Middle Row, Centre: Who Did Kill that Car?

As a new year dawns, it looks as if the electric car may finally be coming into its own. Japan’s Nissan Motors is ready to debut with its new Leaf hybrid vehicle, and General Motors is mass-producing its much-ballyhooed Chevrolet Volt at its Detroit-area Hamtramck plant, preparing for a spring 2011 rollout.

GM’s enthusiasm for the Volt seems to be in stark contrast to its attitude to the first electric car it developed, the one they company would rather forget.

But director Chris Paine didn’t forget, and his story of the EV-1 is the subject of a fascinating documentary in the Alpine Films series, Who Killed The Electric Car?

The EV-1 saga began in the mid-’90s, when the California Air Resources Board (CARB) was faced with legislation that decreed that auto emissions must be reduced by 10 per cent by 2003. Under pressure from the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the state complied.

GM claims that it spent one billion dollars developing its response to the California legislation, a two-seater plug-in electric coupé. Between 1995 and 2005, about 1,000 of the vehicles were produced, but none were offered for sale. Instead, GM leased them out, at about $600 a month.

Waiting lists for the vehicles were long, and they went mostly to celebrities and professionals who could afford the expensive lease terms. Most people were happy with the EV-1, but it soon became apparent that the federal and state governments were dragging their heels on its becoming widespread.

The US auto manufacturers’ association, buttressed by the oil lobby, soon became aware of weaknesses in the legislation. They claimed the emission controls were unrealistic and unreachable, and that nobody wanted electric cars anyway.

When the Bush administration gained power in 2000, the death knell rang for emissions controls. In addition to weakening the legislation, Republicans sanctioned a takeover bid by the oil companies that fatally hampered electric car development.

The patents for the nickel-hydride battery system were bought by an oil company conglomerate led by Chevron.

So who did kill the electric car?

Quite clearly, the American system of government, with the strong control on legislation by powerful industry lobby groups, has much to answer for.

GM itself, dragged kicking and screaming into the electric age, still wishing to concentrate on its high-power, high-profit Hummers and SUVs, is another main culprit, as are the oil companies.

In a final insult to all those who saw a glimmer of hope in the EV-1, GM in 2005 took back all the vehicles it had leased when their terms expired, and hauled them away on flatbeds to the company’s testing grounds in Mesa, Arizona.

There, they were crushed and ultimately shredded into tiny bits.

Who Killed The Electric Car? is a powerful documentary that pulls no punches, exposing the real centres of control and power within the American system.

Director and ecological enthusiast Chris Paine, who leased an EV-1 himself, is in the final stages of producing a sequel, called Revenge Of the Electric Car, to be released this coming spring.

One hopes the perfect storm of impending peak oil, global warming and the plight of American automakers will be enough to bring on a different, more positive ending this time around.

Who Killed The Electric Car? plays at Alpine Bakery at 7:30 pm Friday, February 4.

Brian Eaton is a cinema buff who reviews current films and writes on other film-related topics on a regular basis.

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