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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Who Killed the Electric Car?

Air Date: Week of April 28, 2006

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As one documentary tells it, the story of the EV-1, General Motors’ all-electric car, is short and bittersweet. Host Steve Curwood talks with movie reviewer Dan Bree about the film “Who Killed the Electric Car,” and who done it.

Transcript

CURWOOD: There’s a documentary film making its way through the festivals this year, and its unlikely hero is winning audiences from Sundance to San Francisco. The film is called “Who Killed the Electric Car,” and the star is the EV-One, the smart little electric two-seater from GM that was designed to be totally gas and emission-free. But, as the title suggests, the story is not a happy one. In fact, it’s a bit of a murder mystery. And joining me to tell us whodunit is television producer Dan Bree, who reviewed the film for Grist Magazine. Dan, hello.

BREE: Hi, Steve.

CURWOOD: So Dan, give me a little setup here. Who are the cast of characters in this film?

BREE: Well, the cast of characters are everyone from the oil company executives to the American consumer to the environmental activists. Everyone who had a stake in a type of car being produced that can reduce pollution. You also have, of course, the car itself. The GM EV-1, which was formally introduced by the less-than-stellar name “Impact.” It’s small, it’s low-slung. It doesn’t look like your typical American car. It looks more like something you’d see on a European Autobahn. But you have all of its supporting cast of characters – the Toyota, Honda, and other electric cars that came out.

CURWOOD: Now, I don’t want you to give away the ending just yet, but tell me what happens in the story.

BREE: Well, the story is really about what happens when a technology comes out that threatens the status quo. And what GM did is they introduced a product that essentially made all of their previous products obsolete and irrelevant – and that is a car that does not need oil on which to run. So when this car comes out, of course you have a huge cadre of people on the American consumer side, the environmental side, who think to themselves, you know, great, this is the solution to all of our problems.

And then, meanwhile, back in corporate headquarters, the company’s realized that this very product that they’ve just introduced could spell the end to their industry. And so they basically set about trying to prevent its success.

CURWOOD: On the pollution point, I mean, yeah, the electric car doesn’t pollute out of a tailpipe, but someone’s got to make the electricity, and coal’s certainly a form of pollution.

BREE: Yes, that’s true. I think what the filmmakers try to make the point of is that single-source pollution – such as you find out a electric plant – is much easier to control and regulate than multi-source pollution, which is pollution that comes out of millions of tailpipes. So the electric car, despite the fact that it runs on electricity, really is much better at reducing our pollution use.

CURWOOD: What were some of the scenes in this film that really made, dare I say, an impact?

BREE: [LAUGHS] Well, some of the scenes that really gripped the audience at Sundance were the scenes in which you have people at the end realizing that this car may be actually taken away from them. They had been reclaimed by GM, and by the other companies who never really sold them. They only leased them with the specific intent, essentially, of being able to reclaim them when they wanted.

So you have these environmental activists and car activists – people who just love this car with a passion – sprinting around Los Angeles identifying parking lots where cars are sitting there in tens and twenties. And when they actually are attempting to take them away it’s very, very emotional. You have these stand-off scenes. It’s an emotional film. It’s a very emotional film.

CURWOOD: Okay, let’s cut to the chase here. Who is the culprit? Who ultimately killed the electric car?

BREE: Well, I don’t want to give away the ending, but let’s just say that there are a lot of suspects and all of them have some measure of guilt. I think that’s what the filmmakers are trying to say, is that the electric car was killed by a number of interests – a number of entrenched interests – and, in their estimation, by the collective apathy of the American consumer who was essentially interested in large cars that can do everything. Haul the kids around to school, drive 300 miles on ten tanks of gas, as it were. There’s a lot of people at fault here, a lot of people with guilt.

CURWOOD: Dan, is this the final swan song for the electric car? Or could this film, given the high gas prices we’ve seen recently, help bring the EV-1 or some other electric car back to life?

BREE: I think what this film is going to do is it will remind us that we have options. And I think what this may actually do is it may spur the development of alternate car companies who are smaller and who may say, hey, you know, there’s a lot of people who are interested in this and we can do a lot to protect the environment by producing these new types of cars.

CURWOOD: Dan Bree is a television producer in northern California. “Who Killed the Electric Car” will be showing at the Tribeca Film Festival starting May 2. Dan, thanks for taking this time today.

BREE: Thank you, Steve.

 

Links

“Who Killed the Electric Car?” website

 

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