Electric car murdered twice
Benito Di Fonzo
November 3, 2006 (Metro, Sydney Morning Herald)
The electric car was murdered twice. According to filmmaker Chris Paine, it was first whacked a century ago, though most people wouldn't know unless they'd seen the archival footage in his doco, Who Killed the Electric Car?
"It's amazing, isn't it?" he says. "I was astonished when I found out [that] 100 years ago there were as many electric cars as there were gasoline cars on the road. In fact, they'd have these races between electric cars, gas cars and steam cars."
Unfortunately for the environment, a combination of oil discoveries in Texas and Henry Ford's mass production of the internal combustion engine left the electric car bleeding in the gutter. One hundred years later, it would be driven by the stars.
In 1987, General Motors' Sunraycer won the World Solar Challenge, a 3000km race from Darwin to Adelaide.
"That race changed the world because the engineers really made some huge advances," Paine says. "The Sunraycer beat Ford and the other competitors by a day or two."
Soon after, GM used Sunraycer technology to produce the prototype consumer electric car, the EV1. In 1990, California issued a mandate that auto makers produce Zero Emissions Vehicles. In 1996, a small number of EV1s hit the market, for lease only, and were snapped up, particularly by celebrities, many of whom testify on film to the speed, reliability and quietness of the cars. They include Mel Gibson, who excitedly declares the EV1 made him feel "like Batman!" Tequila helps, obviously.
By last year, the ZEV mandate had essentially been destroyed and all EV1s reclaimed, crushed and secretly dumped in the Arizona desert, despite owners begging to buy them. It's this second murder that Paine focuses on, beginning with an EV1 funeral.
"Only in California would you have a funeral for your car," Paine says.
Paine takes advantage of viewers' consumerist desires by selling us on what a great car the EV1 is, thus making us want one before telling us they've all been destroyed.
"We had to give people a real flavour for what this was for them to care about [the EV1]," he says.
Paradoxically, GM's EV1 ads were frighteningly bleak, post-apocalyptic scenarios that would more likely make you want to buy heroin than a car.
"They looked like billboards for Hiroshima," Paine says.
Paine feels that the surge in interest in documentaries is a reflection of the poor quality of mainstream journalism.
"People feel like they're not getting the news from 'the news' any more, especially television. Stories about global warming and CO2 have been pushed under the table for a long time.
"60 Minutes didn't do one story about what happened to these cars. Certainly local news didn't - their stories are the press releases of the car companies."
Was Paine scared of Big Oil's reaction?
"Oh, yes," he says. "We brought in fact checkers to make sure that what we were saying wasn't just speculation; we had to be right on the nose. We didn't want any holes in our story that we could be sued for. It was a big project to make sure our film was bullet-proof."
Was he surprised Sony Pictures took it on?
"From a business point of view, they realised that petrol prices were going up [and] this might find an audience.
"On the other hand, they definitely took a risk. We had things happen, like they sent out a press release on [PR site] Business Wire [that] they refused to use because GM is their biggest customer."
Who killed the electric car, then?
"Fear of change, the biggest players being the oil industry and the internal combustion engine."
Are drivers off the hook?
"This is one of the tragedies of the story, because when they pulled the cars and destroyed them there was no chance for people to see them working and say, 'I think I'll try one.' So it's not all the consumers' fault.
"It's hard for people to change their behaviour unless there's a crisis. Hopefully we're at a time where people are really looking at their options."
Paine hopes the new 100 per cent electric models by the likes of California's Tesla Motors won't also end up sleeping with the fishes.
Who Killed The Electric Car?
Director Chris Paine Stars Mel Gibson, Tom Hanks, Martin Sheen, Phyllis Diller Rated PG. Screening now.