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Who Killed the Electric Car?

I know, I know. Who the hell wants to line up and pay nine, 12 or 15 dollars for a serving of cinematic granola and lentils? It’s summertime. There’s swashbuckling pretty boys and men in tights with Christ complexes to ogle. Hell, even Clerks II is coming down the pipe. So what’s this about an electric car? It sounds weird. Pinko weird!

But oddly enough, much like the GM EV1, the car whose brief life this film documents, Chris Paine’s Who Killed the Electric Car? packs a lot more punch than you’d imagine.

Here’s the story: In 1990, the state of California was facing a smog crisis. Inspired by a recent announcement from GM that they had created a prototype electric car, the state created the Zero Emissions Mandate, requiring that 2% of California’s vehicles be emission-free by 1998 and 10% by 2003. California is the largest car-buying market in the world, so GM quickly pushed its EV1 electric car onto the market. It required no gas, oil, muffler or brake changes. And it flew, emitting little more than a calming hum. With positive reviews from both consumers and critics, other car manufacturers quickly followed GM’s lead.

But six years after the first EV1s appeared on the market, they’re all gone—flattened, shredded, no longer even whispered about.

Paine’s documentary pursues the question of what happened as if it were whodunnit. Is Pullitzer-prize winning LA Times journalist Dan Neil correct when he blames consumers for the EV1’s demise? Or was it the car companies who, fearing they’d lose big on parts and maintenance, refused to “sex-up” the electric car’s marketing? Or what of the oil companies and the government? Is there a difference?

The film finds that all of these are to blame. The electric car presented far too grave a threat to the auto and oil industries to be allowed to survive. (The irony is that, if GM hadn’t got cold feet, they would have had a four-year head start on the rest of the industry in electric car technology.) When the auto industry and the pro-hydrogen fuel cell lobby forced the Zero Emissions mandate into an early grave, GM not only ceased production of the EV1, but it also refused to sell the cars they’d been leasing. Loyal owners and advocates protested, ultimately offering $1.9 million for cars that were about to be destroyed. The threat of allowing the sleek, silent speedsters to remain on America’s roads was just too great . (Just before the release of Who Killed the Electric Car?, the Smithsonian Institute announced that its EV1 display was being permanently removed. While GM is a major financial contributor to the museum, both they and the Smithsonian have denied that this in any way contributed to the display’s removal. )

Paine’s film takes us from the engineers who first developed the electric technology to tthe man who ultimately squashed the Zero Emissions mandate. It gives voice to all sides of the debate, while clearly articulating how the factors that lead to the demise of the EV1 are the same ones that prevent North America from taking real steps to address oil dependency.

If the film has any real faults, it’s only the overreliance on the stories of EV1 owners fighting for their cars. Seeing the likes of former Baywatch star Alexandra Paul weeping and waving placards to save her car quickly grows tiresome. It’s often easy to forget that this is about far more than a rich person’s car.

But Who Killed the Electric Car? stands as a sleek, persuasive and balanced (yes, balanced) take on an issue of much significance. Unlike Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, which made the mistake of focusing too much on the would-have-been president’s crusade, this film is wholly non-partisan. While it takes its shots at the Bush administration, Who Killed the Electric Car? ends by discussing the bi-partisan push to get North America behind the plug-in hybrid. As former CIA director R. James Woolsey makes clear at the film’s conclusion, fighting the tight grip that oil companies have on government is of paramount importance to the world’s security, no matter what your political stripe.

Who Killed the Electric Car? is now playing at The Cumberland, 159 Cumberland Ave., 416- 699-5971.

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