Review: Who Killed the Electric Car?

Urban Legend or Prime Suspect?


  • EV1

    EV1

    The EV1 was an all-electric car that was released in 1996 by GM and leased through Saturn dealerships. Initially it had a range of only about 40 miles, but later that grew to 160 miles without a recharge. | March 18, 2010

3 Photos

This entertaining documentary attempts to answer the question of whether General Motors killed its groundbreaking electric car the EV1 because people just didn't buy it, or because sinister corporate and government forces conspired to murder it.

Throughout the movie, experts scoff at suggestions that GM never really tried to sell the car and killed it when it attracted too much attention. For example, Los Angeles Times automotive journalist Dan Neil says that GM would have been happy to sell any car it could, even one that ran on "pig shit." GM spokesman Dave Barthmuss sincerely informs us that while the waiting lists of buyers for the car appeared encouraging, some containing 4,000 names, when they were winnowed down only about 40 people were really serious.

If this is true then why, asks filmmaker Chris Paine, a former EV1 owner, was GM so aggressive about pulling the electric car out of circulation? Barthmuss, the same GM spokesman who said the car didn't sell, states that the EV1s would be used in other applications and would not be crushed. In fact, the cars were taken to the GM proving grounds in Arizona and not just crushed, but systematically destroyed.

Who Killed the Electric Car? is told as a mock whodunit that interrogates suspects and then pronounces a verdict. The playful tone actually hides a very serious question: Are American automakers and politicians really searching for solutions to oil dependence and air pollution, as they claim? Or are they more interested in producing gas-guzzling SUVs that feather their nests and bankroll the oil companies?

Another suspect in the car's demise is the California Air Resources Board (CARB), which passed the 1990 Zero Emissions Mandate (ZEV). The radical ZEV stated that 2 percent of new vehicles sold in California would be emission-free by 1998 and 10 percent by 2003. This seemed to give birth to the EV1, which was launched in 1996. When the law was repealed under pressure from auto industry representatives (while voices of clean-air activists were suppressed, the filmmakers say) the EV1 and other electric cars (Toyota RAV4 and Ford Ranger) were sent to the shredder.

When we watch a movie like this, we try to keep our critical faculties engaged to spot the moviemakers stacking the deck to make their point. After all, they hold all the cards and can make the final edits to leave out or include only those things that support their case. To answer the questions raised by the movie you have to consider the car itself: Was the EV1, sold by Saturn dealerships, a real contender?

There are many interviews in the movie with people who fell in love with the EV1, such as actors Mel Gibson, Tom Hanks and Peter Horton. Here at Edmunds.com we have a friend who drove the EV1 and said it was silent, fast, futuristic and "very cool." The only drawbacks he detected were a soft ride and limited cruising range.

When it was first introduced, the EV1 only had a range of 40 miles. Critics say this makes the car virtually useless. But, as the movie points out, GM was in possession of a better battery but chose not to put it in the car. Later, a different battery was used and the range climbed to 160 miles. Admittedly, the EV1 was not a car that could compete on a feature-by-feature basis with other cars. It was more a symbol of what could be done and what might be in our future. It was leased for a higher payment than most other cars, too, making it a choice for only devoted environmentalists or other image-seekers such as celebrities.

Some people who watch the film would say the limited range and high payment are clear proof that the car was destined to fail. However, we have as evidence people who owned the EV1, loved it and desperately fought to keep it. Instead, these people were forced to stand by as tow trucks reclaimed their cars at the end of the lease. One scene shows a line of electric cars waiting to be shredded by an employee who admits they were fully functional. So why are they being destroyed? "It's a bit of a mystery," he tells the camera.

An interesting trend presented by the movie is the way coming technology is dangled in front of the public to allay fears of the future. We're told not to worry about rising oil prices and tightening energy supplies because coming to the rescue are fuel-cell cars that will be fast, nonpolluting and run on abundantly available hydrogen. The only problem is, fuel-cell cars are five years away. In fact, they've been five years away for the last 10 years. The EV1 was killed because of the promise of a better alternative that may never arrive.

Urban legends about conspiracies in the automotive world have circulated ever since the car was invented. Stories about a super-efficient gasoline engine suppressed by the automakers are favorites. Is the death of the EV1 just another conspiracy theory by paranoid environmentalists? Is consumer apathy the only cause of its death? Or are there real, behind-the-scenes forces, driven by a thirst for immediate profit and blind to our darkening, polluted skies?

Whether you agree with this film, you owe it to yourself to see it. While the case of the EV1 is somewhat limited in impact, the issues involved are symptomatic of the way automakers view environmental regulation and energy needs. While the filmmakers don't present a smoking gun, they deliver enough circumstantial evidence to convince us that we should keep this case open for further investigation.

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