July 13, 2006

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Who Killed the Electric Car? (PG)
A sporty little electric vehicle was created and killed by GM over the space of a few years during the 1990s and early 2000s; Who Killed the Electric Car? asks why.

Yes, Martin Sheen is the narrator of this documentary with the accusatory name but this isnít some crybaby-liberal scold. Itís the fascinating true story of an invention and the baffling story of how that invention wasnít just walked away from but literally crushed by its inventor.

GM and other car manufacturers began leasing electric cars in California in part to comply with a state mandate for a certain percentage of zero-emission cars. Yawn, you think. But no, these sporty little cars looked like the love children of a Porsche and a UFO. They were, according to their enthusiasts (including Tom Hanks and Mel Gibson), crazy fun to drive. Initial mileage limitations (a range of only 60 to 80 miles before another recharging) were eventually fixed and even though electricity still requires plenty of fossil fuel use, the cars seemed like the first step on a road to a cleaner, more energy-efficient future.

That is, until GM rounded up all its EV1s (as the cars were known) and sent them to the crusher. People begged and pleaded to keep their cars. According to former GM employees, demand for the car was high and growing. But, as the movie suggests, the oil-fueled car had far more powerful proponents than did the EV1s (which basically had a dedicated but small club of drivers). California eventually caved on its zero-emission requirements and GM and others walked away from its electric car program.

Now let me say that I donít simply ďlikeĒ the combustion engine-having car I drive, I love it. If thereís a heaven, Iím fairly certain itís an eternity of speed-unlimited highway on a sunny day. If forced to choose between my house and my car, well, Iím short, Iím sure I could find a way to sleep in the back of a Civic. But when I watched the electric cars zip around California, I was completely captivated. If GM had any sense at all, it would have a leasing officer sitting right outside the theater, asking me what he has to do to get me in an EV1 today.

Beyond being perhaps the best piece of car advertising ever, Who Killed the Electric Car? is a shocking tale of shortsightedness. GM with its union problems and its possible partnerships with Nissan seems like a company near the top of the basin, sure, but nonetheless slowly circling the drain. Eventually, gas tanks that cost $50 (or more) to fill will have some people looking for other options. Hybrids are gaining ground, though that ground mostly belongs to Toyota and Honda so far. It seems like almost criminally bad business practice for a car company to only half-assedly pursue and then prematurely kill a product that will so obviously be in demand in coming years.

The movie makes you excited, angry and optimistic. There is a spunky quality to the electric car enthusiasts (not to mention the zippy fun of the car itself) that makes you believe something this cool and this sensible wonít be completely lost in history. A


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