WKtEC: A Murder Myster with an Environmental Twist

Why would a company destroy a successful product that could help solve the planet's climate change crisis?

Published: 13-Jul-2006

"I'd heard [that] Paul McCready- who did the bicycle-powered airplane and the solar-powered car in the early '70s- had designed an electric car. We heard rumors." Paine wears black-framed glasses straight out of Army-issue and reminds me of the eccentric science-genius boy I knew in 9th grade, who'd take over the family garage for his “inventions.”

"Finally, the California legislature forced the car companies to put an electric car on the road. Everybody--Ford, GM, Toyota. GM's EV1 was the cream of the crop. I was skeptical at first, but it knocked my socks off! It was so FAST--184 MPH in the desert tests!" his voice gets excited. “It could accelerate off the line faster than a Viper or a Porsche. They don't tell you that about the electric car!"

Watching Paine's film "Who Killed The Electric Car?" you see the sleek vehicle in action and it's impressive. What strikes you even more is how much people LOVED the EV1. They loved it enough to fight for it when GM recalled the cars in 2002 and destroyed them--except for one in a car museum. "Who Killed The Electric Car?" encompasses car-lovers' daydream, accessible ideas about alternative energy and a whodunnit corporate crime story.

Paine leased his EV1 from Chelsea Sexton, who was one of the EV1 specialists who promoted the car, organizing events, publicity and leasing. Sexton’s in the film giving the inside scoop on the rise and fall of one of the solutions to global warming.

"The only thing that GM did right was to say, 'If we're forced to make this, let's make it really cool.' What they didn't count on was it catching on and being as popular as it was," Sexton enthusiastically remembers. "It was a new paradigm, but people took to it faster than you'd think; 30 seconds explaining ... and people bought it as a commuter car or as a second vehicle. Then, they'd call me up and say, 'The battery in my primary car is dead because I don't drive it anymore.' EV1 drivers made early Saturn drivers look tame!"

How did it work? Come home, plug it into the wall. Drive it the next morning and never worry about looking for a gas station. It got about 80 miles per charge. Sexton says EV1-owners renewed California culture.

"They started driver clubs, had road rallies. They were trying to figure out how to plug their palm pilots into the car!" she laughs. "It knit together a diverse group of folks who might not be so close."

From Tom Hanks on late night TV, to Mel Gibson looking like an Old Testament prophet (what movie was he gearing up for?), to ordinary people, Paine's film- with its eclectic bunch of EV1 environmentalists- is a stark contrast to Al Gore's grim lecture movie. Paine proves that solving environmental problems can be fun.

"When they started taking the EV1 off the road- between three and five years after people leased them- we asked, 'What's going on?' We kept waiting for 60 Minutes to do a big exposé on why GM would do that when the car was doing so well," Paine says, with a waver of bereft bewilderment. "But, they never did, so, we decided to make the film."

All the auto makers were taking back their electric cars. Sexton describes the spontaneous uprising of electric car-owners who decided no to give up their beloved anti-global-warming vehicles without a fight. They had press conferences and pickets, winning a victory with Ford. GM was toughest.

"They had a parking lot in Burban. We held a press conference and didn't leave," says Sexton. "We stayed 24-hours-a-day for a month. We raised $2M in two days, offering to buy out the fleet, release them of all liability. They'd never have to hear from us again."

After their month-long protest, GM took away all the EV1 cars.

"It was like they were afraid one would get away," says Sexton, echoing Paine’s sense of loss.

The EV1 supporters actually held a funeral for the defunct car. "Frankly, at first the funeral sounded like great comedy at first. Only in California would you hold a funeral for a car," Paine says. "But it was a tragedy."

Why would a company destroy a successful product that could help solve the planet's climate change crisis? As you might guess big economic interests are implicated in the crime. Spineless politicians are, as prosecutors say, "persons of interest." I'm not going to tell you who killed the electric car, but there are plenty of suspects.

Chris Paine takes you on a roadtrip that's an enjoyable and suspenseful ride, and also makes a solid case for why corporations need to be taken out of the driver's seat of our democracy.

"Our template was Agatha Christie's 'Murder On The Orient Express.’ There's one body. Who did it? Everyone's in the room. Someone's guilty," Chris Paine grins. "Maybe more than one person."

"Who Killed The Electric Car?" opens July 14, for one week at Landmark's Edina Cinema, 3911 West 50th, Edina (651)649-4416


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