Well, it's no Snakes on a Plane, but Who Killed the Electric Car? has to be one of the more provocative movie titles of recent years. You may not have realized that the electric car, which has patiently waited its turn while the world's fossil fuels dwindled away, finally went for a test run in the late '90s and early '00s, when first GM, then other auto manufacturers had to come up with ways to comply with California's new zero-emissions policy. And you may not have realized that the electric car, having suddenly sprung to life, just as suddenly perished. Some thought it died of natural causes. Others suspected foul play. And director Chris Paine, who drove one from 1997 to 2003, decided to solve the mystery, find the culprit.
What he's come back with feels less like a murder mystery than like a court indictment, the evidence arranged so as to lead us to the inevitable conclusion that the electric car was murdered in its sleep. GM, having spent a billion dollars developing the EV1, which left those fortunate enough to drive it hoarse from singing its praises, not only stopped making them, it tracked down the ones it had already made, canceled their leases, hauled them off to the Arizona desert, crushed them, then shredded them for scrap metal. There's hardly a need for a smoking gun when the murder's being committed right before your eyes, but Paine has a Perry Mason revelation to share with us. Or is it an Oliver Stone revelation? Conspiracy or not, GM didn't act alone.
Apparently, it got help from the oil companies, which have trouble imagining a world that doesn't run on gas. And then there's that subsidiary of the oil companies, the federal government. (Paine shows President Bush putting in a plug for the hydrogen-fuel cell, a technology whose commercial viability is always safely off in the future somewhere.) Another accessory to the crime: the California Air Resources Board, which rescinded its zero-emissions policy soon after Alan Lloyd, a proponent of ' what else? ' the hydrogen-fuel cell, took over as chairman. And listed as unindicted co-conspirators: you and me. Yes, it seems that We the People, in Order to form a more perfect Union, chose to tool around in Hummers instead of glorified golf carts.
Or did we? Much of Paine's argument, not to mention GM's counter-argument, depends on 1) how much demand there was for the EV1 and 2) how hard GM worked to increase that demand. One thing's for sure: Those who managed to get their hands on one had to have their cold, dead fingers pried away from the steering wheel. Many of them were celebrities, including Tom Hanks and Mel Gibson. (Yes, he appears to have been drinking.) And the documentary doesn't make a convincing case that the car, for all its charms ' fast, slickly designed, fun to drive, quiet as a sailboat ' had much appeal beyond the Birkenstock crowd. Then again, GM didn't exactly mount an ad campaign that might leave the internal-combustion engine in the dust.
Kermit the Frog said it best: It ain't easy being green. But toward the end of the documentary, Paine suggests that maybe it's about to get easier. Gas prices, global warming, the war in Iraq ' all are connected by the oil pipelines that serve as the West's circulatory system. And that we can't possibly continue to treat oil as our very lifeblood is what Al Gore would call An Inconvenient Truth. For various reasons, most of them having nothing to do with commercial viability, electric cars have been ahead of their time for the last 100 years. But their time may have finally arrived, if the sales of hybrids are any indication. I rode in a Prius once. It was so quiet I kept thinking it had shut itself off. Some would say that's the sound of the planet being saved, one car at a time.