Monday, August 8, 2011

Who Killed the Electric Car?

The 2006 documentary WHO KILLED THE ELECRTIC CAR? opens with a funeral procession. A line of sedans files into a Southern California cemetery, the hoods covered with wreaths. A eulogy is read. The departed? The General Motors EV1, the first mass produced electric car. As GM only allowed the cars to be leased, every last one of them had to be turned in after the California Air Resources Board reversed their own decision to combat air pollution (the Zero- emissions vehicle mandate of 1990).

Why? Director Chris Paine formulates a few theories. Big Oil. The auto manufacturers themselves (Chrysler and Toyota, among others, also produced electric vehicles). The GW Bush Administration. There were multiple lawsuits and muscle from each of them. An electric car does not need oil. You know the rest. You may well just end the discussion right there. But, there are other variables. What about the push for hydrogen powered cars? No other than W himself took the pulpit and offered his approval. Did all of the enthusiasm and R & D $$$s also kill the electric car? There isn't enough space here for me to postulate the problems with hydrogen (not clean burning, not easily extracted, etc.) and how its adoption would be a retrograde step for consumers and the environment.

WHO KILLED THE ELECTRIC CAR? is comprised of a listing of culprits (the above, as well as battery manufacturers) and an ongoing serial of several EV1 owners who become activists, even willing to be arrested as they try to block a semi that will haul the last of the EV1s to their destruction. The latter follows very devoted folks, celebrities (Alexandra Paul, Ed Begley, Jr., Mel Gibson, et. al) and regular joes as their bewilderment turns to anger and action. Paine structures this thread almost like a straight drama. We become concerned for those hunks of metal, what they symbolize, what could've been.

Of course, those right of center will be quick to brand WHO KILLED THE ELECTRIC CAR? liberal pap. Even as someone who is definitely not in that group, I at times felt the film was a bit content with pointing fingers, and not considering other points of view. I'm all about sticking it to the Man, but equal time should be given to all the talking heads. Not just in terms of screen time, but also in how the principals are presented. This films bathes the EV1 owners and "green" proponents almost in an angelic glow, fighting an uphill battle as if they were fighting a degenerative disease. I'm not saying the environment is not an essential cause, but this movie, at times, portrays its heroes as positively oppressed. Paine paces his doc with a heavy hand.

The coporate guys are of course shown as abrupt, bottom line minions who cite chapter and verse as to why production of electric vehicles were halted. The lines of horseshit they deliver are as unconvincing as some of their hairlines, but I wish maybe we could listen to them a bit longer? Are they really this greedy and one dimensional? Is anyone? Possibly. This movie suggests a conspiracy among Big Business and politicos; don't stop the presses on that one. But, the slant in ELECTRIC CAR was bit more lefty than necessary.

Therein lies the unavoidable problem with so many docs: subjectivity. Some filmmakers are blatant, like Michael Moore. I've championed unabashedly partisan documentaries like HEARTS & MINDS and DR. DEATH, but in those I felt freer to interpret and arrive at my own conclusions. Paine uses graphics and bullet points to make his case, like we're watching someone's Power Point presentation. Plus, all the electric car peeps wear white hats and the fossil fuel diehards wear black. I like to see the waters muddied a bit more; that's reality, but it could trip up your thesis.

Still, WHO KILLED THE ELECTRIC CAR? makes salient points about the machinery of government and industry, of how everything is about money. I think most people of a certain age have gathered that much, but seeing it documented is a good reminder and possible catalyst. Thinking back, if anyone should be praising this film, it should be the car battery manufacturers, the only of Paine's suspect list that gets acquitted of the title crime. I'd like to see a facedown between them and the oil companies, the latter of whom blamed the former for the electric car's death. Let's see a battery life chart diagnostic and Shell's balance sheet side by side. That would be a good starting point.

NOTE: Electric cars will be featured on showroom floors yet again. 2011 looks to be a year of re-birth. Nissan's Leaf is electric, while the Chevy Volt will be a "plug-in hybrid". They look to be expensive, but tax credits and state rebates may help. We'll see how the saga unfolds this time.
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