What Happened to the Electric Car? In 1996, a fleet of electric cars began to hit the road in the United States, leased to drivers for about $500 a month. But less than 10 years later, only a few were left. Guests look at the short-lived electric car, and the director of a new film talks about chronicling the vehicle's demise.

What Happened to the Electric Car?

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Do you remember the electric car before all those hybrids and what-not at an auto show way back in 1990? GM unveiled a concept car called the Impact and in 1996 the Impact was made into the EV-1, which made it to the market, and then for a few years people could lease an electric car. None were sold, only leased, and it was the fastest - among the fastest, most efficient production cars ever built. It ran on electricity. It produced no emissions, catapulted American technology to the forefront of the automotive industry, and the lucky few who drove it never wanted to give it up. So why did General Motors crush its fleet of EV-1 electric vehicles into the Arizona desert?

That's the question in the synopsis of, Who Killed the Electric Car? that is coming out in theaters near you. And Chris Paine is a former EV-1 driver and he is a director of the film. It's opening in L.A. and New York and he joins us from our NPR West studio. Welcome to the program, Chris.

Mr. CHRIS PAINE (Director): Hey, thank you.

FLATOW: You know, I asked a spokesperson - or I asked GM to send somebody to come and talk about it, and they refused to talk about it. Why do you - why do you suspect that is?

Mr. PAINE: Well, they spoke with us. So I think, you know, there's a lot of attention on this issue right now. And they're probably being very careful about what they want to say.

FLATOW: Hm-hmm.

Mr. PAINE: You know, I wish they would talk because they have - you know, GM really created its best car they ever drove, in my estimation, and those of us who got to drive these cars. And I think this kind of technology could really put GM back on the map.

But they'd have to reorient their corporate culture off of the internal combustion engine, which I think is going to be pretty tough.

FLATOW: Hm-hmm. 1-800-989-8255. We're talking with Chris Paine, director of the new documentary, Who Killed the Electric Car? It's out this week from Sony Pictures, Sony Classics.

You know, the most sad part of the movie - and I'm sure it was sad for the car owners who were not allowed to own it, right? You see in the film the cars are just being crushed, beautiful brand new looking cars coming off these flatbed trailers just being put in the shredder.

Mr. PAINE: I know. It was really shocking. And when it all happened, we just stood there and said, what are you guys doing? You've really made an amazing car. And most Americans never even knew there were production electric cars.

So the sight of seeing them destroyed before most people ever got to experience them was really quite a shocking moment for us.

FLATOW: Hm-hmm.

Mr. PAINE: And that's sort of what galvanized me to like get to work on this film. This is an important time for us to be thinking about options to gasoline.

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. PAINE: And these cars ran off of domestic electricity. So arguably they should be a part of the car equation these days.

FLATOW: Hm-hmm. The film runs like a whodunit, Who Killed the Electric Car?, almost like an Agatha Christie situation where you have all these people, you know, in that mansion eating dinner and then lightning go on around it.

And you try to - you have a lot of suspects. A lot of people were involved with who killed this car.

Mr. PAINE: Yeah, that's right. Well, we thought, you know, you look at the story of what happened, and when this all went down, those of us who were driving these cars, we kept waiting for like the big expose in the New Yorker or something like this to do the story. And it just didn't happen.

And so when I began filming, it became quite apparent that there were many suspects in the death of this car and, of course, the car being a metaphor for bigger issues.

FLATOW: Hm-hmm. Did you conclude at all - can you give away some of the film about who you concluded, who killed this car?

Mr. PAINE: Well, we're all in it together. That's sort of where the film comes down. But certainly the automobile industry and the oil industry felt the most threatened by this car.

I mean, the short story of the whole story is that California had a huge air pollution problem, especially in urban areas like Los Angeles, where I live. In fact, that's why I got a car because I thought, oh well, maybe I'll just do my bit. With a plug-in car, you just plug it in at night and you never go to the service station. And the amount of pollution you create at a power plant is much less than what you get out of your tailpipe from gasoline.

So the California regulators saw this car at the auto show like you were talking about at the top of the story. And they said, well, we knew it. We knew you guys could do an electric car. Let's put them on the road.

In fact, all automakers have to do this. So Toyota and Honda and Ford and Chrysler and GM, they all put electric cars on the road in the next five years. And what I don't think they anticipated was how advanced and how great these cars were.

And those of us who got to drive them very quickly got used to like plugging in the car in the garage and zipping around Los Angeles or San Francisco and the places where these cars were available and feeling like we were in the 21st century.

And the industries that were most impacted by these innovations came down pretty hard and said, California, you can't have a law like this. This is wrong and this is unfair and so forth.

So they dismantled this law. And that's the short story of what happened. The super crazy part is that they went after the cars after the laws were destroyed and individually destroyed the cars.

FLATOW: And I'm talking with Chris Paine, director of the new documentary, Who Killed the Electric Car? on TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

So what does GM say about why they literally crushed them in those giant car crushers? What's the reason? Not profitable? Not economical? You know, we're not making anymore? Or the wrong time, wrong place?

Mr. PAINE: Well, the official reason is that consumers just weren't interested in these cars, that they put them on the market and they never sold them. So folks that wanted to buy them couldn't buy them. But they said they were only able to lease, in GM's case, 800 of these cars.

And so they said, well, this doesn't work in the marketplace. But, you know, the real story is a lot more complex than that. The folks we talked to that were selling these cars said they had four and 5,000 people on the waiting list.

And what the cars were really about was about changing the model of what a car is. For example, an electric car rarely needs service. There's no engine so you don't have to take it in for tune-ups. There's no carburetor. There's no transmission. It's a very simple - it's almost like an appliance.

So many folks feel that it threatened the business model too much. And the oil industry obviously wouldn't be terribly excited about this either.

FLATOW: Hm-hmm. But the Japanese car makers kept going. I mean, we have - Prius was literally the first mass-produced hybrid car. Did any of the Japanese manufacturers learn? They were in the hunt with GM but they kept going.

Mr. PAINE: I know. It's amazing. Well, one of the factors is that the federal government passed a big spending bill, essentially, and gave the car companies one and a half billion dollars as partnership for a new generation of vehicles. And they came up with hybrid cars.

But when the administration changed, the American automakers walked away from these programs. And the Japanese were so nervous about this program and possible competition that they went ahead and developed hybrid cars on their own.

And so, lo and behold, you've got the Prius and the Honda Insight and so forth, all these hybrid cars coming out. And the big irony is that essentially we're importing technology that was largely developed in the U.S. and then sort of improved upon in Japan. And we don't have really competing products in this country except for, I think, the Ford Escape.

FLATOW: Hm-hmm. Let's go to Rich in Rochester, New York. Hi, Rich.

RICH (Caller): I'm doing all right. I'm sitting here listening to this. And this seems like the same old story that always happens with industry is that, you know, the big boys get it together. It happened with the subways. It was Firestone and GM out in California. It's happened with the train systems. It's happened with everything that seems it's going to be the most efficient for people.

I mean, I don't know how we're going to change this outlook and the way they see things, protecting these archaic business models at any cost and at our cost. I don't know what we're going to do to stop it.

FLATOW: Chris?

Mr. PAINE: The good news is that science wins in the end. I mean, the most efficient way to use energy in a car turns out to be an electric drive train. And as oil prices go up, there's going to be less and less of an option. Using electricity is just such a better way to do it.

The problem is that we end up losing all this time. And of course with other issues like global warming and, you know, our dependence on foreign oil and all these things, this is time that we really don't have to lose.

FLATOW: Hm-hmm. We're talking with Chris Paine, the director of the new documentary, Who Killed the Electric Car? I've got about a half a minute before the break. Other cities besides L.A., New York, will be able to see this film?

Mr. PAINE: Yes. We were very lucky. In documentaries, it's so hard to get the word out. But Sony Pictures has agreed to distribute the movie. So it's coming out across the country. It's just those first two weeks, though, that if people are interested in this topic, they should get out and see it because that will be their option.

FLATOW: All right. We're going to take a short break and come back more and talk with Chris Paine, author - author - director of the new documentary, Who Killed the Electric Car?

Your questions, maybe you drove an electric car. I drove one of these for a couple of days back in the day when it was still around. It was quite impressive to drive. Maybe you have your own driving experience. Maybe you've got an electric car of your own. Maybe you're working on one.

Let us know about it. We'll be right back after this break.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking this hour about the untimely demise of the EV1, GM's electric car, with my guest Chris Paine, director of the new documentary, Who Killed the Electric Car? out this week from Sony Pictures Classics.

Joining us now also is Bill Moore, publisher of EVWorld.com, a Web site focused on electric vehicles. He joins us from Nebraska. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Mr. BILL MOORE (Publisher, EVWorld.com): Well, thank you very much, Ira. I'm a big fan.

FLATOW: Well, thank you. How are electric vehicles holding up from the onslaught of the hybrid cars?

Mr. MOORE: Well, they're actually - the hybrid will - I mean, I think probably Chris will agree with this, it will, in the end, actually make, bring back a resurgence. And maybe the best - I like to describe it as a resurrection, you know?

Chris' movie sort of describes the untimely death, birth and death and I call it, you know, eventual resurrection of the electric vehicle, because the technology that the car makers are putting into these vehicles, what we're going to see is an increasing reliance on more and more electrical power and less and less on the gasoline power that'll drive the car.

FLATOW: Hm-hmm.

Mr. MOORE: So as they, as they're able to mass produce the electric drive motors, as they're able to mass produce the controllers, as they're able to mass produce the battery packs, all that eventually gets us closer and closer to a pure battery electric vehicle.

So I kind of see the, you know, the hybrid cars actually being a boon in the end to this transition.

FLATOW: Hm-hmm.

Mr. PAINE: Especially plug-in hybrids. That's really the next step, is so that...

Mr. MOORE: Absolutely.

Mr. PAINE: ...you can take these hybrid cars and plug them in.

FLATOW: Well, we were talking a while back with someone from CalCars Initiative. Are you familiar with them? They convert...

Mr. MOORE: Oh, sure. Yes. Helix.

FLATOW: ...your Prius to a plug-in car.

Mr. MOORE: Wonderful man.

FLATOW: Yes. I mean, so there are ways now that people are finding. And it seems like everything that has to do with energy in this country now is starting in the grass roots, you know?

Mr. MOORE: Yes. Exactly.

FLATOW: People are finding their ways to do this. But can you convert other cars to plug-in electric, Bill?

Mr. MOORE: Yes, it's a great question because the day after - actually, two days after I was out for the screening and got to, you know, got to meet Chris, and the following Monday I stopped at a high school just north of San Diego. And there are 40 people in this class being taught by a couple of instructors, one from the San Diego area and one from up in Turlock, who are teaching these 40 people, including - there was a woman there, a local teacher, how to convert a Volkswagen Cabriolet Rabbit into an electric drive.

And they're, you know, paying money to, you know, take this course. So yeah, that's something that, you know, is being done. People can do it. You know, you'd have to have a certain amount of, I think, you know, some technical expertise or at least have friends who are electricians and things.

But yes, that's a route that some people have gone. And in fact, it's guys like, you know, these people down in San Diego, the teachers and things, that have really sort of kept the electric hope alive.

FLATOW: Let's go to Gail in San Jose. Hi, Gail.

GAIL (Caller): Hi.

FLATOW: Hi there.

GAIL: I'm just really looking forward to seeing this movie. I love my electric car. I first had the Volks Rabbit that he just mentioned and then the Honda EV-Plus. I know I'm going to cry.

So to get prepared, I'm wondering what you learned about the Hondas. Did they crush all of the Honda EV-Pluses as well?

Mr. PAINE: Oh, gosh. Yeah. Yeah. There's a scene where they were, a lot of them were shredded. Just - I know. But, you know, it's a movie, hopefully entertaining. But yeah, it's really sad.

You know, if they hadn't dismantled those laws, the original law would have had up to a million cars in California by now, electric cars. And as it is, there's just a few hundred left.

GAIL: Everyone that ever rode with me in my car has just loved them. Thanks. I'm looking forward to seeing the movie.

Mr. PAINE: Good. Thanks.

FLATOW: All right, Gail. Thanks for calling.

GAIL: Thanks.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. I'll ask both of you, Bill and Chris, we're now seeing, yours is the second famous environmental movie that's come out. I'm thinking of Al Gore's, you know, Inconvenient Truth being the first one. Now this one.

Is there - it's a mood switch here, it seems to be going on.

Mr. MOORE: I think that there is a definite tipping point. In fact, I sort of described in a piece that I wrote recently for EVWorld is kind of the - you know, Vice President's film, An Inconvenient Truth, and Chris' film, Who Killed the Electric Car?, as sort of bookends to this subject, you know? We're going to see this onslaught of sort of movie blockbusters coming out this summer, but if you can only see two films, see those two films, because those are the films that are really addressing the important social issues that are impacting us right now.

But I think we really are sort of reaching a tipping point in peoples' attitude and their perspective on things. They know we, they know there has to be a change. We just can't keep going the direction we've been doing.

FLATOW: Chris, did you have to convince Sony Pictures to do this? Did it take a lot of convincing? I know their Classics Division does do small little movies like this.

Mr. PAINE: Yeah, no, they were terrific. They, I think, you know, a lot of people, like your audience perhaps, is, you know, gets a little disaffected with mainstream media. The stories aren't always there. In fact more and more, things sound like corporate press releases. And documentaries have stepped in and said, okay, well here's the long-form stories that the other media might have missed.

And when we showed the film to Sony in a very early stage they said, you know, gas prices are going up, people are concerned, they can see things changing, and information is power. Let's put this out there in the marketplace and see how it does.

FLATOW: Um-hmm. 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Carl in Detroit. Hi, Carl.

CARL (Caller): Hi. Chris, I was just calling to comment. I'm actually an engineer who works for a certain company, who's familiar with the EV1 but didn't actually work on that program. But you say that the technology was all affluent and what not, but I would just like to point out there's a reason that General Motors only offered the EV1s for sale in California, and specifically that reason was that the battery technology, ultimately, at the time and still currently, is very, very limited, and that in colder climates, the range could, on the full charge, could actually depreciate to less than 20 miles. So to say that, you know, it was the perfect solution, it was very limited relative to IC engines and their capabilities.

Mr. PAINE: Well, it's an excellent question, and I think Bill can speak to this a little bit. But I'll just say this, and, you know, the idea of any one car, whether it's an electric car or a gas car for the matter being the only car you can get in the marketplace is very limiting. And my real feeling at the end of having this amazing experience with my electric car was that, why are these not even an option in the marketplace? They might not work everywhere for every person, but this should definitely be part of the mix.

And as far as batteries go, you know, the average American drives 29 miles a day, and those lead-acid batteries, which were the first ones which you're absolutely right, in those cars could only take the EV1 for example, about 60 miles. Well it turns out, as a commuter car that could work for a lot of people. It certainly worked for me. And thanks to advances with nickel metal batteries that Stan Ovshinsky did, which are now the batteries that are in all the Priuses and hybrids, those cars can go 100 miles. So suddenly you have a much bigger potential market.

And when you start looking at lithium batteries, which are what we use in our laptops and our cell phones, ranges on electric cars go up from there. And Bill, you probably know more about his than me, what...

Mr. MOORE: Well, yeah, one of the - a couple of the issues we're facing with this particular thing is we've got - I see kind of two issues here. First of all, the technology question and the expectations question. You know, on the expectation side, we always sort of have this view that we, you know, that perfection is the enemy of the good here in that we all want this car that will operate in all weather, all conditions, go 500 miles on a two minute charge, and that's, I, we'd all like to have that. But in reality, when you get right down to it, as Chris pointed out, we only do 20 to 25, you know, maybe 30 miles on an average, a day.

Now of course there are the people that drive, you know, I spoke to one out in California there, he said, well, I drive 65 miles a day. That would be pressing the range of, you know, current lead-acid battery technology. But there's some really kind of exciting stuff, you know, coming over the horizon. And you know, and whether we're talking about using hydrogen in a fuel cell to, you know, to power the electric drive, or whether we're talking flywheels to, you know, act as a storage medium, and there's all kinds of things that we're looking at, but when you come right down to it, we were talking about these people converting their electric cars. There are people who live in Canada who have converted their cars, run on these lead-acid batteries, and have no problem driving around in the wintertime.

So you know, to say that this is the limiting factor, in effect, you know, really isn't. There are ways we can get around it. Yes, cold impacts the battery technology, but you know, the engineers and scientists are aware of all these issues and certainly are working that direction. So...

Mr. PAINE: And you know, what people don't really talk about, often enough I guess, this year its beginning to change, are the limitations of a gasoline powered car. I mean this really is impacting everything, you know, whether on a planetary level or just the places we live. So hopefully the information can get out there and we can get a real mix in the marketplace.

And the murder mystery that, you know, we put together was to kind of like get people fired up about these issues and get them turned on to some of the things going on.

FLATOW: How are...

CARL: (Unintelligible).

FLATOW: How are advance sales? Do you have any figures on advance sales for the car, for the movie? Or...

Mr. PAINE: Well, we had, you know, we just opened the day before yesterday in Los Angeles. And I went to a wonderful screening. Audiences are so fired up, and when I get to do a question and answer, it's amazing how much people know and how much people don't know. And I hope if this, you know, this thing catches fire from here and, you know, reaches other places in the country - not just as an electric car story, but as a story about what it's going to take to get us into the 21st century is the way I like to think about it, especially in respect to, like, use of foreign oil. I think we could do very well.

FLATOW: Um-hmm. I know Chrysler announced yesterday that they were finally going to import the Smart car from, which is a Mercedes car, I think, that you can get in Canada. And I know people who've driven up t Canada, got them modified and brought them back down here.

Mr. PAINE: Now that's a three-cylinder car, right? The...


Mr. PAINE: ...a gas car.


Mr. PAINE: Well, and GM announced...

FLATOW: So there's great interest in - yeah, go ahead.

Mr. PAINE: GM announced a plug-in hybrid concept car for the next show, for the next Detroit Auto Show last week. That's very helpful. But you know, a lot of times its laws that help big corporations do things, you know, seat belts and catalytic converters. And even, you know, getting gas mileage up from 24 to 12 miles per gallon are all the results of laws. And sometimes when you have big industry involved you need big laws to push industry down the right road. And I think that was one of the lessons I picked up from doing this story.

FLATOW: Um-hmm. 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Let's go to Danny in Tulsa. Hi, Danny.

DANNY (Caller): Hi, Ira. Thanks for taking my call.

FLATOW: Go ahead.

DANNY: I had a question for Mr. Paine, just in that, and he might address it in his movie, but it seems to me, I lived in San Francisco and I, like you, Ira, got to drive a EVP for a couple of days and absolutely fell in love with it. But it was limited to everybody. A lot of people already had them, and I just couldn't, I was on a list and just was never able to lease one.

Well, I drive a hybrid now, which I guess is the next best equivalent, but yet still, when the hybrids were just newly out, I was on a waiting list for almost, I think it was somewhere around 18 months...

FLATOW: Right.

DANNY: ...before I could possibly get it. And it just seems to me, now that I live in Tulsa, which is kind of the Bible Belt, if you will, that it seems that the whole nation, every time some new technology like this comes out that can really impact the environment in a positive way or help out with cost of living, cost of driving, it seems like it just, it gets thwarted by some mythical way.

And, what I wanted to know from Mr. Paine, and, was, do you really think that it has something to do with the all-powerful oil industry? I mean, do you think that they have so much power over politicians and administrations that it just makes the red tape and all the paperwork to have to go through just almost impossible for new companies and new ideas to be delivered to the public? And I'll take my answer offline.

FLATOW: Thank you. Thank you. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

Chris Paine? Do you think it's the big oil companies?

Mr. PAINE: Well...

FLATOW: That was one of your suspects in this, in this film.

Mr. PAINE: They certainly are. And, you know, these big industries are, it's in their vested interest to protect the way they make money. And they certainly went after the electric cars, you know. The movie sort of goes after the tactics that the oil industry, for example, went after, and then, you know, what the motives are.

And it's very frustrating when you see innovation that is thwarted, as your caller pointed out. I liked doing this story because it was such a perfect case study of what all these forces, the way government interacts with corporations, interacts with consumers and advertising, it's sort of all like, here it all it.

And, but the, our movie really ends hopeful, because the spirit of where the electric car came from is the spirit of American innovation. Like you know, the garage people at the schools that Bill was talking about. We can do this in our classrooms. We can demand corporations start to build the products we want and really push back. We don't just have to wait for, you know, colossal industry.

It's rather like the old Spanish Armada.

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. PAINE: It's like, they're not going to turn very quickly, but if we all demand that they do and start holding out for the products we want, I think we can make a difference.

FLATOW: Bill, give me an idea, in the few minutes we have, of some of the cutting edge electric cars that are in the works we might be seeing.

Mr. MOORE: Well, first of all, Chris mentioned the plug-in hybrids. That's really the most, I think, exciting and immediate thing that we're seeing here. You've got this grass roots initiative by several companies to expand the battery pack currently available in the Prius, which is sort of the initial target vehicle.

That'll give people the ability to operate, you know, 20 to 30 miles in electric only range, and that translates into 100 to 150 miles per gallon of, you know, gasoline equivalent. So that's a pretty exciting innovation. Essentially all they're doing there is just doing some hacking of the computer system in the car and adding some additional batteries in the form of either nickel metal hydride or lithium battery packs.

So that's the most exciting immediate thing. Then just over the horizon you've got Mitsubishi and both Subaru in Japan that have announced that they will have battery electric cars available for sale, presumably initially in Japan, starting around 2010. General Motors, an executive there, intimated to me on a trip recently to Iceland that they're reevaluating the electric car again. All of those, all the materials, I mean all of the jigs and things that went into the EV1 are still probably sitting in a warehouse somewhere.

Mr. PAINE: In Lansing.

Mr. MOORE: And you know, it wouldn't surprise me that they, you know, they might be able to bring those back out at some point, and reintroduce a car similar to that. And if they don't, that's fine. But there seems to be certainly an interest in...

Mr. PAINE: There's a private company too.

FLATOW: Go ahead. I've got about a minute, but go ahead, Chris.

Mr. PAINE: Oh, just, you know, there's a company called Tesla in the Bay Area that's coming out with a sports car...

Mr. MOORE: Absolutely.

Mr. PAINE: ...that's, like, zero to 60 in three and a half seconds, and goes 300 miles on lithium batteries. It's, you know, it's an expensive sports car, but its part of the change.

FLATOW: That's backed by the Google guys, right? Larry Page and Sergey Brin.

Mr. PAINE: Maybe, I don't know about their financing.

FLATOW: Yeah. Well, we've run - well, this is exciting, you know, electric cars and people don't realize the instant acceleration, you get an instant torque when you step on an electric car, you know, engine, and it's exciting to drive one. So maybe we'll get to see more of them.

I want to thank you both for taking time to be with me. Chris Paine, director of the new documentary, Who Killed the Electric Car?, out this weekend from Sony Pictures Classics. It's in New York and L.A. Chris?

Mr. PAINE: Hey, thanks Ira. Love your show.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Bill Moore, publisher of EV World.com, a Web site that focuses in on electric vehicles. Thank you for joining us today.

Mr. MOORE: Thank you very much.

FLATOW: Yeah, well have a good weekend to both of you.

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