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Film / Who Killed the Electric Car?

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"In 1996, electric cars began to appear on roads all over California. They were quiet and fast, produced no exhaust, and ran without gasoline. Ten years later, these futuristic cars were almost entirely gone. What happened? Why must we be haunted by the ghost of the electric car?"

Who Killed the Electric Car? is a 2006 documentary directed by Chris Paine and distributed by Sony Classic Pictures. It is narrated by Martin Sheen.

In the 1990s, GM launched the EV1, the first mass produced electric vehicle in decades. Other automakers followed suit in order to comply with Zero Emissions Vehicle Mandate, or ZEV, a new California law requiring automakers to build non-polluting cars. Eventually, however, the mandate was annulled, and almost all of the cars were taken off the streets and crushed.

The film explores the reasons for the dismantlement of the EV1 program, wondering if there was a conspiracy in the termination of the EV1 program.

The film was critically acclaimed and won several environmental awards. In 2011, Chris Paine released a sequel, Revenge of the Electric Car, which explores the electric car renaissance that began in the early 2010s.

Tropes Are:

  • Awesome, but Impractical:
    • Hydrogen cars are portrayed this way: an exciting new alternative, but one that is inefficient, costly, and distracting from more reasonable solutions like better fuel economy standards.
    • The Sunraycer was very awesome, winning a race across the Australian Outback, but very impractical. But it inspired GM executives into producing a practical electric car.
  • Cool Car: The EV1, to many people who drove it.
  • Cool Old Guy: Stan Ovshinsky, Gadgeteer Genius and inventor of the Nickel-Metal Hydride Battery.
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: The film argues that the heads of the numerous entities involved all conspired to subvert the development of electric vehicles. The evidence:
    • Policy makers such as the California Air Resources Board were pushed into rejecting the mandate, and into pursuing alternatives that were uneconomical and distracted from already viable technologies. The head of the California Air Resources Board when the ZEV mandate was dissolved, Alan Lloyd, was in fact head of the Fuel Cell Partnership, which promoted hydrogen powered vehicles, which the film argues is not a viable technology
    • Car companies were doing little to educate consumers about electric vehicles and wanted to kill the product they were trying to make. The ads and commercials for the electric car were as surreal as they were uninformative, and the idea that electric cars require little to no maintenance or moving parts would cut into the profits of automakers and dealerships that provide both, and they were more interested in building cars like the Hummer, than they were about building cleaner cars.
    • The batteries were argued to be limited in range, but not enough to cut into to average daily commute of an American motorist. The advances in batteries were in some cases suppressed by the oil industry. The lithium-ion batteries now found in electric cars could have given the EV1 a 300 mile range.
    • The oil industry seeks to limit technologies that reduce fuel consumption and manipulate prices so their product can remain on the market and other technologies are pushed away.
    • The federal government is argued to be influenced by the interests of automakers and oil companies. While it does touch upon the relationship between George Bush and Big Oil, it also discussed how even in the Clinton and Gore White House, no major changes were enacted with in fuel economy standards, in spite of the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles(PNGV) program that had been enacted with the auto industry to develop fuel efficient cars.
  • Fog of Doom: The infamous LA smog, is described by CA State Representative Alan Lowenthal as "the black cloud of death".
  • Fun with Acronyms: California Air Resources Board, or CARB, the body that controls car pollution in California.
  • Green Aesop: While electric cars as a solution to air pollution and oil dependence is touched upon, the main subject purpose of the film is to explore why GM and other car companies stopped producing them. They also talk about how solutions to the end of oil like hydrogen are not practical alternatives.
  • Hummer Dinger: The Hummer is an obvious target in a movie about electric cars. But what was glaring was the fact that the US government was giving business owners who bought Hummers tens of thousands of dollars in tax deductions, while people who bought a fuel efficient car got only a few thousand dollars.
  • Metaphorically True:
    • While it is technically possible to build an electric vehicle with a 300-mile (500-km) range, they started out as prohibitively expensive; the Tesla Roadster, built using better technology than was available in the 1990s, only boasted a 240-mile range and a $100,000+ price tag. The Nissan Leaf, an electric vehicle produced for the general public circa 2010, had a range similar to the EVs from the 1990s and was not cheap, in part due to its $15,000 battery pack which Nissan may or may not have been taking a loss on. By mid-2021, EVs with 300-mile ranges had become fairly expensive instead of prohibitively so. In 2024, $100K will buy you as much as 400 miles of range (the Tesla Model S Long Range); two other Tesla models ("Long Range" variants of the Model 3 and Model Y) as well as one version of the Ford Mustang Mach-E (a crossover instead of a sports car) will give you 300-plus miles for no more than $55K; and the base model of the Hyundai Ioniq 6 offers over 350 miles for less than $50K.
    • Also, real-world ranges can and do vary wildly based on how a vehicle is used, and also on the external temperature. Battery electric vehicles (BEVs) are at their most efficient in stop-and-go driving, since essentially all use regenerative braking (i.e., using some of the energy from braking to recharge the batteries). Many electric vehicles lose half or more of their stated range in highway driving. Also, battery vehicles lose considerable range in very hot and very cold temperatures. It's no accident that in the 2010s and early 2020s, a disproportionate share of BEVs have been sold in California, whose most populated areas essentially never freeze in winter and have fairly mild temperatures for most of the year.
    • Additionally, while it is true that electric vehicles require less maintenance, that does not necessarily mean that what maintenance they will eventually require won't be extremely expensive; electric vehicle batteries are extremely expensive, and depending on the design, may necessitate $15,000 worth of maintenance all at once. How long batteries will last is not well-established; some estimates put it at 100,000 miles. Of course, if the car companies are buying their batteries from elsewhere, the movie's claims of the maintenance not being very profitable to the car companies may still be true.
    • One argument against electric cars was that they would still contribute to pollution since much of California's energy was produced by burning coal. While that is partially true, overall emissions from driving an electric car would still be lower, at least when considering only the power cycle. The contributions of EVs to pollution remain a matter of debate when considering the entire life cycle, including mining of raw materials, manufacturing, and disposal. Studies have been all over the place on that point. On top of that, because EVs are much heavier than internal-combustion vehicles of comparable exterior dimensions (at least with current battery technologies), replacing all current passenger vehicles with EVs of comparable external dimensions will cause roads to wear out faster. Due to the added weight, EV tires also wear out faster, increasing particulate emissions, though that doesn't come close to canceling out the emissions saved by going electric in the first place. The added weight also creates issues surrounding the safety of multilevel parking garages that were built to accommodate internal-combustion vehicles. Not to mention that many of the rare earth metals required for current EV batteries are mined in developing countries with little or no environmental controls, with accusations of exploitative child/slave labor in several key countries.
  • Older Than They Think: invoked As the film points out, electric cars existed in the early 1900s, and at one point outsold gasoline cars, before easy petroleum, mass production, and the electric starter propelled gasoline cars to the forefront.
  • "Ray of Hope" Ending: While the cancellation of the EV1 program may have stopped mass produced electric vehicles for a time, converted EVs, prototypes like the Tesla Roadster, and looming energy and climate limits would mean the electric car would return. This renaissance was later explored in Revenge of the Electric Car.
  • Southern-Fried Genius: S. David Freeman, the Chattanooga-born head of the Tennessee Valley Authority, a public advocate for green energy.
  • Spiritual Successor: The EV1 was this to the Impact concept car, which was a successor to the solar-powered Sunraycer. The now-discontinued Chevy Volt, a plug-in hybrid with a small gas engine, and its successor, the all-electric Chevy Bolt, are considered descendants of the EV1.
  • Springtime for Hitler: The Impact was very popular, and GM CEO Roger Smith promised to produce this car. The never anticipated that CARB would force them to actually make zero-emissions vehicles, nor expect such grassroots support for their cars.
  • Stylistic Suck: GM apparently invoked this with their various ads and commercials to discourage demand for the cars, and to educate consumers as little as possible about them.