As you might imagine, the answer to the question in the title to Chris Paine’s Who Killed the Electric Car? (IMDB) is relatively predictable. Viewers probably won’t be suprised to learn that corporate profits outweighed envoironmental interests or that politicians were in the pockets of many of those oil companies. Electric Car is smart enough to spread some of the blame to consumers as well, but in my reading, the documentary is less interesting as a detective story about who is to blame for the electric car’s untimely death and more significant as an illustration of just how quickly and completely the history of the electric car disappeared down the memory hole.
The documentary opens with a playful bit of political activism, a staged funeral for the EV1, GM’s prototype electric car, which briefly appeared in the mid-1990s. A number of celebrities participated in this bit of political spectacle including Ed Begley, Jr, Peter Horton, and Alexandra Paull (who went as far as being arrested in support of her convictions). The funeral also introduces us to the “star” of the documentary, Chelsea Sexton, a young Saturn executive charged with marketing the EV1 who eventually became one of the biggest champions of the highly efficient electric cars. As Christopher Campbell observes, Sexton might even be described as the “EV1’s widow,” especially if we read the film as a sort of mystery story. Later we see Tom Hanks, interviewed by David Letterman, describing his enthusiasm for the electric car (not to mention their practicality for daily commutes). But these scenes underline the degree to which the buzz about the EV1 was silenced and quickly forgotten.
If Paine places too much emphasis on the celebrities who endorsed the electric car (including Phyllis Diller who remembers the popular electric cars from the 1920s), as Manhola Dargis implies, part of the blame here might be attributed to the limited number of EV1s that were produced and leased (no EV1s were ever sold, a point that becomes significant over the course of the doc) and to the initial attempt to popularize the car using celebrity endorsements. And, of course, their enthusiasm for the cars is contagious. The EV1s are described as fast and quiet, with zero emissions, offering a means specifically of cutting down on California’s notorious problems with smog and more generally of cutting down on the emissions that contribute to global warming.
Who Killed the Electric Car? serves as a useful companion doc to Al Gore’s global warming doc, An Inconvenient Truth (it might also usefully be compared to The Corporation. While Electric Car only briefly discusses global warming, both films underline the ways in which corporate profits often outweigh prudent environmental policy. While Electric Car covered this material in a slightly breezy fashion, it is relatively informative, clarifying some of the misconceptions I had about this particularly episode in automotive history. Also worth noting: the film mentions Sexton’s continued work in promoting the use of electric cars through her involvement with Plug In America, an organization that promotes “the use of plug-in cars, trucks and SUVs powered by cleaner, cheaper, domestic electricity to reduce our nationâ€™s dependence on petroleum and improve the global environment.”