Thursday, March 20, 2008

Who Killed the Electric Car?

My father was in the haulage business. One of his favourite sayings, employed to cast aspersions on the likelihood of something ever happening, was “we’ll see the electric lorry first”.

The electric car, however …

Well, it happened. In 1996, the GM-produced EV-1 became a commercially available (albeit through lease only) reality. It was fast, reliable, cheap and easy to service, and ran without petrol. It came with celebrity endorsements, from ‘Baywatch’ star Alexandra Paul to America’s favourite movie star, Tom Hanks. (Hanks’ witty Letterman appearance is terrific.)

Ten years later, however, GM had pulled the plug on the project, sold its share of the company that produced the batteries for the cars, demanded the EV-1s back from the lessees and went on a very public love-in with its ugly-as-fuck gas-guzzling SUV product, the Hummer*.

It’s appropriate that “hummer” is also a US colloquialism for a blow-job, since that’s pretty much what GM did: suck the collective dick of the oil industry.

The oil industry is predictably present on director Chris Paine’s list of suspects. He opens with a funeral service for the EV-1 then goes on the hunt to find an answer to the film’s title: ‘Who Killed the Electric Car?’ Other suspects include the government (quelle surprise!) and consumers.

You have to admire Paine’s integrity in not sidestepping the latter issue: the electric car, limited as it was to 120 miles per day (which wouldn’t take you halfway to Edinburgh from my home town of Nottingham, never mind the kind of distances American highways cover), was always going to be a hard sell; always going to invite skepticism.

Still, the main thrust of the documentary is the most damning: GM’s relentless campaign to round-up all the EV-1s and destroy them. Ordinarily, one might shrug and say “well, the product failed, didn’t find enough buyers” … but the lessees who drove EV-1s loved them. Fought to retain them. Protested GM. Offered a significant chunk of money to buy them back.

The result? A heavy police presence at the demonstration, nightsticks drawn, protesters (including Ms Paul) handcuffed and bundled into the back of vans. The voice of protest successfully gagged, GM trucked the EV-1s out to a massive facility in the desert and crushed them. One remains – disabled by GM; undriveable – looking rather lost and alone amongst a collection of vintage and veteran vehicles.

Chris Paine’s film – surprisingly watchable given the amount of facts and figures it throws at the audience – is graced with low-key narration by Martin Sheen and features contributions from industry insiders, media pundits, environmentalists and EV-1 drivers. The heroine of the piece is Chelsea Sexton, a former GM employee who worked towards promoting the EV-1s. Intelligent, articulate and immensely likeable, Ms Sexton’s passion for the EV-1s – and her despair at GM’s destruction of them – is palpable. She has since become Executive Director of Plug In America and is dedicated campaigner for alternative fuels.

This world needs more Chelsea Sextons and fewer oil barons.

*Click here to visit the wonderfully named Fuck You And Your H2 and marvel at how many people hate the Hummer.

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