"In 1996, electric cars began to appear on roads all over California. They were quiet and fast, produced no exhaust and ran without gasoline........... Ten years later, these futuristic cars were almost completely gone."
'Who Killed the Electric Car' is a documentary which unfolds a complex set of events around the development and demise of the modern electric car. The story stems from California from the early 1990s to 2006. Chris Paine, the film maker has woven together interviews and archival footage of over 65 people involved with the events.
The narrative begins to unfold with a brief history of the first electric cars created in the early twentieth century. These electric vehicles were killed off nearly 100 years ago as gas/petroleum powered internal combustion engine (ICE) cars became cheaper. The worsening problems of gas/petrol cars are illustrated: smog, high child asthma rates, CO2 emissions and global warming. [Later we also see the use of the US Military in the Middle East. The loss of life and financial cost of war are not mentioned].
The film then commences the story of the modern EV in 1987 when General Motors and the 'SunRaycer', won the World Solar Challenge, a solar electric car race in Australia. General Motor's CEO, Roger Smith challenged the same design team to build a prototype practical electric car which became known as the 'Impact' when announced in 1990. The project expanded to small scale production vehicles with the aim that it would give GM several years lead over any competitor car companies.
The Californian Air Resources Board (CARB) saw this as a way to solve their air quality problem and in 1990 passed the Zero Emissions Vehicle (ZEV) Mandate. The ZEV Mandate specified increasing numbers of vehicles sold would have to be Zero Emission Vehicles. 'For the car companies, there was only two options: Comply with the law or fight it. In then end, they would do both'.
The movie continues to reveal what the various suspects did to kill the reality of the electric car, and the efforts of EV supporters to save them.
Oil companies stood to lose enormous profits if EV sales took off and they colluded with others to kill the electric car.
To comply with the ZEV Mandate, in 1996, GM started leasing small numbers of the production car, called the EV1. Other car companies also produced electric vehicles by converting existing production models and leased them to drivers. But the GM board of directors never really wanted the car to succeed as they didn't think they would make profit from the car. They saw losses from development costs and the virtual absence of maintenance and replacement parts which, for gas cars, bring ongoing profits. They were worried that the popularity of the car was growing and that other US states were considering ZEV Mandate laws which meant that they may have to convert all their cars to electric drives which represented even bigger losses.
GM initially installed poor quality Delco lead acid batteries in the EV1 and produced advertising that EV advocates argued was aimed at repelling public interest.
Car companies argued that using coal for electric vehicle power would produce worse emissions than using petroleum. Energy experts dismissed these arguments as the electric drive train is inherently more efficient (does not idle or have a poor efficiency driving mode), and uses regenerative braking to recharge the batteries. EVs are less polluting even if the electricity comes from coal fired power plants. Furthermore, the emissions of coal fired power plants can be controlled and regulated in ways not possible for vehicles, as the number power plants is miniscule compared to the number of gas powered vehicles.
The car companies also argued that they would not be able to technically and financially meet the requirements of the ZEV Mandate. Car and oil companies joined the Federal Government to sue the State of California and overturn the ZEV Mandate.
From 1999 to 2004 Alan Lloyd was chairman of CARB and he presided over changes to the ZEV Mandate. He strongly influenced the weakening of the Mandate's requirements on the automakers, gave favour to unproven hydrogen fuel cell technology and sidelined battery electric vehicles. Alan Lloyd was illustrated as expressing a biased opinion and a conflict of interest as four months before these decisions were made, he became chairman of the California Fuel Cell Partnership.
The film then shows how the Federal Government and oil companies put forward hydrogen fuel cells as a better alternative to gas and battery electric cars. In contrast, interviews with two hydrogen experts gave details why fuel cell vehicles are not likely to be available for another 15-20 years if ever, whereas battery electric technology is available now, has been rapidly improving since the mid 1990s and is cost effective.
One of the concessions that CARB gave the automakers was that they would only have to keep making EVs to meet public demand. Of course, automakers were already obstructing public demand through poor advertising, using an inexperienced sales team and exaggerating the limitations of the car to potential leasees. They argued that the cars had a limited driving range of 60 miles per charge and that consumers would not want to 'pay more' for a car that 'does less'. These arguments were disputed by others as the average daily commute is only 29 miles, the battery technology rapidly improved to increase driving range to beyond 100 miles per charge, and mass production of the cars would further bring down the cost of manufacture.
In 1999, having won some initial concessions in the Mandate, US automakers started shutting down their EV programs. GM bought the rights to manufacture the Hummer, as they saw it would make them money. In 2002 the maximum Federal tax credit for an EV was $4000. In 2003 the same tax credit for a 6000+ lbs vehicle was $100,000. Of course, many members of the US Federal Government Bush Administration were former board members or executives of oil and car companies.
In 2004, as EV leases expired, car companies started taking back their EVs and sent them to crushing facilities as if to remove any record of their existence in the minds of the public. Chris Payne, the film maker, hires a helicopter and flies over GM's Proving Ground in Mesa, Arizona, and is able to photograph around 50 crushed EV1s.
From 2004 to 2005, there are many emotional and rational public protests against the continued crushing of the EVs. Seventy-eight EV1s were found in a GM back lot in Burbank waiting to be sent away. Protesters put together a list of 80 buyers for the EV1s and offered GM $1.9 million to put them back on the road. GM did not respond to the offer.
The film maker gives a verdict on the suspects up for killing the electric car.
Suspect: Poor Battery Technology, Verdict: Not Guilty; Suspect: Oil Companies, Verdict: Guilty; Suspect: Car Companies, Verdict: Guilty; Suspect: Government, Verdict: Guilty; Suspect: CARB, Verdict: Guilty; Suspect: Consumers, Verdict: Guilty; Suspect: Hydrogen Fuel Cell, Verdict: Guilty.
Although the EVs of the 1990s were killed off, the film ends detailing the current environment where the future is being reshaped and new electric and hybrid cars are gaining popularity.
Higher oil prices, further entanglements in the Middle East and the increasing threat of global warming are increasing the pressure to reduce the US dependence on crude oil.
A new EV group called 'Plug-In America' is working with people across the political spectrum such as National Security Hawks, Evangelical groups and green groups to create and push for the Plug-In Hybrid Vehicle as the natural next step for vehicle fuel efficiency.
The film illustrates that using solar and wind to generate electricity would further reduce the carbon pollution of a switch EVs. Many companies are adapting to change to build new car and energy alternatives. At this point, Stan and Iris Ovshinsky steal the show as Stan shows off his new battery and solar power technologies that are advancing rapidly and are not controlled by oil companies as in the past. Smaller car companies are producing specialist vehicles such as the Tesla and others are doing their own conversions of gas cars to electric or hybrids to plug-in hybrids.
Finally, we are given a reminder of the January 2006 State of the Union Address, where George Bush admits 'America is addicted to oil'.