Saturday, October 10, 2009

Movie: Who Killed the Electric Car?

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What follows is a brief review and critical analysis of this compelling movie. It was written for a course entitled "Environmental Issues and Responses".

Movie Review: “Who Killed the Electric Car?”

It was the perfect crime.

At the dawn of a new age, the hopes of environmentally conscious consumers were crushed—literally. The evidence was swept away with expert care, but the witnesses were not silenced. Their grief rang out loud and true: “Who killed the electric car?” This is the question the movie seeks to answer. It does so by examining the roles played by the various suspects involved with the development, marketing, purchasing, and ultimate destruction of the electric car (GM and Ford’s EV1, in this case).

The idea of an electric vehicle was hardly new. The combustion engine had simply upstaged it; consumers, wanting more power, more range, and more convenience, forgot it. When it resurfaced again, in a far more commercially viable format, it immediately made as many enemies as it did friends. While the zero-emissions vehicle was just what a smog-covered state like California needed, it also threatened to dramatically affect oil consumption and the profits associated with this dependence.

This proposed conflict between environmental responsibility and corporate greed is central to the debate. Did the-powers-that-be intentionally undermine the electric car’s success from the start? Would they truly trade in the opportunity to make a major, positive impact on the environment and general health conditions—just to add a few more dollars to their already vast fortunes?

In terms of the environment, this is a frightening prospect. It suggests that, while some Earth-friendly technologies do in fact exist, their implementation may be hindered by the vested interests of powerful forces; in some cases, these forces are the very people we rely on to pass legislations and enforce measures that promote our well being.


Over the course of the movie the culprits are identified, and the case against them is as follows:

Consumers: Car companies claimed there was no demand for the EV1; that the ecologically-conscious alternative did not offer people the price, range, convenience, size or power that they desired. “Consumers… found electric vehicles' need for constant recharging with few recharging locations too inconvenient”, Ottman et al., report. “Most drivers were not willing to drastically change their driving habits and expectations to accommodate electric cars” (Ottman, Stafford & Hartman, 2006: 25).

In the film, people interviewed on the street generally were not even aware of the existence of the EV1—a fact that could partly be attributed to the bizarre and confusing commercials produced by the car manufacturers.

Batteries: Despite the availability of a battery that reportedly lasted longer than the car and cost less than an engine (and in which GM had the controlling shares of its manufacturer), the EV1 was launched with an inferior battery that often failed. The maker of the superior battery was prohibited from running advertisements in national publications and from releasing information about battery development without permission. GM’s shares were ultimately sold to Texaco.

Oil Companies: With massive profits remaining to be made off of oil—approximately $1 trillion dollars according to one estimate—these companies had the motivation to lobby against electric cars. They called the environmental impact into question and steadfastly opposed the building of electric infrastructure.

Car Companies: The carmakers so detested the Zero Emissions Vehicle mandate passed in California that they fought it vigorously. The American Automotive Association even solicited the services of a PR firm to mount a campaign to fight a “greater consumer acceptance of electric vehicles” (“Who Killed the Electric Car?”, 2006). These companies stood to lose an incredible amount of money on this venture. If the EV1 was a smashing success, there would remain thousands of unsold and unwanted gas-powered cars. In addition, after flourishing for so long within the conditions of free-market capitalism, the companies resented being told what to make and how much of it.

Government: The film alleges that taxpayer money is used to support car companies, and that the military is used to control oil resources. The federal government sued California over its Zero Emissions mandate. As fate would have it, many of the prominent figures in the Bush administration were former leaders and members of car companies and boards of directors. As such, it is exceedingly difficult to pass fuel economy standards; no president since Carter has made energy a primary concern. Discussing the importance of legislation in furthering the construction of an electric car industry, Cowan and Hultén (1996: 75) indicate that "the ability of established manufacturers to take advantage of existing relationships with parts and service suppliers, makes it very difficult for a new technology to break into the market, no matter how technically competitive it is".

Moreover, the government has bargained with car companies—in exchange for hybrids from the automakers, it will not pursue fuel economy standard regulations. Lastly, it is looking for more domestic oil, which only provides short-term relief that has nothing to do with environmental awareness.

California Air Resources Board: Chairman Allan C. Lloyd, under pressure by the car industry, famously repealed the Zero Emissions Vehicle mandate. Four months prior to this, he accepted the position of Chairman for the California Fuel Cell Partnership.

Hydrogen fuel cell: The film describes this alternative to electricity as expensive, multiple times more polluting, and much less efficient and convenient. These claims are supported in “The hydrogen economy, fuel cells, and electric cars” by Reuel Shinnar (2003: 473). In his comprehensive study, he writes: “For almost all applications, use of electricity is far more efficient than hydrogen”. This conclusion is based on several factors, including ease of switching, thermal efficiency, safety, environmental damage, and available technology.


It may be argued that the overall narrative suggested a bias that was not made expressly clear until the conclusion, when each “suspect’s” guilt is confirmed or denied. The viewer is certainly subjected to a great deal of anecdotal evidence (e.g., lists of too many or too little eager consumers; no demand vs. overwhelming demand). In my opinion, the movie intended to present itself as a fair and balanced account of the electric car saga. I acknowledge that the evidence presented in the film weighed heavily in favour of the case against the guilty parties, but that this was not due to malicious information management—rather, it represented reality.

It would be naïve to ignore the influence of Capitalist principles on the decision-making process of businesspeople and politicians alike. Corporations, by their very nature, are greatly concerned with their own survival and prosperity. Political bodies are made up of people with stakes in various enterprises. Besides, the deceitful and tight-lipped way in which the car companies and the regulating bodies went about sabotaging the EV1 did them no favours. If there had been nothing to hide, there would have been full disclosure of the details surrounding the EV1’s demise.

Consumers themselves are largely indifferent to the consequences of their choices and are driven to prefer convenience to ecological welfare. Unfortunately, my generation and those that follow may pay a grave price for this short-sightedness. One can only hope that it will not take a cataclysmic event, or unbearable environmental conditions, for philosophies and practices to take seriously the ravages of human irresponsibility and complacency.

It is beyond the scope of this review, and beyond that of my knowledge, to understand all of the intricacies of the different types of vehicles that are and may one day be made available to me. If anything, this highlights the importance of empowering ourselves as consumers and citizens. We must educate ourselves and take action when our access to beneficial developments is being denied for any given reason. The responsibility for a better environmental future lies in all of our hands.


Cowan, Robin & Hultén, Staffan. 1996. "Escaping Lock-In: The Case of the Electric Vehicle". Technological Forecasting and Social Change. Vol 53, pp. 61-79.

Ottman, Jacquelyn A., Stafford, Edwin R., & Hartman, Cathy L. 2006. "Avoiding Green Marketing Myopia". Environment. Vol. 28 No. 5, pp. 22-36.

Shinnar, Reuel. 2003. “The hydrogen economy, fuel cells, and electric cars”. Technology in Society. Vol 25, pp. 455-476.

Paine, Chris. Movie: “Who Killed the Electric Car?”. 2006. Sony Pictures Classic.