Arts and Entertainment your connection to The Boston Globe

The little car that could -- once

So you've just pulled away from the gas pump some $50 lighter and you're scanning the international headlines, despairing at the oil that seeps through every other news story, and you think: Wouldn't it be nice to have a car -- maybe a little electric runabout -- that frees you from the petroleum-junkie mainline?

In 1996, you could have leased one. It was called the EV1 , from General Motors, and the hundreds of Californians who drove them fell in love with the fervor only a human being can feel for a car.

Eight years later, GM took the cars back -- bucking protests in every case -- and had them crushed, shredded, and otherwise expunged from the earth. Toyota scrapped its similar RAV4 EV , citing poor sales. The auto industry has since concentrated its research efforts on hydrogen fuel cells, a technology that by common consensus is decades from drive-away reality. The little car that could -- right now -- was put down in its infancy.

Filmmaker Chris Paine wants to know: Who killed the electric car? The answer is like the solution to Agatha Christie's ``Murder on the Orient Express " -- just about everybody had a hand. As this fierce, deftly entertaining work of muckraking journalism shows, the EV1 rolled off the production line only because carmakers were forced to make it available. The minute they didn't have to, they pretended it had never existed.

The EV1 and automobiles like it had existed as concept cars for some years before the California Air Resources Board adopted the Zero Emissions Vehicle mandate in 1995, requiring that 10 percent of all new cars sold in the state be emissions-free by 2003 . Despite auto industry lobbying to repeal the mandate, General Motors made its electric car available to consumers the following year.

Those who signed the lease -- and Paine corrals Hollywood names on the order of Mel Gibson , Tom Hanks , actress Alexandra Paul , and ``thirtysomething" star Peter Horton to testify -- found themselves with a qualified dream car. The first wave of EV1s only ran up to 80 miles a charge, but second-generation cars featured an improved battery that took that figure up to 120. (Lithium-ion batteries, currently in development, goose it to as much as 300 miles a charge.)

But automakers had no reason to support the new cars -- with EV1s needing far fewer repairs, the multimillion-dollar parts industry would have languished -- and PR efforts were grudging and minimal. After a few years, the landscape changed. GM and other auto manufacturers sued to repeal the CARB mandate, with the Bush administration filing a friend of the court brief. The board's new chairman, Alan C. Lloyd , was a hydrogen fuel cell advocate who effectively gutted the 1995 rules. In 2004, GM (which had since bought the gas-guzzling Humvee from its initial owners) took back the EV1s, promising they would be used for educational and institutional purposes.

Unconvinced, Paine chartered a helicopter, flew over GM testing grounds in Arizona, and filmed dozens of the cars lying crushed like tin cans. EV1 lovers held a mock funeral and eventually staked out one last fleet in a Burbank GM lot. When the cars were removed for destruction, the protesters were arrested.

``Who Killed the Electric Car?" taps the pampered-Hollywood-celeb angle for color only; more compellingly, we hear from CARB and GM board members, electric-car scientists, oil industry gurus, alternate-fuel experts, the sweet old couple who developed the second-generation EV1 battery, members of the Carter, Reagan, and Clinton administrations, and Ralph Nader . The most passionate voice, though, may belong to Chelsea Sexton , a perky former EV1 salesperson who has become one of the foremost alternate-fuel activists and whose cheerleader ordinariness puts the urgency of the matter across better than Tom Hanks ever could.

``Goliath won the first round," someone says here, acknowledging that the landscape may be tipping yet again. Gas-electric hybrids are becoming more and more popular; the Iraq War and rising fuel prices are creating a sense of desperation that may yet translate into a culture-changing momentum. Or maybe not: Paine properly includes the oil-addicted American consumer in his lineup of the guilty. The only question his movie doesn't ask is ``What do you want your next car to run on?" That's up to you.

Ty Burr can be reached at

Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months
 Advanced search / Historic Archives