A talk with Chris Paine, director of Who Killed the Electric Car?

EV1 at a charging station Photo by Chris Paine, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics, all rights reserved.

Air pollution, global warming, oil addiction—all are now quotidian facts of life in the twenty-first century. It seems like everyone and their great aunt is starting to grasp that something must be done to preserve the health of the planet and the future of its inhabitants.

In California, in 1990, something quite significant was done. The state’s Zero-Emission Vehicle Mandate called for the sale of zero-emission cars, with sales targets increasing gradually from 1998 to 2003. From this mandate emerged the development of viable consumer electric cars, among them General Motors’ EV1.

But the EV1 was scrapped before it could really catch on, supposedly because there was no demand for it.

If that was the case, why did EV1 drivers band together and plead with GM for the right to buy the car? Why were they denied? Why, at the time that the car’s production was halted, did the waiting list for an EV1 extend into the thousands? Why were EV1s not only reclaimed by GM, but destroyed? Why was the original zero-emission mandate revoked? And why, just last month, was the EV1 removed from the Smithsonian, where it had been for more than a year, and replaced with an SUV?

Documentary filmmaker Chris Paine examines the plight of the EV1 in his passionate and informative film, Who Killed the Electric Car? The film tells a powerful story with the car as its doomed hero. “You made me cry over a car!” one viewer told Paine after a screening.

You had an EV1, correct?
I leased one. It was the first car I ever leased. I did it as sort of a lark. I didn’t really know anything about electric cars. And I was just blown away by what a terrific vehicle it was. It was super fast, you could charge it at home, it never needed repairs, etc.—so, I fell in love with my car.

How did you discover the car?
I’d read an article about Paul MacCready—he designed the Gossamer Condor, which was the first human-powered aircraft, and then the Gossamer Albatross, which crossed the English Channel by human power in the seventies. I read that he’d designed an electric car for GM. So I wrote GM and tried to be really early in line.

You really sought it out.
I did. And one of the takeaways from the movie is: Consumers have to ask for what they want. As becomes clear in the film, the company wasn’t necessarily going to offer this car eagerly.

In the end, GM refused to let leasers buy their cars. It seems bizarre that a corporation would refuse ready buyers.
I’ve never heard of another situation where a car company doesn’t let you keep a car at the end of a lease. You buy it—usually, they’re begging you to buy it. Here, they said, “You can’t have it.”

There was also no precedent for General Motors putting its own name on a car. And that’s where the film becomes, in my view, sort of a “great American tragedy”—they took their own branded car off to the crusher.

Was there an official reason given for the destruction?
They said they couldn’t get spare parts for them. And they said they were worried that if the cars were on the road, it wouldn’t be indemnified—that they’d get sued if anything happened. But the drivers who wanted to keep the cars gave GM complete jury-trial indemnification. They offered them the price of the car, the buyout price. And they said, “Don’t worry about spare parts, we’ll figure out how to do it. We can make our spare parts, or get them from other people—just please don’t crush the cars.”

I think another business reason for the destruction was that they didn’t want to give California the chance to make them put the cars back on the roads again. They were afraid the law might change again, to require it.

Even having seen the film, I’m still not completely clear on how the legislation was changed. Why did California capitulate on that?
The original law, in 1990, the “Zero-Emission Vehicle Mandate,” called for 2% of all new cars sold in California to be zero-emission vehicles by 1998, 5% by 2001, and 10% by 2003. If you add that up, —based on the number of new cars they sell in California, today there would be one million new zero-emission cars on the road in California alone.

“There are maybe 1,000 electric cars still on the road in California. It should have been a million.”

So the oil industry and the car industry went after this mandate, mostly the car industry, in terms of technical details, but oil was certainly involved as well. And the first thing they said was, “You can’t make us sell something that people don’t want. So please, please change the rules.” And finally, someone caved and said, “Okay, you have to build them in accordance with customer demand.” And as soon as that was in the law, the car companies went out to try to show, whether or not it was the case, that there was no customer demand.

The straw that broke the camel’s back was, well, two things. The car and oil industries successfully negotiated to get California to say, “Hey, we’ll give you a partial zero-emission-vehicle credit if you make a car that has higher mileage.” And as soon as they got California to say that, they turned around and sued California, and said, “You can’t do this—federal law says states can’t determine mpg for cars.” And then they got the Bush administration to join it. And then they told California, “Before we sue you through the wall, we just want you to know that we’ll do some hydrogen cars for you in the future. All you have to do is take away this damn electric-car thing.” Game over.

And then they managed to suppress that the story even existed, in a lot of ways. Which is why what’s happening now with the Smithsonian seems so significant.

Filmmaker Chris Paine Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics, all rights reserved.

In your opinion, what can people who care about these issues do next? Where’s the best source of power for the consumer at this point?
Information is at the heart of a democracy. If the populace isn’t informed, then democracy falters. And one of the problems with this whole thing is that everybody looked to the car companies to have the official explanation, and they’re not giving the full story. So I hope that, in terms of this situation, seeing this film is an act of becoming better informed. Because if everybody believes that electric cars take eight hours to charge and only go 20 miles and are not efficient, then there’s no chance for new technology. That’s one reason I made the movie—to get the word out that this is not a dead-end technology.

Secondly, I hope people push their state governments for zero-emission vehicle mandates. We’ve got to swat [car manufacturers] in the butt and say, “You guys have to make these cars. We’re not joking around. This is the future of this country.”

The third thing is, even without those mandates, to give people the sense that we don’t always have to buy whatever Detroit is selling. So, you can convert your car to electric or bio-diesel.

You live in L.A. How do you get around there?
I have a Toyota Rav4 EV. I had just lost my EV1 to GM, and someone told me that Toyota was going to sell a few of those.

So some electric cars are still out there!
There are maybe 1,000 electric cars still on the road in California. It should have been a million, but at least there are a thousand, mostly saved by activists. They got Ford to change their mind on this policy. And Toyota agreed to sell some of their cars, but not because they really wanted to. Recently in Motor Trend, Rick Wagoner [CEO of GM] said his biggest regret was that he axed the EV1 program. But then he implied that he regrets this not so much for the technology as for the public relations.

Too bad it wasn’t because he wants to protect the environment.
I had a talk with a scientist today about the main Saudi oil field that just had a “hiccup” again. This is the one that’s 150 miles long. And now they can suck the oil out of it horizontally, so the flow of oil is so intense. And they just had a big hiccup. And if that’s happening, well, we’re probably facing some real serious troubles.

The talk is that we’re at or just past—
Peak oil. Yeah.

And oil is not going to become renewable all of a sudden, start springing eternal.
What do spring eternal are, every day, fresh electrons from the sun—millions of them— that we waste. And I wish we’d put them to work.

Beyond the alt-fuel car, where should we be looking for solutions?
We have to be a better mass-transit society. One reason ethanol works so well in Brazil isn’t that ethanol is so much better than fossil fuels,  it’s that people drive less there. And driving less is a big part of it—biking and telecommuting, along with mass transit.

But the thing is: The car is wrapped up in the American Dream to some extent. Our cars are an extension of ourselves, of our mobility and our power. And the electric car meant so much to me from the beginning because it felt like a projection of the twenty-first century—what America could be.

Originally published June 29, 2006


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