The Movie Binge

Review: Who Killed The Electric Car?

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While it's a zippy and pleasant film to watch, there's also an infuriating smugness to Who Killed The Electric Car? that's rather difficult to ignore. During the sequences in which the electric car in question (specifically, the General Motors Saturn EV-1; other contemporaneous models are mentioned, but given less focus) is introduced to the audience, there's an undeniable thrill as the camera lingers on its remarkable design and its admirable speed (the speedometer, shooting above 70 and 80 mph with mythbusting frequency, is pointedly placed front and center during many of the action shots), and you really do find yourself thinking "Why did I never get a chance to buy this car?" But like any ideological documentary, the film has a point to make, and there's a lot of information that needs to be kept out of the shot to get there. While the film is basically open about the car's limited geographic range (somewhere between 80 and 120 miles on a single charge; various experts spout inconsistent numbers throughout the film that are never backgrounded against any kind of authoritative data), justifiably pointing out the fact that such a range is more than sufficient for the majority of drivers, other crucial details are glossed over entirely. A brief mention of recurring battery-failure problems in the initial release of EV-1s is brushed aside with the claim that GM could have used better batteries if it had wanted to, rather than pausing for any discussion of what was actually happening inside those batteries and whether or not those failures were rooted in design or manufacturing; and a sequence about the limited mechanical service needs of the EV-1 castigates "the automobile industry" for overreliance on the profit chain of spare-parts manufacture, while glibly ignoring the fact that an entire service economy that employs thousands would collapse if such cars became widespread.

Of course, that's not necessarily a bad thing in the long run if a better alternative is legitimately available, but the film's relentless boosterism has no time for serious analysis of just what the wholesale adoption of the electric car really would have meant for the auto industry and the culture at large, beyond "cleaner air" and a sense that those fat-cats in Detroit really deserve to have it stuck to 'em. If one takes a moment to think about what a seismic shift the truly ubiquitous electric automobile would cause not only in the automobile industry, but in the entire world economy, then it's hardly surprising that GM and the oil industry worked so hard, if so short-sightedly, to kill it! The film is certainly convincing in showing the methods that GM used to sabotage the adoption of its own product, and the filmmakers and activists portrayed are entirely right to be perturbed by the crippling of a clearly important technological innovation, but the smarmy tone that both adopt is off-putting not only to their adversaries but to a thinking audience as well. A little less righteous indignation and a little more serious analysis would have done the film a world of good, as it has successfully identified what could have been a watershed in the history of Western industry and American politics, but the filmmakers' heavy hands fumbled the delicate work of fully exposing the issue in order to conjure up an ostensibly charming David-vs.-Goliath narrative. The one exception, which keeps the film's second half from slipping entirely into empty posturing, is a smart and substantive explanation of why hydrogen fuel cell technology is a non-starter in the automotive industry's attempts to grab environmental credibility. More time spent addressing issues like that would've made for a much stronger documentary, but I guess all of us angry liberals like our rabble-rousing a bit too much to take the time...

Comments

I can tell you never watched the "Special Features" on the DVD.

The batteries did die on the first gen EV's, because of poor engineering. If they had monitored the battery temperature while charging those problems would have never happened.

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