Who Killed the Electric Car?

Over 40 million Americans hit the road over the July Fourth holiday, burning through pricey tanks of gas (close to three bucks a gallon nationwide), and releasing enough exhaust fumes to send even Sen. James Inhofe and Michael Crichton into coughing fits. Now just imagine if all those holiday drivers had been road-tripping in zero-emission electric vehicles.

It's a thought to global-warm the heart of Al Gore and put a knot in the stomach of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (his country is OPEC's No. 2 biggest producer). How's that for an Independence (from oil) Day twofer? And it's no tailpipe dream, as is shown in Who Killed the Electric Car?, a powerful and lively new documentary that charts the all-too-short life and unnecessary death of GM's EV1 (and the burgeoning electric-car technology it represented).

The film is the ultimate movie mashup. Where else would you find interviews with Mel Gibson, Ed Begley, Jr., Phyllis Diller (yep, that Phyllis Diller), former CIA head James Woolsey, and Reagan administration official Frank Gaffney, combined with disturbing doings by GM, Big Oil, the Bush administration, and the smog-fighting California Air Resources board to create a blistering and surprisingly entertaining cinematic j'accuse?

"Mashup" also applies to the film's great gotcha moment: while a GM spokesperson vows that the company plans to reuse every part from the discontinued electric fleet, we see scenes shot from a helicopter showing the doomed electric cars literally being mashed up -- crushed and demolished at a GM facility in the Arizona desert.

Who Killed the Electric Car? starts out as an informative history of the energy-efficient vehicles. We learn that their development was jumpstarted by the state of California, which, in 1990, choking on blankets of smog, passed regulations designed to force car companies to start producing emission-free vehicles (indeed, two percent of new cars needed to be exhaustless by 1998). Since a number of companies, including GM, were already working on electric-car prototypes, business and environmental concerns seemed in sync.

In 1996, GM introduced the EV1, which you could juice up by plugging it into a wall socket. The cars quickly developed a small but passionate following (small because GM produced less than a thousand of them; passionate because they were terrific -- and terrifically efficient -- cars).

But behind the scenes, numerous forces were hard at work fighting to undermine the California zero-emission mandate -- and the success of the EV1.

At this point, the film shifts gears from electric-car primer to a compelling murder mystery, as the filmmakers roll out the prime suspects (and, yes, many of them are of the "usual" variety) in an effort to determine who, indeed, killed the electric car. It's like a cinematic game of Clue. But instead of "Professor Plum, in the library, with a candlestick," we get: "GM, in the boardroom, with a blunt profit motive," "Big Oil Companies (aided and abetted by the Bush administration), in the courtroom, with lawsuits forcing the rollback of California's rules," and "American Consumers, in the showroom, with a poisonous mix of an ad-fueled desire for gas-guzzling SUVs, tax incentives, and zero financing."

In the end, the lobbying and lawsuits by oil companies and the Bush administration caused California to soften its rules and allowed GM, which was making money hand over fist on SUVs, to pull the plug on the EV1 -- which was never really given a fighting chance. GM had leased only 800 of them over a four-year period (none were sold) and never put even the tiniest fraction of the marketing muscle behind them that they'd put behind the giant gas-guzzlers that, over the lifespan of the EV1, had become the company's cash cow. The auto giant then claimed that the demand for the electric cars just wasn't there -- and, in a bizarre act of industrial infanticide, reclaimed almost all the EV1s and flattened them like pancakes.

GM has responded to the positive critical response the film has received with a sniveling blog post written by a company PR flack: "We feel we are doing more than any other automaker to address the issues of oil dependence, fuel economy, and emissions from vehicles... Don't punish GM for doing a good deed." The GM "Fastlane" blog post (zingishly titled "Who Ignored the Facts About the Electric Car?") also touts the coming panacea of hydrogen fuel cell technology. Nice to see that the auto giant is reading from President Bush's talking points. Or is it the other way around?

But don't take my word for how gripping and galling Who Killed the Electric Car? is. While it's currently playing only in New York and Los Angeles, it will be expanding across the country over the next few months. When you get the chance, you should put the pedal to the metal and rush out to see it.

It's just a shame you won't be able to hop into your electric car to do so.