I finally saw Who Killed the Electric Car?, my sight-unseen choice for Best Documentary of 2006. It was actually better than I expected. I thought, like too many documentaries these days, it would have its share of one-sided conspiracy theories. Sure, it does have David Freeman (an energy advisor for the Carter Administration) spitting out soundbites like the spin machine he is, but otherwise, I think the movie did a fair job examining what happened to California’s EV-1 program of the mid- to late-1990s. It comes up with a variety of causes, including consumers who didn’t want a car that would only go 60 miles (or less) before sputtering out; at cowardly California beaurocrats; and most of all, the car companies, like GM and Ford, who were half-hearted in the first place building a car under a California mandate.
That GM and Ford would ditch a forward-thinking technology to stick with what they’d always done was no suprise. That’s the classic failing of big, entrenched companies. Why, just look at the music companies, who’ve fought tooth and nail to keep music buyers paying for overpriced physical media. When all the poseurs in 1995 were buying SUVs, the car companies couldn’t imagine there would ever be enough California hippies in the world to make electric cars profitable. Fair enough, but GM wouldn’t even let the most enthusiastic EV-1 drivers, who offered GM $24,000 apiece for the 79 confiscated, but still operational, EV-1 cars, buy them. Instead, they were shredded. I hate waste, and I think for less than a $1,000,000, you could have gotten some corporate lawyer to draw up an ironclad liaibility waiver and given the hippies their funky cars back.
Well, we all know why the movie is interesting now, in a way it wouldn’t have been in 2000. Ford had its worst loss ever in 2006–$5.8 billion, and GM didn’t do much better with a $2 billion loss. Meanwhile, Toyota, almost exclusively thanks to its hybrid cars, had record earnings of $12.35 billion in 2006. At Ford and GM, there has got to be at least one executive with enough of a clue to wish they’d hung on to the machinery for those electric cars for just a few more years.
What I liked best in the end was that the movie ended in a positive way. As the numbers above prove, the car companies have gotten their comeuppance for their entrenched thinking. GM recently announced plans for its own hybrid (in 2010) and on the far horizon, plug-in hybrids will reduce future cars’ gasoline consumption and emissions even more. And all-electric cars are yet available. Some parents at my sons’ school have one, though it looks more like a golf cart than a car; and the Tesla Roadster, a fast, stylish electric sports car, completely sold out its 2007 models, even though they cost more than $92,000 each.
As they movie mentioned a few times, electric cars have existed on the fringes of the automotive industry since its infancy. But I think, at last, the right time for the electric car has come.