When I got "Who Killed the Electric Car?" through Netflix this week, one of my friends told me the movie would make me very angry. "Like if you found out we could have been living on the moon for the past 50 years," he said.
Well, it was frustrating, but in an eye-opening way. The film begins with a star-studded, emotional funeral... for an electric car. First the filmmakers present the idea that electric cars were on the roads in California in the 1990s, and were even some of the first vehicles ever made in the early 20th century.
Some of the information blew my mind (probably because I was in grade school when there were major developments). In 1990 California passed an emissions mandate that said car companies had to gradually come up with cleaner vehicles if they wanted to sell in CA. I thought, "Well that obviously didn't really happen." An electric vehicle was fully developed and sold in the 90s by -- of all companies -- GM. We all know how the company is doing now, with its huge clunky cars and government bailouts.
Once we're presented with this background on the EV1 -- and the realization that car manufacturing could have been very, very different -- the rest of the film is spent figuring out how we got to where we are. It is a "whodunit" of sorts, to determine just why we aren't all driving EV's.
I won't give away the ending (Colonel Mustard in the kitchen with the candlestick!), but will comment on the "murder" suspects. One of the people interviewed in the film described GM as "cannibalistic" toward its EV1, and that's really the best way to put it. After manufacturing and starting to sell the car, the company did everything in its power to kill it, even turning down enthusiastic, checkbook-wielding consumers.
Even the car companies we think of as "good guys," like Honda and Toyota, lobbied against emissions mandates that would encourage more electrics. Of course, the difference is that now those foreign companies have done very well with their hybrids, while domestic carmakers continue to struggle, both developmentally and financially.
Not surprisingly, other suspects include big oil and the government. One of my favorite parts was when an oil company representative tried to explain that EV's didn't succeed because they were made with "antiquated technology." Uh, how about that gloop that you harvest out of the ground?
Personally I suspect that the early electric vehicles could have done better in today's climate -- costly wars with oil-rich countries, global warming, skyrocketing gas prices, a struggling economy. But back then we were still in our blind "bigger is better" stage.
The movie was pretty obviously made with a left-of-center view, so as with any doc you can't take everything at face value. I'm still curious about some details, like why GM made the EV1 in the first place, and why companies have seemingly taken a step back with electric/gas hybrids. But if you want to learn more about the history of electric cars -- and find out the culprit -- I would definitely recommend the film.
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