In 1996, electric cars began to appear on roads all over California. They were quiet and fast, produced no exhaust and ran without gasoline……….. Ten years later, these futuristic cars were almost completely gone. ” ‘Who Killed the Electric Car’ is a documentary which unfolds a complex set of events around the development and demise of the modern electric car. The story stems from California from the early 1990s to 2006. Chris Paine, the film maker has woven together interviews and archival footage of over 65 people involved with the events.
The narrative begins to unfold with a brief history of the first electric cars created in the early twentieth century. These electric vehicles were killed off nearly 100 years ago as gas/petroleum powered internal combustion engine (ICE) cars became cheaper. The worsening problems of gas/petrol cars are illustrated: smog, high child asthma rates, CO2 emissions and global warming. [Later we also see the use of the US Military in the Middle East. The loss of life and financial cost of war are not mentioned].
The film then commences the story of the modern EV in 1987 when General Motors and the ‘SunRaycer’, won the World Solar Challenge, a solar electric car race in Australia. General Motor’s CEO, Roger Smith challenged the same design team to build a prototype practical electric car which became known as the ‘Impact’ when announced in 1990. The project expanded to small scale production vehicles with the aim that it would give GM several years lead over any competitor car companies. The Californian Air Resources Board (CARB) saw this as a way to solve their air quality problem and in 1990 passed the Zero Emissions Vehicle (ZEV) Mandate.
The ZEV Mandate specified increasing numbers of vehicles sold would have to be Zero Emission Vehicles. For the car companies, there was only two options: Comply with the law or fight it. In then end, they would do both. The movie continues to reveal what the various suspects did to kill the reality of the electric car, and the efforts of EV supporters to save them. Oil companies stood to lose enormous profits if EV sales took off and they colluded with others to kill the electric car. To comply with the ZEV Mandate, in 1996, GM started leasing small numbers of the production car, called the EV1.
Other car companies also produced electric vehicles by converting existing production models and leased them to drivers. But the GM board of directors never really wanted the car to succeed as they didn’t think they would make profit from the car. They saw losses from development costs and the virtual absence of maintenance and replacement parts which, for gas cars, bring ongoing profits. They were worried that the popularity of the car was growing and that other US states were considering ZEV Mandate laws which meant that they may have to convert all their cars to electric drives which represented even bigger losses.