|April 7, 2006
Who Killed the Electric Car?
Although I don’t recall hearing the word capitalism mentioned once in “Who Killed the Electric Car?”, it is hard to imagine a recent documentary that makes the case against this irrational system as well. Like the documentary “Mondovino” that makes the case against monopoly capital by examining the wine industry–something not usually associated with multinational depredation–”Who Killed the Electric Car?” deals with a seemingly innocuous case study. Why should anybody care that General Motors produced an electric car in the early 90’s and then decided to cease production? It is to the credit of director Chris Paine to not only explain why we should care, but to provide a concrete example of why the capitalist system is so inimical to the long term interests of humanity.
Using the investigative journalist techniques of a television show like PBS’s “Frontline” (producer Jessie Deeter is a veteran of the show), as well as its somewhat prosaic style, the film interviews a range of transportation experts as well as people who owned the GM EV-1. Among the first group is Ralph Nader, who is as eloquent as ever. The second group includes director Chris Paine, who owned an EV-1 and has never gotten over what amount to a GM seizure of his leased car.
From their testimony, one is left with the inescapable conclusion that the automobile industry in the USA is subject to irreconcilable contradictions between the industry’s drive for profit and the ordinary citizen’s need to enjoy clean air and to get from point a to point b efficiently. Furthermore, although the film does not explicitly deal with the current crisis of the automobile industry, it certainly suggests that it was inevitable.
In 1992 the California legislature passed a stringent new law based on recommendations from the California Air Resources Board (CARB). By 1998, 2 percent of all new cars sold would have to be pollution-free, which translated to electric vehicles. The percentage would then increase year by year. Although the percentage might seem small, it involved a major cost for the manufacturers since a sizable investment would have to be made for the startup manufacturing facilities whatever the number of cars sold.
Behind these regulations was an understanding that California air was becoming unbreathable. When University of California scientists did postmortems on 100 seemingly healthy young accident victims, they found that 80 percent had serious lung abnormalities and 27 percent had severe lung lesions.
There was not only the immediate threat to one’s lungs; there was also the overarching problem of global warming that had to be addressed. With its vast quantity of internal combustion engine-based transportation, California was a major contributor of greenhouse gases.
Despite its reputation as being technologically backwards, General Motors began producing what everybody, and most especially its owners, regarded as one of the greatest cars ever. The EV-1, which was sold through Saturn dealerships, was both beautiful and fast. Fully charged, it could go 60 miles. For the average urban driver, this was more than adequate. It was also trouble-free. When a battery is the source of power, you don’t have to worry about changing oil filters, let alone spend money on tune-ups or replacing engine parts. In an interview, an auto mechanic who had worked on EV-1’s says that his hands never got dirty.
In essence, this benefit to drivers was exactly what sealed the doom of the EV-1. It turns out that much of General Motors’s profits were derived from the sale of such parts through its Delphi division. After selling a car, there would be a steady stream of revenue as the hapless driver would be forced to spend thousands of dollars on tune-ups and spare parts.
General Motors was not the only corporation that felt threatened by the electric car. The oil companies soon became partners in a conspiracy (yes, the word does apply here) to abort the EV-1. Using their influence on the California Air Resources Board, whose chairman James D. Boyd was on the payroll of a Hydrogen car R&D firm–a competing but ineffective technology–they were able to succeed in having the clean air regulations enacted 4 years earlier scrapped. Boyd’s wife Catherine Reheis-Boyd, was chief of staff for the Western States Petroleum Association and the industry’s registered lobbyist in Sacramento. Although the film does not make the charge, I have no problem doing so: it is safe to assume that Boyd was chosen for the job of running CARB in the same way that George W. Bush puts people in charge of agencies. They must pass the test of knowing where their master’s class interests lie.
Even after the EV-1 met with huge enthusiasm by purchasers early on, GM refused to market the car effectively. It was basically an orphan commodity. Despite this, a kind of subculture grew up around the car that included a number of Hollywood personalities, from Mel Gibson on the right to Tom Hanks on the liberal left. But the real activism to keep the car alive came from ordinary people who believed in the car and whose beliefs can be found on the EV-1 Club’s website: http://ev1-club.power.net/.
The film makes a couple of political mistakes that should not detract from its overall value. It tends to overestimate the Carter administration’s (and by implication Democrats in general) to clean air and the environment. The film relies heavily on interviews with a Carter EPA official, who blames Bush and the oil companies for the death of the electric car. If anything has become clear, it is that the commitment of politicians such as Carter and Gore to “Green” values is mostly verbal.
Finally, the film depicts consumers as being culprits along with GM and the oil companies. By not understanding that electric cars were a better choice than the SUV’s they seem to have an almost sexual attraction to, they amount to “Red State” fools in the Thomas Frank mold. One wonders if the otherwise perceptive film-makers spend much time watching television. During an hour or so of primetime, one is bombarded with ads for SUV’s, including GM’s Hummer which in an unintended irony is depicted as the offspring of a Godzilla-like monster and a giant robot.
“Who Killed the Electric Car” is scheduled for theatrical release later this year and is a must for anybody with a morbid fascination with the irresolvable contradictions of the capitalist system.