Documentary asks who killed GM's electric car
by: JONATHAN HOUSE, Documentary director Chris Paine, in Portland last week for a benefit screening for the nonprofit Livable Place, loved his EV1 electric car.

Chris Paine loved his electric car. 'It's like being in Disneyland Autotopia when you're 6 years old,' he says of driving his EV1, a sleekly futuristic-looking vehicle that General Motors released on a limited basis between 1996 and 2003.

The car was quiet and fun to drive, and you never had to take it to the gas station. Never.

Many who drove the car fell in love with it, including Tom Hanks, who raved about his electric car on 'The Late Show With David Letterman.'

And many were upset when GM not only stopped making the cars but also pulled every single one of them off the streets. The cars were never for sale; they were only available for lease. When the leases expired, the cars were rounded up and destroyed in the Arizona desert.

But why? It was a mystery, and Paine, with a background in producing documentaries, saw an opportunity. Here was a chance to make a difference, and at the same time, to tell a great story. As he delved further into the events surrounding the demise of the electric car, the story just kept getting better, not to mention more timely.

Cars predate peak-oil panic

Global warming has many worried. Gas prices continue to climb. Biodiesel is entering the mainstream, and there are hybrid cars on the streets.

Not so long ago, in the 1990s, the phrase 'addicted to oil' wasn't the familiar catchphrase it is today.

The obvious problem in California, where most of the EV1s were distributed, was air quality. The smog in Los Angeles is undeniable. You can see it, you can feel it in your lungs. Sometimes, you can even taste it.

That is why, in 1990, the California Air Resources Board initiated a mandate. By 1998, 2 percent of cars sold in the state would be zero-emission vehicles. The percentage would increase as time went on.

The electric car would make this possible. Its technology was improving all the time. At first, the cars could only go 60 miles on a charge, but newer batteries made it possible to go 100 miles or more between charges. Some towns built charging stations, further increasing mobility. Then it all screeched to a halt.

Paine's movie lists the culprits and explains the roles that a complex set of forces played in this little-known drama. 'That story became a metaphor for why it's so hard for America to get out of this oil thing,' he explains. He's become a bit of an authority on energy policy, answering questions at screenings of his film.

'Who Killed the Electric Car?' already has opened in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. 'Every screening I go to,' says Paine, who was in Portland last week for a sold-out advance benefit screening at the Hollywood Theatre, 'there's just so much energy, because people are wrapped up in why there's only gas cars - how come that's the only option on the marketplace?' Most people, he says, never even knew that electric cars existed.

EV1 zealots persist

Of course, the EV1 wasn't perfect. It was a small car that hit the market in the age of the sport-utility vehicle. To completely recharge the battery took all night. It wasn't cheap. And while electricity made the car itself run clean, a large part of our electricity comes from burning fossil fuels. In practice the car still used gas - just less of it. As Paine shows, though, the EV1 continues to have passionate believers.

Paine was skeptical at first, he says. He leased an EV1 'as penance for moving to L.A.' and he kept a backup car, an SUV. 'It was like getting a cell phone and thinking it wasn't going to work for you,' he says, but 'suddenly I only wanted this electric car. Once you've been in an electric, you go, 'I did not realize I had an addiction problem.' You really see it.'

There's plenty of irony in the tale. GM objects to the film, despite the fact that it contains glowing testimonials for one of its own products.

It's not unusual to see activists rallying to try to curtail the moneymaking policies of big business. But here we see a public group actually begging to purchase a product, and being given the cold shoulder by the for-profit company that made it. Of course, it's a small group, but maybe not for long.

Like many contemporary documentaries, Paine's film has an agenda. What does he want viewers to do? Tell their friends to come see the movie, for starters. Create a consumer demand for clean vehicles. And demand that lawmakers pass tougher laws for the auto industry.

'I'm all about change,' he says, 'There's too much going wrong right now.'

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