So, Who Killed the Electric Car? (Movie Review)


After getting the kids down to sleep, and in between cleaning (Erin’s visiting her mother in Des Moines this week, so it’s just me and the kids), I called up my Netflix account and decided to watch the documentary Who Killed the Electric Car. I wasn’t sure what I was expecting, but I must say that I was pleasantly surprised.

The movie was recommended to me by in-laws but especially by friends who also recommended such films as The Corporation. It was often mentioned in the same breath as the post-war conspiracy by General Motors and the various oil companies in bringing down the North American streetcar. I happen to be a bit more conservative than those friends. I like to think that I have an open mind, but that I retain a healthy scepticism. The Corporation was an excellent polemic which raised good points, but I wasn’t willing to buy the whole argument. Similarly, streetcars in North America fell for a number of reasons, most of them dealing with bad timing. Yes, General Motors did buy up a number of streetcar companies and converted them to bus operation through their subsidiary National City Lines, but the truth was America’s streetcar networks were already ailing, and many fell by the wayside without that extra push by GM.

But there was something different about Who Killed the Electric Car. Yes, it’s a polemic, but it frames its story very well, lining up its arguments and getting its point across so effectively, it actually changed my mind. The documentary tells the story of a move in California to prod the car companies to develop a zero emission vehicle for use on California’s roads. One could argue that the state’s methods were heavy handed: California law stated that if a car company wanted to sell cars in California in 2003, as many as 10% of the cars it sold had to be zero emission vehicles — or, essentially, electric cars.

Well, obviously, the car companies fought this regulation in court, but they also researched and produced workable electric cars: the EV1 and other models. These vehicles were so well designed, they quickly attracted a fanbase. They were quiet, could be powered at home or at work, and had no trouble going on the highway. Yes, it had a limited range of around 100 miles before it needed a charge, but for the average American commuting to and from work, it was more than enough car to suit their needs, and it did so without emitting greenhouse gases from the tailpipe (what tailpipe?) or increasing America’s dependence on foreign oil.

The American car companies produced what many people said was a decent car, and then in a shocking display of short sighted, self-destructive thinking, appear to have done everything in their power to prevent the car from succeeding. The movie lays out a strong case that the car companies themselves were in a conflict of interest, here. To convince California to back off its hearty environmental regulation, they had to show that there was no consumer demand for electric vehicles. And while money was spent on advertising these vehicles, there have been complaints about the odd ways the vehicles were marketed or — most disturbingly — the fact that the consumers couldn’t buy them, but only lease them. When the car companies succeeded in getting the regulation removed, the companies seemed to take unprecedented action to remove the electric cars from the road. Leases were not renewed, cars were taken back by the companies and ultimately hauled away and crushed. The people who had been driving the cars raised $1.9 million to purchase the 80 remaining vehicles outright, but were completely rebuffed.

One may or may not believe that the car companies were being vindictive or engaging in a conspiracy to silence the fact that electric cars had been on the market. If you are a sceptic, however, you cannot help but be moved by the simple adage that one doesn’t need to ascribe evil intent when mere incompetence will serve. One cannot help but boggle at the American car companies short-sightedness in not pursuing a viable market. Even if the market proved to be a niche, there was surely profit to be had in the enthusiasm that the electric vehicles brought out from their leaseholders, but GM didn’t take it. Some of that profit might have come in handy when the company declared bankruptcy last year. It surely cannot be a coincidence that electric cars seem poised to return, either (the movie was made in 2006, a few years before the announcement of the Chevrolet Volt).

Where the movie really impressed me was its dismantling of the hype surrounding hydrogen fuel cell technology. Hydrogen fuel cells started to get a lot of attention around the same time as the electric cars started to disappear. I myself waxed lyrical about hydrogen early in the history of this blog, and while there is considerable potential for the technology, the interest governments have had in it has not been entirely rational.

You have to remember that hydrogen fuel is, essentially, a battery. There are no free reserves of hydrogen that you can drill for. It’s in plentiful supply, but most of it is locked together with oxygen in the form of water. To produce free hydrogen, one of the most efficient ways to do it is to subject water to high voltage electricity and separate the atoms. Where do you get the electricity to produce the hydrogen? So, while hydrogen offers the potential of turning wind energy and solar energy into portable fuel that can be driven on roads, the film makes the critical point that the technology we have now to produce rechargeable batteries is at least four times more efficient in terms of converting energy into power for the wheels.

And yet that gets overlooked so often. Witness Steve Munro’s takedown of a particularly ludicrous proposal by Dalton McGuinty to convert GO Transit’s diesel locomotives to hydrogen, eliminating emissions at the source. Or, you could simply string up electrical wires over the tracks and strap pantographs to the locomotives, as has been done for about a century across the world, probably getting the same effect for less money and less pressure on the environment. Fortunately Dalton saw enough sense not to pursue this idea, and Metrolinx is now actively considering electrifying the GO Train network.

The movie put these pieces together for me so well. Why are we investing so much time in trying to produce a hydrogen car when the technology already exists to create a zero emission car right here, right now? Hybrid cars even make use of the gasoline infrastructure already in place, and plug-in hybrids (an idea so simple, it’s ludicrous that Toyota didn’t install this in its Prius from the get-go) offer near-electric emission levels.

Although Who Killed the Electric Car tells a story of bewildering corporate stupidity and short-sightedness (the remaining EV1s were carried away and crushed, much to their former leaseholders’ dismay), the movie ultimately ends in an optimistic note that won me over completely. There’s a definite sense that you cannot keep a good technology down. A series of emergent electric cars are shown near the end, as well as other advances in technology (like the plug-in hybrid, and solar shingles) that suggest that the fight isn’t over and can still be won. The challenges ahead seem less daunting than those offered by similar polemics like The Corporation. I want to see what the future brings.

As it turns out, the future may be sooner than I thought. I may have come late to Who Killed the Electric Car, but I’m just in time to consider the sequel, apparently, Revenge of the Electric Car. This film, which will soon be released, updates the story, covering the re-emergence of the electric car from Tesla motors, Nissan, and even GM itself. I, for one, am looking forward to seeing it.

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