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‘Who Killed the Electric Car?” is a timely doc

Skewed in favor of enthusiasts, the film still raises some great questions
/ Source: The Associated Press

Was it murder? Or was it natural selection simply weeding out a weakling unable to compete in our consumer world? Or was the electric car just ahead of its time?

The documentary “Who Killed the Electric Car?” may not have the answer, but it makes for a lively, informative whodunit about an energy-efficient vehicle that debuted with fanfare and went out with a whimper.

Soaring fuel prices make director Chris Paine’s film irksomely relevant as it lays out suspects in the demise of General Motors’ EV1: Potentially complicit parties include automakers, oil companies and governments.

The film makes a fine bookend to “An Inconvenient Truth,” the current documentary hit chronicling former Vice President Gore’s campaign against global warming.

“An Inconvenient Truth” is an alarming classroom warning about catastrophic climate changes potentially looming from the buildup of fossil-fuel emissions. “Who Killed the Electric Car?” hits at street level, an infuriating examination of corporate and public indifference to consumer desire.

Paine was among drivers who leased an EV1 from GM in 1998, joining a list of electric-car enthusiasts that included Tom Hanks, Mel Gibson, Ted Danson and other celebrities. (Gibson contributes some hilarious interview segments.)

The cars were sleek, futuristic two-seaters powered by batteries that could be recharged overnight at home.

The vehicles were most prevalent in California, which had enacted laws requiring automakers to begin putting zero-emission cars on the road. After lawsuits and lobbying by automakers, California eventually softened the rules, and the EV1 and other companies’ prototypes for electric cars started vanishing from the highways.

The film depicts a community of drivers clearly in love with their EV1 cars, yet GM refused to renew the leases or let consumers buy the vehicles outright. As leases expired, there was a gradual roundup — the EV1s bound for a crushing facility in the desert.

“I’ve never seen a company be so cannibalistic about its own product before,” says actor Peter Horton (“thirtysomething”), the last Southern California driver to have his EV1 taken away in 2004.

A GM spokesman contends demand was insufficient. Paine’s film counters with a prolonged vigil by former EV1 drivers outside a parking lot in Burbank, Calif., where about 80 of the repossessed cars were stored. A coalition of drivers offered $1.9 million to buy the cars, but GM declined, sending the vehicles to the crusher.

“Who Killed the Electric Car?” indicts pretty much everyone in the car’s demise — auto companies whose huge stake in repair parts could be undermined by low-maintenance electric cars; oil companies whose profits hinge on fossil fuel; the California Air Resources Board; governments pushing other unproved technology such as hydrogen-fuel cells; even consumers in love with gas-guzzling SUVs.

The film lacks a certain balance, focusing most of its time on indignant electric-car enthusiasts.

Paine does analyze critics’ contention that the limited driving range of EV1s may have hampered its introduction. But the film glosses over and quickly dismisses the “long tailpipe theory” — the notion that electric cars would simply transfer pollution from vehicle exhaust pipes to power-plant smokestacks.

Still, it’s a fun road trip for moviegoers who like to shake their heads in disbelief at our consumer culture. And whether or not you believe in a conspiracy theory to kill the electric car, the film just might have you checking out a fuel-efficient hybrid instead of an SUV the next time you visit a car lot.