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A scene from the documentary "Who Killed the Electric Car?"

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Movie review: 'Who Killed the Electric Car?' short circuits

  • Article by: Colin Covert
  • Star Tribune
  • July 14, 2006 - 5:12 PM

Was it foul play? Natural causes? Conspiracy?

Whatever the cause, General Motors' EV1 coupes -- nonpolluting, quiet, almost maintenance-free compacts that could scream along at speeding-ticket velocity on domestically produced electricity -- are deader than a possum in a crosswalk. Manufactured between 1996 and 2000, the car went from the wave of the future to a footnote in automotive history without ever having a chance in the marketplace.

The facts could make for a great Oliver Stone political thriller. The California Air Resources Board forced automakers to build a "zero emissions" vehicle to secure the right to sell cars in that state. GM produced a limited run of battery powered EV1s but did not sell any to consumers, doling them out through cumbersome rental agreements. The auto giant lobbied state iregulators to reverse their position, then repossessed the 800-car fleet at the end of their lease, trucked them to a remote facility and shredded them into confetti.

Filmmaker Chris Paine's postmortem on the EV1s doesn't answer all our questions, but it is reasonably evenhanded and quite entertaining. It opens with an only-in-L.A. funeral procession for the car, attended by scores of fervent EV1 drivers, with Ed Begley Jr. delivering the eulogy. "What critics of electric vehicles have been saying for years is true," he told the mourners. "Electric cars are not for everybody. Given the limited range, they can only meet the needs of 90 percent of the population."

Paine interviews EV1 fans such as Mel Gibson, skeptics including Pulitzer Prize-winning auto columnist Dan Neil, current and former GM employees, renowned engineers and folks on the street to get to the bottom of the story. This may be the only documentary ever to feature both Ralph Nader and Phyllis Diller.

Paine uses the celebrity pixie dust judiciously and includes a lot of solid reporting, juxtaposing a GM promise that the repossessed EV1s would be recycled and used for research with shots of the cars being chopped to smithereens. The examination of GM's ad campaign for the cars is striking, with the creepy commercials full of stark shadows and plaintive wailing indicating a commitment to popularizing the vehicles that was halfhearted at best.

The film also makes some mistakes, stating that GM put L.A.'s electric trolley system out of business, a favorite shibboleth that has been pretty well debunked.

It also skirts the central question: If an economically viable electric car is feasible, why hasn't someone built it?

Certainly there is corporate resistance to change. The oil industry has trillions of dollars of oil still in the ground. Automakers have an immense investment in internal combustion engineering. And there's a lot of company pride on the line. As former GM EV1 specialist Cindy Sexton puts it, "You can't market the EV1 as clean without making it obvious that the Suburban is dirty."

Intransigence is not a survival strategy, however, and there are signs automakers are figuring out the love affair with gas hogs is waning. This year, GM has sold fewer than 7,000 Hummer H2s and just 138 brontosaurus-sized H1s -- which the company stopped building last month. Ads for gas-electric hybrid vehicles are popping up all over. The electric car may be dead, but as technology improves, oil prices rise and demand increases, it may not stay that way.

Colin Covert • 612-673-7186

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