Lord, won’t you buy me an EV1?

The film “Who Killed the Electric Car?” explores the disappearance of the EV1

by Sara Nicole Miller

Somewhere in the midst of the highway-lovin’, two-car garagin’, big-wheel truckin’ atmosphere of the late 20th century, a revolution was brewing in smog-saturated California. An eco-friendly glimmer of hope had emerged on the automotive consumer market, and Chris Paine had fallen in love with it: General Motors’ EV1 electric car.

The car had the potential to remedy America’s ominous addiction to prehistoric black goo and bring big business to their knees. However, after Paine had leased the car in 1997, he was befuddled when it was taken away from him by General Motors under threat of legal action. Bewildered, heartbroken and pissed off, he made a film.

In spite of his and many others’ best efforts, the cars began disappearing off the road. Almost as quickly as it had entered the market, the car vanished in a cloud of controversy and confusion.

Now it is hard to imagine the electric car or the charge-up stations that once dotted the California landscape. Instead, the air we breathe has become a public health crisis. Our current administration’s wet dreams are filled with oil-splattered business transactions, and the EV1 is a ghost confined to the basement of a musty museum.

Not only was it one of the fastest, most efficient and most aesthetically adventurous cars ever produced, but the EV1 ran on electricity and produced no hazardous air emissions. It cost about $3 to fully charge up overnight, versus $40 of gasoline.

“Who Killed the Electric Car” begins with a scene that borders on the absurd: a gloomy funeral held for an EV1, complete with a funeral procession and casket. However, as it continues, the convoluted tale of murder, greed and cover-up becomes even more serious and shocking.

Paine examines the life and death of the EV1 in an Agatha Christie-esque “whodunit” format. A hefty group of witnesses are interviewed, including actors such as Tom Hanks and Collette Divine, EV1 sales specialist/activist Chelsea Sexton and Ralph Nader, in an attempt to sort out the complex interplay of economics, politics and corporate consumer culture.

Although the film sets out to clear the air, so to speak, as to why the EV1 was yanked off the market with such tenacity, it ends up generating more questions. It is angering and unfathomable to realize why such an innovative, revolutionary automobile was met with vicious opposition on multiple fronts.

The film pokes and prods at suspects in its attempt to establish some reasonable, tangible truth. The list of suspects – consumers, auto and oil companies, batteries, government, California Air Resources Board and the elusive, falsely promising hydrogen fuel cell technology – all played a unique and often perplexing role in the car’s demise. The mystery unravels itself as each suspect is scrutinized and served an appropriate sentence: guilty or not guilty.

With a long list of suspects that often have conflicting interests and a scandalous history of public un-relations, who really did kill the electric car? Was it the auto industry, fearing a loss of short-term profit margins? Or was it big oil, for reasons that are painfully obvious? Or does the blame fall on the American consumer, who has become stupefied and brainwashed in the face of complacency and the luxury of cheap energy?

Regardless of the culprit, the film serves as a propelling wake-up call. “Who Killed the Electric Car?” isn’t just about the rise and fall of the EV1, or the slew of corruption and ill fortune

that surrounded its demise; it proves that the good-natured, eco-conscious American consumer spirit that seems obsolete still exists.

Even though we live in what seems like a capitalist society doomed to live in the polluted wasteland of its follies, we still have a fighting chance to better ourselves and the world around us. The film gives us hope that a revolution is on the horizon; we just have to be willing to ask the hard questions.