This week, NOW talks to director Chris Paine about his upcoming documentary "Who Killed the Electric Car?" The film looks at the hopeful birth and untimely death of the electric car, an environmentally-friendly, cost-saving salvation to some, but a profit barrier to others.
In a film that has all the elements of a murder mystery, Paine points the finger at car companies, the oil industry, bad ad campaigns, consumer wariness, and a lack of commitment from the U.S. government.
"[The film] is about why the only kind of cars that we can drive run on oil. And for a while there was a terrific alternative, a pure electric car," Paine said.
In 1996, General Motors (G.M.) launched the first modern-day commercially available electric car, the EV1. The car required no fuel and could be plugged in for recharging at home and at a number of so-called battery parks.
Many of the people who leased the car, including a number of celebrities, said the car drove like a dream.
"...the EV1 was a high performer. It could do a U-turn on a dime; it was incredibly quiet and smooth. And it was fast. I could beat any Porsche off the line at a stoplight. I loved it," Actress, Alexandra Paul told NOW.
fter California regulators saw G.M.s electric car in the late 1980s, they launched a zero-emissions vehicle program in 1990 to clean up the state's smoggy skies.
Under the program, two percent of all new cars sold had to be electric by 1998 and 10 percent by 2003.
But it was not to be. A little over 1,000 EV1s were produced by G.M. before the company pulled the plug on the project in 2002 due to insufficient demand. Other major car makers also ceased production of their electric vehicles.
In the wake of a legal challenge from G.M. and DaimlerChrysler, California amended its regulations and abandoned its goals. Shortly thereafter, automakers began reclaiming and dismantling their electrics as they came off lease.
The following is an extract of the time line located here.
Congress introduces the earliest bills recommending use of electric vehicles as a means of reducing air pollution. A Gallup poll indicates that 33 million Americans are interested in electric vehicles.
Victor Wouk, the "Godfather of the Hybrid," builds the first full-powered, full-size hybrid vehicle out of a 1972 Buick Skylark provided by General Motors (G.M.) for the 1970 Federal Clean Car Incentive Program. The Environmental Protection Association later kills the program in 1976.
Congress passes the Electric and Hybrid Vehicle Research, Development, and Demonstration Act. The law is intended to spur the development of new technologies including improved batteries, motors, and other hybrid-electric components.
Roger Smith, CEO of G.M. , agrees to fund research efforts to build a practical consumer electric car. G.M. teams up with California's AeroVironment to design what would become the EV1, which one employee called "the world's most efficient production vehicle." Some electric vehicle enthusiasts have speculated that the EV1 was never undertaken as a serious commercial venture by the large automaker.
California passes its Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) Mandate, which requires two percent of the state's vehicles to have no emissions by 1998 and 10 percent by 2003. The law is repeatedly weakened over the next decade to reduce the number of pure ZEVs it requires.
Toyota unveils the Prius -- the world's first commercially mass-produced and marketed hybrid car -- in Japan. Nearly 18,000 units are sold during the first production year.
1997 - 2000
A few thousand all-electric cars (such as Honda's EV Plus, G.M.'s EV1, Ford's Ranger pickup EV, Nissan's Altra EV, Chevy's S-10 EV, and Toyota's RAV4 EV) are produced by big car manufacturers, but most of them are available for lease only. All of the major automakers' advanced all-electric production programs will be discontinued by the early 2000s.
G.M. and DaimlerChrysler sue the California Air Resources Board (CARB) to repeal the ZEV mandate first passed in 1990. The Bush Administration joins that suit.
G.M. announces that it will not renew leases on its EV1 cars saying it can no longer supply parts to repair the vehicles and that it plans to reclaim the cars by the end of 2004.
The transcript for the PBS NOW show is located here. You can buy the DVD of the documentary here.