Who Killed the Electric Car?

by ExperiencePlus! - Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Book Reviews: Who Killed the Electric Car?

who_killed.jpg"Who Killed the Electric Car?" is a documentary on the bizarre tale of electric vehicles in the last decade that had me squirming on my couch. You see, I killed the electric car. I can explain, if you’ll give me a chance. First, though, let me tell you about the movie….

IBM once ran a commercial in which Avery Brooks ranted, “It’s the year 2000, but where are the flying cars? I was promised flying cars. I don’t see any flying cars. Why? Why? Why?” It became something of a rallying cry for anyone who remembers watching "The Jetsons" as a kid, dreaming of the wonders of tomorrow.

But for me and other folks who grew up with the environmental movement, the question has been not flying cars, but electric ones. It was a dream that seemed to be coming true by the mid-1990’s, when automakers began to respond to California’s zero-emission vehicle requirements. General Motors unveiled the EV-1 to great fanfare, and many others followed. The future began to seem tantalizingly close—but the manufacturers never produced enough of the cars to keep up with demand. Instead, production ceased altogether. Existing cars were taken back by the manufacturers as the leases expired, and, as quietly as possible, the cars were destroyed.

If that last sentence was a shocker to you, chances are you’ll find “Who Killed the Electric Car?” as fascinating as I did. After setting the stage with the history of the EV-1 and the political climate surrounding its birth and death, the movie adopts a whodunit style and considers a diverse list of suspects in the “murder” of the electric car.

“Who Killed the Electric Car?” is a cathartic experience. It evokes a complete palette of emotions, from hope to outrage to green despair, and back to a sadder, wiser hope again in the end. I was especially happy to see that the filmmakers include on the DVD a special feature aimed at harnessing the urge to action that you will probably feel after watching the film. Simply having something constructive to do can be the difference between discouragement and optimism.

But you’re probably wondering about that confession in the first paragraph. It’s true—the corpse was in my driveway the whole time I was watching the movie. In the summer of 2006, I bought a 1973 Volkswagen Super Beetle with a bad engine. I also bought a truly impressive collection of batteries, and a parts kit designed to convert said Volkswagen into an electric vehicle. Gradually, with a few wrong turns and considerable head-scratching, I got the car running and began to proudly scoot about town in my very own electric car.RIch%20Electric20Car.jpg

Then something went wrong. Before I even managed to get permanent plates on it, the car began to suffer episodes in which battery terminals would spark and melt, ruining the (expensive) batteries and stranding the vehicle. As these episodes became more frequent, I decided to park the car until I could figure out what was going wrong. And there it sat. When my wife brought “Who Killed the Electric Car?” home one night, the poor VW had been waiting six months for me to get my act together.

Unlike the story of the EV-1, my story has a happy ending—sort of. My car wasn’t truly dead; inspired by the movie, and with a few good suggestions from friends, I managed to find a solution to the sparking problem. I quickly got the car roadworthy and registered, and began driving it regularly. Unfortunately, as I write this, it’s grounded again with a faulty switch, waiting for a new part to arrive. I’m beginning to understand that the conversion route is only suitable for those willing to pay a premium to have the job done right by somebody who knows what they’re doing, or willing to tinker a fair bit before their car is truly dependable.

On the whole, “Who Killed the Electric Car?” tells a compelling story. It has a clear slant leftwards, which won’t help it convert some viewers. But it’s thought-provoking, and it just might inspire you to look for a greener way to get around in your own life, whether it’s a Prius, a converted VW or just a good bike. Wouldn’t it be great if the movie helped to bring about the greener future we’ve been deprived of? Personally, I’d much rather see that than the flying-car future. As a cyclist, I’m all too aware that some of the drivers out there can barely handle two dimensions; I’d hate to see them trying to cope with three.

If you’re interested in learning more, Sony Pictures Classics has a wealth of information from the movie and beyond at the official “Who Killed the Electric Car?” web site: