Al Gore has proven that environmentally friendly documentaries can attract audiences to theatres, but it’s doubtful that “Who Killed the Electric Car?” will get quite as much attention as “An Inconvenient Truth.” That isn’t because it doesn’t feature some big, too–in fact, Mel Gibson, who appears in it, would probably outdraw the former vice-president any day. It’s simply because though interesting enough, it’s rather slight and clumsily organized, and because technically it’s pretty primitive.
The picture begins with a bit of a history lesson, informing us that at the turn of the last century, electric cars were actually preferred briefly to oil-driven ones. That quickly changed, however, and electric cars disappeared from the American market until the 1980s, when in the wake of questions about oil supply General Motors undertook a project to produce and market an electric car, and actually did distribute one, the EV-1, in a modest lease-only program. Before long, however, it not only discontinued the model but not only reclaimed all the cars when the leases ran out and destroyed them to boot.
What writer-director Chris Paine attempts in the film is not only to give a brief history of GM’s EV-1 project and discuss its viability with political figures, the division’s sales staff, environmental activists, industry writers and leasers (including Gibson, among other celebrities who leased and liked them), but to recount the stalwart but ultimately futile efforts of supporters to save at least the existing cars and apportion blame for the car’s demise. Special emphasis is put on a California initiative to compel carmakers by law to meet zero emissions standards on a percentage of their fleet–a directive that was derailed, Paine says, via corporate pressure and political shenanigans.
Though the structure of “Who Killed the Electric Car?” is hardly crisp–joints are showing all over the place–most of the material is informative and the presentation is often amusing or dispiriting (sometimes both almost simultaneously). As to the verdicts parceled out at the close, on the basis of the evidence presented here, they all seem valid enough (consumer demand for size, speed and travel distance, car companies’ focus on the short-term, oil companies’ resistance to alternative energy sources, GM’s failure to take advantage of the best technology available, political weakness)–as are the brickbats thrown at successive administrations in Washington (including, pointedly, the current one) for their apathy or downright hostility to policies that might encourage innovation by manufacturers.
Of course, the recent success of hybrids indicates that reports of the death of the electric car may be exaggerated–somewhat, if not greatly. But Paine’s film demonstrates that the demise of the EV-1 might well have been the result not of natural causes, but something considerably more sinister; and as such it can serve as a salutary warning about how such things work in America.