Movie Review: Who Killed the Electric Car? (2005)

Documentary written and directed by Chris Paine

BW’s Note: The following review is not intended to vouch for all the claims made in this documentary movie, though I do find many of  the arguments and statements of fact compelling or at least reasonable.

electric_carWho Killed the Electric Car? is a clever, heart-wrenching post-mortem of the GM electric car by first-time director Chris Paine.  The film, made for a budget of one million dollars, premiered in January 2006 at the Sundance Film Festival and has been gathering viewer-advocates ever since.

In the 1990s, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) imposed a requirement that auto manufacturers include a small percentage of “zero emission” vehicles to sell cars there.

In response, General Motors built the EV1.  The initial release in 1997 had a range of 55-75 miles.  The second generation of EV1s released in the 2000 model year were equipped with advanced batteries for a range of 75-150 miles.

The air-conditioned EV1s had equal or better acceleration and cruising speeds than their internal-combustion-engine counterparts. The list of EV1 advanced features reads like a Green auto-enthusiast’s wet dream: including regenerative braking, traction control, and an air drag coefficient of 0.19.

Selected Cast
Chelsea Sexton:   Herself, a former GM employee currently serving as executive director of Plug-In America.  A leading activist for alternative automotive power.

Various activists, industry spokespeople, Hollywood celebrities, and political and environmental personalities.

From 1997 to 2001, approximately 800 EV1 vehicles were leased, with the provision that the cars revert to the manufacturer at lease end.  Ref. Wikipedia.

The car was affordable by middle-class standards.  With mass production rates (and competition), similar commuter-oriented electric vehicles would be available for—my educated engineer’s guess—less than $10,000.  More important, car electricity now costs less than a fifth of car gasoline for the same miles.

There was a enthusiastic market for the EV1 and the other electric vehicles.  On the Letterman Show, Tom Hanks praises his EV1, how wonderful and fast it is.  People were literally lining up to purchase EV1s, despite GM’s resistance to selling them.

GM corporate set up detailed highly personal questionnaires, even for celebrity would-be buyers, as one of many hoops customers had to jump thru to qualify for a car.

In 2001, under threat by a lawsuit by the auto companies and the federal government, CARB removed the requirement for electrics.  GM stopped making the EV1 and proceeded to withdraw and destroy the cars it had leased.  Why?

GM determined with tax policy and the price markups of large vehicles, the car of its future was the Hummer.  As for the oil companies, they have obvious short-range incentives to kill electrics as competition… in the dead of night, if they can.

My feeling is the EV1 is like the movie The Producers.  They tried to make a flop, but it became a huge hit that embarrassed them.  In GM’s case, it tried to recover by returning to its self-destructive, conservative-dinosaur ways.

But this movie conveys a positive, hopeful message that innovative technology will come to the people very soon and massively, whether government-protected corporations stick their heads in the oil or not.



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2 thoughts on “Movie Review: Who Killed the Electric Car? (2005)

  1. It’s a review, Keith, not a personal claim of mine (that what someone else said is true)… though I find most of the arguments and statements of fact by the documentary makers true or at least reasonable.

    Wikipedia has an article ( that refreshes my awareness somewhat and substantiates a few of your points and also many of the points raised in the documentary. One thing that nobody denies,
    however, is that the EV1 and its precursor were hugely popular with those who were lucky enough to secure leases… and waiting lists were into the many thousands.

    I also understand that, by and large, political considerations take a distant back seat to technical and marketing realities when cartel automotive company boards set their policies… these people being the best and highest manifestation of our free enterprise system. I’m getting tears in my eyes, now, breaking into a chorus of God Bless America.

    [John Galt and Howard Roark have nothing on Roger Smith or Rick Wagoner.]

  2. Brian,

    Sorry to say hardly anything you wrote is true.

    GM committed to building EV1 before the ZEV mandate became law in 1990. The mandate forced a bunch of competitors into the market and made it impossible for anybody to sell enough EVs to make money
    1st gen range with lead-acid batteries was 60-90 miles, not 50-75. 80 plus miles was not hard to do even with AC on.
    To this day, no one has come close to $10k for an 80 mile range BEV in 1997 dollars. Not Nissan, not anybody, even with a $7500 tax credit subsidy from the Feds. The lowest lease rate of $399 for EV1 did not cover costs and was not affordable to most people. $399 is high in today’s dollars.
    Cost per mile with my Volt on battery is about half what it would be with a gas car, not a fifth. Used to be a third before the fracking boom.
    It is true the car was fun to drive. It is not true people were lining up to buy them, the passion of the few that did want them notwithstanding. The plant had numerous down weeks during the 1997 model and then went down for an entire year to sell down inventory. The 1999 model had many cost reductions in it along with the optional (and very expensive to produce) NiMH battery, but the production rate was cut by 75% to align with demand. Lead acid battery range was up to 100 miles max.
    Chelsea Sexton was on the sales side of Saturn, the division that sold the car. She was a very appealing “face” for the movie and I agree with her criticism of the “interview” process people had to go through to lease the vehicle. My understanding is GM wanted the cars to go to people that were going to drive them on a daily basis, not just arrive at the Oscars in one. The interview was not meant to sabotage the program. I think it would have been better to get more cars out there, even at a loss with some sitting in garages, given the positive publicity.
    Hummer had great products and marketing and people WANTED them and were willing to pay big bucks to get them. It is a crying shame that the liberal chauffeur driven doofuses in Washington demanded that it be shut down. It was completely rational for GM to produce Hummers. That market is now owned by Jeep.
    GM was in financial straits in the early 2000’s and couldn’t afford money-losing products. Rick Wagner later admitted he made a mistake in recalling and crushing the EV1’s. He said the positive publicity from keeping them on the road would have been worth it. And by the way, everybody got out of EVs when the mandate was suspended, not just GM.
    Contrary to what Chelsea said in the movie, GM did not try to make EV1 a flop. They fully expected sales and production to go up with Version 2. I have seen Chelsea in recent months on Green Car Reports and she is an absolute STATIST. She wants all car makers to be forced by government, with guns if necessary, to produce and sell electric cars.
    Everybody’s looking for a conspiracy. Maybe the truth is what it looks like: GM and other car makers are doing their best to please customers in a market where people with no skin in the game are constantly changing the rules. I’ve been hearing all my adult life about GM buying up the beloved trolleys in LA so they could shut them down and sell their smelly buses instead. How about the buses have a lower cost per passenger mile?

    All of that said, EVs are the future. Battery costs have plummeted in recent years and very soon you will be able to buy a 2-300 mile range EV for the same price as a comparable gas car or SUV and be ahead on operating costs. That technology was not available in the 90’s.


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