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Who Killed the Electric Car: Documentary Analysis

The audience is the jury. Paine is the lawyer. The case: who killed the electric car? Suspects: the government, consumers, battery technology, oil companies, California Air and Resource Board (CARB) and the hydrogen fuel cell. Directed by Chris Paine, Who Killed the Electric Car? is a documentary about the demise of the electric car seen through the eyes of an electric car activist (previous GM EV1 owner) and current electric car driver (Toyota RAV4 EV).

As Chris Paine takes the readers through the trial of who killed the electric car, his main focus is on the reasons for the removal of the electric car, how our economy is suffering because of this removal and how the electric car is slowly gaining popularity again.

This film is targeted towards GM shareholders, those who are interested in electric vehicles, or have questions or concerns about global warming, dependence on foreign oil, air pollution or the environment, so Paine primarily focuses on the fate of General Motors’ EV1 electric car.

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The EV1’s were introduced to the California market in 1996 in response to California’s Zero Emissions Vehicle (ZEV) legislation. California was in a pollution crisis. The amount of smog in the air threatened public health. The California Air and Resource Board (CARB) targeted the source of the problem, auto exhaust. The ZEV legislation required two percent of vehicles sold in California to be emissions free by 1998 and ten percent of the cars sold in California to be emissions free by 2003. With this new legislation, the reemergence of the electric car, a vehicle that was once popular in the thirties, began.

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Before this legislation General Motors had previewed an electric car, the Impact. Because it had flaws such as a low maximum speed, and low mileage per charge, it wasn’t popular. In 1996, General Motors introduced the Impact prototype, the EV1. The EV1 electric car was a revolutionary vehicle requiring no gas, no oil changes, no mufflers, and rare brake maintenance. It was fast, reasonably priced, got seventy to eighty miles per charge and had an appealing style. If we had a product that was so desirable and worked so well why aren’t they around anymore?

Through interviews with GM Motor representatives, EV1 consumers (many of whom were celebrities), Alan Cocconi, the man responsible for building a prototype of a solar racer and helped create the EV1 vehicle, Chelsea Sexton, former General Motors EV1 electric vehicle program worker and advocate for clean and efficient transportation, engineers and technicians who led the development of modern electric vehicles, spokesmen for the automakers such as GM’s Dave Barthmuss, a vocal opponent of the film and the EV1, and prominent political figures such as Ralph Nader, and Frank Gaffney, truths about the extinction of the EV1 car were revealed.

The footage from the development, launch and marketing of the EV1 cars reveals all the different aspects that contributed to the extinction of this car. If a product is not openly advertised then consumers won’t know about it. The media strongly dictates what people should and shouldn’t buy. If a product is not heavily advertised consumers won’t know about it and it will have a hard time selling. This was one problem that the EV1 faced. But who’s really to blame? Paine takes the viewers through each suspect’s profile. He begins with the consumers.

Although consumers weren’t constantly reminded about the EV1 car there were enough on the road for people to know they were out there. Paine made consumers a suspect because many consumers had a lot of ambivalence towards the new technology of the EV1 electric car. The consumers were also unwilling to try something new and compromise for environmental matters. Although initially attracted to it’s style and cost, consumers were still skeptical about the EV1’s efficiency and speed. They were also skeptical about the features of the EV1.

Because the EV1 had fewer features than a regular gas vehicle, consumers thought that they should pay less. Consumers did not view these cars as products that would get them from one place to the other. People would rather have a car that they could show off, a car that defined who they were as a person, and a car that was an accessory that gave them status. Because of this mentality the consumer demand for EV1 electric cars was low. Car consumers were more focused on themselves and not worried about how California’s smog problem was affecting them, which makes them a guilty party in the case who killed the electric car.

In order to construct a reliable electric car, the batteries that make it run must be intact. The batteries in the EV1 cars, like in most electric cars, had limited range when they were first introduced to the public, which caused skepticism about the reliability of the cars. As battery technology advanced manufacturers began making batteries that lasted longer, making the electric cars more desirable to the consumer market. Because battery technology is slowly getting more advanced as new discoveries are made the battery is innocent in the case of who killed the electric car.

As of today people are still trying to come up with a battery that will run as long as a gas car. The next suspect on the list was oil companies. Oil is a valuable commodity and oil companies make a large profit marketing their oil to consumers. Since the U. S. dependence and demand on oil has been on a continual increase, California’s Zero Emissions Vehicle (ZEV) legislation posed a threat to oil companies because it was the oil producers who were responsible for fueling cars, and the fuel cars were the ones that produced smog, which threatened the health of California residents.

The emergence of the electric car posed a threat to the oil companies because it was a new, efficient way people could get around without paying large sums of money for gasoline. With the fear of losing business to a competing technology, the oil companies supported all efforts to get rid of the ZEV mandate which would stop car manufacturers from making electric cars. In addition to stopping the mandate, the oil companies bought patents to prevent modern batteries from being used in U. S. electric cars.

In their minds, it was too late for the emergence of an electric car because the damage to the environment was irreplaceable. The oil companies are guilty in this case. Along with oil companies, the car companies were also suspects. One would think that the car companies would condone the manufacture of electric cars because it would decrease the amount of money they would have to spend on auto parts for fuel cars, but they, along with oil companies, want to sabotage the electric car because it brought down their profits.

Through negative marketing, a sabotage of the EV1 product program, failure to produce cars to meet existing demand, and unfair business practices (leasing electric cars instead of selling them) the electric car became an undesirable commodity to the consumer market. When the ZEV mandate was repealed, General Motors repossessed every single EV1 car and destroyed them. Honda did the same. All the animosity that the car companies created against the electric car makes them a guilty party in the case. The government is another guilty party.

Although the federal government joined in the auto industry suit against California, they failed to act in the public interest to limit pollution and forced an increase of fuel in the economy. Their failure to act is based upon the fact that the oil companies and the government are closely linked and with the emergence of electric cars consumers would spend less money on oil, meaning that the government would no longer make a profit on oil. The California Air Resources Board (CARB), headed by Alan Lloyd, initially came up with the ZEV mandate.

With all the pressure from the industry sectors of our economy, they decided to repeal the ZEV mandate. After this, Lloyd became the new director of a new fuel cell institute, the hydrogen fuel cell, and an alternative fuel-efficient product with many flaws. Because CARB gave up it’s position and gave into industry demands, they are a guilty party. The hydrogen fuel cell was a new product by car companies. With this new cell a car can get up to one hundred to one hundred and ten miles.

Although this new fuel cell seemed promising it was very expensive, it cost one million dollars to buy one hydrogen vehicle, the fuel was expensive, competing technologies threatened its longevity and it wasn’t that reliable. Because this new product had many flaws and still posed a threat to the environment it is guilty. With gasoline prices approaching four dollars per gallon, fossil fuel shortages, unrest in oil producing regions around the globe and mainstream consumer adoption and the reemergence of the hybrid electric car (the Prius), this story couldn’t be more relevant or important.

The primary goal in making this movie is to educate and enlighten audiences with the story of the electric car, its place in history and in the larger story of our car culture and how it enables our continuing addiction to foreign oil. I think it had a profound effect on the audience. The part that shocked me the most was the fact that our government turned a blind eye to a vehicle that would increasingly help our society’s pollution problems, because they were afraid that they would lose business because of its efficiency.

In general I enjoyed this film because it clearly went through each factor that contributed to the demise of the electric car. However I think that it should have gone into more detail about how people can help fuel efficiency even if we don’t have electric cars. I wanted to see more solution and resolution or a beginning resolution to this problem. This would help because it could enlighten people about the other alternatives out there instead of leaving them with the sense that they cannot help the environment unless they have an electric car.

Overall, Chris Paine has crafted an important film with a strong message that not only calls to task the officials who terminated the Zero Emission Vehicle mandate, but all of the other accomplices. This documentary investigates the death and resurrection of the electric car, as well as the role of renewable energy and sustainable living in our country’s future. These are all issues that affect everyone from progressive liberals to the neo-conservative right.

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Who Killed the Electric Car: Documentary Analysis. (2017, Feb 10). Retrieved from

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