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5 reasons why WHO KILLED THE ELECTRIC CAR? still matters

General Motors' EV1 electric vehicle

If you’ve taken a look at the schedule for The Green programming this month (and the rest of what’s on Sundance Channel this week), this Sunday’s showing of WHO KILLED THE ELECTRIC CAR? may have caught your attention – and even had you scratching your head a bit. After all, aren’t electrified vehicles now alive and well? The Nissan LEAF (a fully electric car) and the Chevy Volt (a plug-in hybrid with a 40 mile all-electric range) are getting lots of attention, and boutique automakers like Tesla are still plugging away (so to speak). Gearheads are converting their own cars to electricity and even offering the service to others. And director Chris Paine’s next film is called REVENGE OF THE ELECTRIC CAR. Doesn’t all of this prove that this five-year-old documentary is already dated?

In a few ways, WHO KILLED THE ELECTRIC CAR? is a product of the time it was made: a lot has changed on the vehicle front since 2006. But after watching it again this weekend, I remembered that the story of GM’s EV1, and the really odd choices the company made concerning this popular vehicle, serves as a touchstone for discussing broad issues of consumer culture, the relationships between government and industry, and, of course, the environmental impact of our vehicles and the infrastructure that supports them. I think this film is still relevant; here are a few reasons why.

  • The historical perspective: While WHO KILLED THE ELECTRIC CAR? is centered on the short life of the EV1, Paine digs into the history of the electric vehicle to demonstrate that it isn’t just some new idea conceived by treehuggers. EVs are about as old as the car itself, and, at the beginning of the 20th-century, electric vehicles outnumbered those with internal combustion engines. They were popular for many of the reasons they still are: they run quietly and can be “fueled” almost anywhere.
  • The reminder of how we really use our cars: Did you pick out your current vehicle for long-distance travel or cargo space? For most of us, those kinds of uses represent (at most) about 10% of our driving. We mostly use our cars for commuting and short trips. No doubt there are people whose work requires a bigger, more powerful vehicle, or one that can go long distances easily, but for the vast majority, a battery-powered car with a 40-mile range will serve our common transportation needs very well.
  • The cozy, yet dysfunctional, relationship between government and industry: WHO KILLED THE ELECTRIC CAR? does a very nice job of showing that consumer demand for a vehicle like the EV1 existed. However, electric vehicle development didn’t fit the revenue models of the big automakers at the time (or of the oil industry – ever). California’s Air Resources Board (CARB) took a bold step with its Zero Emissions Mandate, but started backing down from it almost immediately once industry brought pressure to bear.
  • The pipe dream of the hydrogen vehicle: We don’t even hear much about hydrogen cars any more. I’m sure there are still concepts in development – I even drove one a few years ago at the LA Auto Show – but, as the film points out, the hurdles to bringing these cars to market are pretty daunting. There’s nothing wrong with a challenge, but it’s pretty easy to buy into the film’s argument that the push for hydrogen vehicles in the mid-2000s served largely to distract from existing zero tailpipe emission vehicles.
  • An homage to innovation and hope: WHO KILLED THE ELECTRIC CAR? is an activist documentary. As such, there’s plenty of very critical analysis of the actions of big institutions. Despite the fate of the EV1, Paine devotes ample time towards the end of the film to the many hopeful signs out there for a transition in how we power our vehicles. From the collaboration between treehuggers and neoconservatives in organizations like Plug-In America, to the emergence of small companies with big ideas (like Tesla), to the very innovative nature of the EV1 itself (and it was a great vehicle), Paine’s hopeful about the future of low-impact personal transportation that’s also practical.

Enjoy the film if you haven’t seen it. Watch it again if you have. And if you’ve got other reasons for believing it’s still relevant to current discussions about how we move ourselves around, share them with us.

And be sure to check out the entire schedule of films this month on Sundance Channel.

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Image credit: RightBrainPhotography at Flickr under a Creative Commons license