An Electric Car Murder Mystery
By Noel Adams
Who Killed the Electric Car opens with a lone piper leading a funeral procession. It’s a Funeral for an old friend but we find that this is no ordinary funeral; the old friend is an electric car, the EV1.
We learn that the EV1, born at AeroVironment and introduced as the GM Impact at the 1990 Los Angeles Auto Show, led to the adoption by the California Air Resource Board of the Zero Emission Vehicle mandate. The ZEV mandate required 2% of all vehicles sold in California in 1998 be zero emission, going up to 10% in 2003. By 2005 only about 800 EV1s had been leased and these had all been gathered by GM and sent to the crusher. The documentary unfolds as a murder mystery, who killed the electric car?
Like any good murder mystery there are lots of suspects, Consumer apathy, Inadequate Batteries, the Oil Companies, the Car Companies, Government, The California Air Resource Board, and Hydrogen Fuel Cells. The film guides us through a complex tangle of intrigue as each is examined to find the guilty party.
We see famous celebrities like Mel Gibson and Peter Horton talking about the difficulties they experienced just trying to lease a car. I can attest to this from personal experience. I also tried to lease an EV1 and was flatly turned down by GM. To paraphrase Chelsea Sexton, former GM EV1 Specialist, as she talks about the barriers to leasing put up by GM, "A Technical Support Manager from Beverly Hills didn’t stand a chance."
We are taken through some of the corporate antics used to block the spread of EVs, such as dummy citizens groups set up by the oil companies to block the installation of charging infrastructure, and the antics at the CARB hearing where the automobile manufacturers were given all the time they wanted to present their case against EVs, while EV advocates were given just a few minutes or not allowed to testify at all.
We were also shown Automobile executives such as GM Communications spokesman Dave Barthmuss and John R Wallace, former Director of the Ford Th!nk Program, who presented the view of electric vehicles from the automobile manufacturers standpoint.
The most shocking part of the film is the scenes showing the conclusion of the protest at a GM lot in Burbank in March, 2005. The protestors had decided to put their money where there mouths were and offered GM the residual value for each of 78 EV1s that were being stored there, in the form of a check for over one point eight million dollars. GM’s response was to load the EV1s, tires squealing, onto transporters and haul them away. Protester Alexandra Paul tried to block the trucks with her RAV4 EV and was arrested. The final destination was the GM proving grounds in Mesa Arizona and a date with the crusher. My wife is still mumbling "how could they do that" under her breath.
In a particularly poignant moment the camera follows Chelsea Sexton as she is taken into the bowls of the Petersen Automotive Museum to see an EV1 that was donated to them by GM. "They’re my babies" she tells us. We find out that it is car #99 which was originally leased by Chris Trexler, and that it was disabled by GM before they sent it to the Petersen.
Like any good mystery, in the final moments the film goes through the various suspects and picks out the guilty party. I won’t spoil things by telling you who is innocent and who is guilty, I will just say that this movie pays homage to the Agatha Christy novel "Murder on the Orient Express" where each protagonist takes it in turn to stick the knife into the victim.
The film did leave the hope that perhaps plug in vehicles may not be totally dead as they talked about the current movement for plug in hybrids. EV fans should also watch for a very brief look at the new offering from Tesla Motors, an electric sports car that looked very like a Lotus Elise.
Chris Paine has crafted a marvelous film that accurately documents the rise and final destruction of the EV1 in an entertaining and enlightening way. For GM Shareholders, those who are interested in Electric Vehicles, have questions or concerns about global warming, dependence on foreign oil, air pollution or the environment, this is a must see film. Who Killed the Electric Car opens in Cinemas in Los Angeles and New York on June 28, 2006 and in theaters across the country shortly after.
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