Movie Screening: ‘Who Killed the Electric Car?’

Student and faculty led panel discussion and lunch to follow.

Who Killed the Electric Car? chronicles the life and mysterious death of the GM EV1, examining its cultural and economic ripple effects and how they reverberated through the halls of government and big business. The electric car threatened the status quo. The truth behind its demise resembles the climactic outcome of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express: multiple suspects, each taking their turn with the knife. Who Killed the Electric Car? interviews and investigates automakers, legislators, engineers, consumers and car enthusiasts from Los Angeles to Detroit, to work through motives and alibis, and to piece the complex puzzle together.

So why did General Motors crush its fleet of EV1 electric vehicles in the Arizona desert? The year is 1990.  California is in a pollution crisis.  Smog threatens public health. Desperate for a solution, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) targets the source of its problem: auto exhaust.  Inspired by a recent announcement from General Motors about an electric vehicle prototype, the Zero Emissions Mandate (ZEV) is born.  It required 2% of new vehicles sold in California to be emission-free by 1998, 10% by 2003.  It is the most radical smog-fighting mandate since the catalytic converter.

With a jump on the competition thanks to its speed-record-breaking electric concept car, GM launches its EV1 electric vehicle in 1996. It was a revolutionary modern car, requiring no gas, no oil changes, no mufflers, and rare brake maintenance (a billion-dollar industry unto itself).  A typical maintenance checkup for the EV1 consisted of replenishing the windshield washer fluid and a tire rotation.

But the fanfare surrounding the EV1’s launch disappeared and the cars followed. Was it lack of consumer demand as carmakers claimed, or were other persuasive forces at work?

Fast forward to 6 years later. … The fleet is gone. EV charging stations dot the California landscape like tombstones, collecting dust and spider webs.  How could this happen?  Did anyone bother to examine the evidence?  Yes, in fact, someone did.  And it was murder.

Who Killed the Electric Car? is not just about the EV1.  It’s about how this allegory for failure — reflected in today’s oil prices and air quality — can also be a shining symbol of society’s potential to better itself and the world around it. While there’s plenty of outrage for lost time, there’s also time for renewal as technology is reborn in Who Killed the Electric Car?

  • kent beauchert

    I’m amazed at how easy it is to con the public – especially when it involves a subject about which they are completely ignorant – the electric car. All that’s required is to portray the vehicle in precisely the same way
    any other crappy product is sold these day : the infomercial. That’s exactly what unreliable Chris Paine has done in his fictitious “documentary.” The EV1 is spoken of in terms that were never heard when it was being leased to the public. Oh, it’s speedy!! And quiet!! The ultimate lie is Chris’ claim that GM’s EV-1 was a masterpiece of engineering. The only noteworthy innovation was regenerative braking, which the Honda EV electric car of the same period also had, as did the later Toyota Rav 4 electric. In terms that really matter, the EV-1 was no advancement over the first electric cars, like the Detroit Electric, first produced in 1907. The Detroit Eelectric could be recharged as fast (or slow) as the EV-1 – about 6 to 8 hours, and had a driving range about as far as the EV-1. In other words, in 90 years, the EV-1 possessed no appreciable improvements over a car built before World WAr I in th all important charcaterisitcs of charging times and driving range. GM reported that leasees complained that they had to arrange their life schedule around the EV-1 chargings. They also complained about the sluggish performance of
    Paine’s “Speedy” car (it wasn’t all that speedy in the best of conditions : 0-60 in 8 seconds, much sloweer when cold or when charge was low). They also complained about the inability to know how far the car could travel on a charge – it depodended upon A/C usage, hilliness of terraine, temperature, age of batteries, etc. You never really knew whether you could get to uour destination and back, evenm in the unlikely event you knew how far away it actually was. Ed Begley claims that 90% of drivers can have their transportation needs met by an electric car like the EV-1. Sorry to make you look even more foolish, Ed, but 90% of the public doen’t even have the means to recharge an EV-1. And, Ed, oddly enough, most aren’t as well-heeled as you and can afford to spend the $45,000 sticker price for a vehicle that can never be more than a second car and grocery getter. And as to those emissions that your bragging about, analyses have clearly demonstrated that the Honda Insight hybrid (at one third the cost) produced
    fewer overall emissions than the EV-1. So there’s not even aconvincing environmental argument in favor of the EV-1, unless you’re
    talking to your gullible audience members, who will be convinced by the mere fact that no exhause comes out of the EV-1 ‘s tailpipe. But that electricity it uses was produced somewhere, most likely down the street by a coal fired power plant, whose emissions are far worse than the clean emissions of a Honda Insight. In spite of its claims, there were not lines of eager customers ready to lease the EV-1 during its 5 year lifespan. Nor was it legal for GM to have sold the EV-1’s still
    around after the program was cancelled. The EV-1 never met the Federal crash safety standards
    and had to be leased under a special agreement with the Feds. By the time of cancellation of the program, virtually all of the companies who has supplied parts for the EV-1 has shut down their production lines, for lack of
    business. Only 1100 EV-1 were built – they never could lease them all, even with massive state and Federal subsidies. The EV-1 was a piece of crap that lacked what every other electric car ever built has lacked: a practical, fast charging , long lasting, inexpensive battery. Until a battery shows up, no electric car can possible compete with ICE
    vehicles. People do like to be able to go on vacations, travel outside the state, or even the county and still make it back home. The EV-1 battery pack cost a small fortune, like the rest of the car – it lasted about 5 yeasrs and cost over $20,000, making th eper mile driving costs of the EV-1 the higest this side on the M1 Abrams main battle tanks. None of the EV-1 leasees had to pay for th ebatteries they were using. Their lease payments didn’t even cover the costs of the batteries.


Documentary Screening: Who Killed the Electric Car?

Who Killed the Electric Car? is a 2006 documentary film that explores the birth, limited commercialization, and subsequent death of the battery electric vehicle in the United States, specifically the General Motors EV1 of the 1990s. The film explores the roles of automobile manufacturers, the oil industry, the U.S. government, batteries, hydrogen vehicles, and consumers in […]

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