companies once viewed environmentalists and environmental concerns, or because a new generation of electric cars (including plug-in versions of today's hybrids) will soon come to market-but as a lively murder mystery. Agatha Christie would have loved it.