Movie Plumbs the Demise of the Electric Car

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General Motors' EV-1 i

General Motors' EV-1 was originally introduced as a concept car in 1990. Josh Knight/Sony hide caption

toggle caption Josh Knight/Sony
General Motors' EV-1

General Motors' EV-1 was originally introduced as a concept car in 1990.

Josh Knight/Sony

Scroll down for more about owning and driving an electric car.

Filmmaker Chris Paine leased an EV-1 in 1997, on a whim. i

Filmmaker Chris Paine drove an EV-1 from 1998-2003. He leased it on a whim, thinking it would make a good second car. Sony Pictures Classics hide caption

toggle caption Sony Pictures Classics
Filmmaker Chris Paine leased an EV-1 in 1997, on a whim.

Filmmaker Chris Paine drove an EV-1 from 1998-2003. He leased it on a whim, thinking it would make a good second car.

Sony Pictures Classics

Official Movie Site

Trailer, electric car timeline and more information.

In 1996, General Motors rolled out its groundbreaking EV-1 electric cars, and customers such as filmmaker Chris Paine began leasing them. But by 2003, the cars were being recalled and most were ultimately demolished. Paine's new film, Who Killed the Electric Car?, examines the factors at play.

The film accuses GM of not supporting the EV-1, not making enough of them, not marketing them and in fact, not actually selling them. (Because the cars were considered experimental, GM would only offer the cars for leasing.)

GM was not the only company developing EVs at the time. Toyota, Ford and other manufacturers began offering the cars in response to California's Zero Emissions Vehicle (ZEV) Mandate, a 1990 measure that required car companies to sell a certain percentage of zero emissions vehicles in the state.

GM denies that it did not want the EV-1 to succeed, pointing to its billion-dollar investment in the program and claiming that consumer interest in the car was too low. In 2002, GM and several other car companies sued to get California's ZEV mandate repealed. The following year, California's Air Resources Board relaxed the mandate's requirements. When the leases on EV-1s ran out, GM recalled the cars.

Other "suspects" in the movie's murder-mystery theme include oil companies, the federal government and consumers themselves. Though the extent of the demand for electric cars and the car industry's role in their failure is debatable, the movie points out that car buyers still failed to embrace an alternative to the gasoline status quo.

Who Killed the Electric Car? opens in New York and Los Angeles this week, and begins screening in theaters around the country next week.

Driving Electric: What's It Like?

Ray Levinson is an environmental compliance manager for the U.S. Postal Service in California and Hawaii and has been driving a Ford Ranger electric vehicle (EV) for six years. The self-labeled "EVangelist" describes the ups and downs of gasoline-free driving.

Q: What made you lease your Ford Ranger EV in the first place?

I had been aware of various alternate fuel vehicles the USPS has used to deliver mail over the years: electric, compressed natural gas, ethanol, etc. We've tried them all.... While attending various Clean Cities expos in the 1990s, I got to drive the General Motors EV1, Toyota RAV4 EV, Honda EV+, Chrysler EPIC minivan and many others. I became more interested in EVs as a personal vehicle when a Toyota RAV4 EV passed me on the San Diego Freeway at about 80 mph, with large "EV" decals on its side!

It was interesting to note that few, if any, of the manufacturers actually advertised the fact that these EVs were available when they had them, and then claimed nobody wanted them. You really had to know where to find them in order to get one. The few EVs built became available mainly to fleets, but I used my knowledge of the existence of these vehicles to track one down for my own use.

Q: What's involved with recharging the car?

I received a residential charging station when I obtained the vehicle, which had to be wired to my house, for about a couple hundred dollars. The beauty is you get to charge the EV overnight, when electric rates are cheapest. I have been paying about a nickel per kilowatt hour for six years, and it takes about 25 kilowatt hours to get a full charge. That is $1.25 to go 50 miles, or about $6.25 to go 250 miles, about the same as a $50 tankful of gas for everyone else.

Q: You say that when you leased your EV in 2000, it was only for a three-year term. But you're in your sixth year of driving the car. Why?

Because so few were built, nobody really new how EVs would work over time. A replacement battery pack could cost as much as $20,000, as they were all handmade. So the manufacturers only leased them, and only for three years. Everyone was surprised when they kept going and going and going. My Ranger has more advanced Nickel-Metal Hydride (NiMH) batteries, [which are] more expensive and longer lasting than the lead-acid batteries used in earlier EVs. The original range for a full charge when I got my EV was about 60 miles, and then you needed about a five-hour charge. Other, more advanced EVs like the EV1 or Toyota RAV4 EV got more than 100 miles to a charge. After six years and 30,000 miles, my range has deteriorated to about 45 miles, which is still plenty for my daily routine. I refused to give the car up when the lease was terminated and ended up buying it from Ford for $1!

Q: What do you love about driving an electric car?

Everything. It is quiet, pollution free, cheap to operate, absolutely no maintenance or smog checks. No oil changes or air/oil filter changes, either. The only maintenance required over 30,000 miles is to rotate the tires! I get tax breaks, and do not have to pay gas or road taxes when I recharge my batteries. Also, in California, you get to use the car pool lanes and cross the toll bridges for free during rush hour. EVs are the perfect commuter car, if you have a reasonable distance to travel. Remember, most of the pollution from internal combustion engines comes from the morning "cold starts" and stop-and-go traffic. This is where EVs perform best, as the motor is not running at every stop, just like an electric drill. You just use the energy when you need it; there is no idling for an electric vehicle.

Q: What are some not-so-great things about EVs, or things that would take some getting used to?

Of course, the range and time to recharge are the biggest limits. It is sort of like driving with a quarter tank of gas, and all the gas stations are closed, so you'd better know your limits. But it is perfect as a second car or commuter vehicle. The EV industry was working on longer-range batteries and quicker chargers when the whole technology was dumped. Recall how big cell phone and laptop batteries were just six years ago? Had proper research and development continued on EVs, who knows what we may have had today?

Q: When your EV does finally kick, what will you do next?

Some of my EV-driver friends have staged "funerals" for their EVs when they were forced to turn them in because their short-term leases expired or were terminated by the car makers. Others have actually bought replacement batteries from overseas and have hand-built replacement packs, which requires a lot more knowledge, skill and courage than I have to accomplish. Who knows, with the right TLC maybe my truck will last for another 10 years? The motors are estimated to last 250,000 miles.

I would like to say that Ford has been great about continuing to support my truck, when I have brought it in for the occasional check-up. They (and the other manufacturers) made some really great EVs when they were forced to, and had a lot of really talented engineers and designers on their payrolls. It is so hard to accept the manufacturers' (and oil companies') assertion that we can't make improvements on these wonderful vehicles.



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