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The Recent History Of The Automobile Industry – On Celluloid

June 8, 2007

If you haven’t seen the documentary Who Killed The Electric Car?, I highly recommend it. It takes as its starting point the life of General Motor’s EV1 electric car (right), but spins that life – much like today’s successful print biographies – into a short history of the automobile industry.

The car only “lived” from 1997 to about 2003, but its life brings together a number of salacious elements from politics, Big Oil, and the Big Three automakers. It’s clearly a biased documentary, but there are nevertheless compelling parts to its story.

On top of being a car biography, the story also follows a kind of juridical format. It works on building a tension about what “element” is to blame for the car’s demise (the elements are clear in the film’s Wikipedia entry). Here are the defendants: the consumers, batteries, oil companies, car companies, government, the California Air Resources Board, and the hydrogen fuel cell. I won’t give away the ending by telling you who the filmmakers see as guilty, but I will stand up for one of the defendants.

In even positing that consumers could be to blame, the film is meeting car companies on their ground. This does a disservice to the filmmaker’s message. For instance, as a relatively informed Midwesterner, I knew of the electric car’s existence and of California’s 10 percent mandate (to replace 10 percent of existing cars with those having zero emissions). But I was uninformed of the changes in battery technology which increased the car’s range. I was also unaware of the high levels of consumer satisfaction with the car.

To me, the whole electric car phenomenon was a fad that passed because the technology wasn’t up to par. These missing links represents a vast lack of information on my part. In sum, you can’t blame consumers if the car makers didn’t get the message out, or if the popular press didn’t follow up with positive information about the electric car endeavor. To tell you the truth, I was even unaware of two basic facts until viewing the documentary: (1) that the EV1 existed (as a model), and (2) that California had dropped its 10 percent initiative.

The story of the EV1 also gets a bit tedious, especially with regard to the stereotypical documentary-style protests of the jilted EV1 leasers, but the rest of the film is fantastic.

Aside from my two MINOR COMPLAINTS, I highly recommend this film. It’s worth one’s time if only for the recent history of the automobile industry. But there’s much more there.

My wife and I especially liked the parts about Stan and Iris Ovshinsky, a cute elderly couple interviewed about advanced battery technology. Mr. Ovshinsky is a Jewish American/Lithuanian inventor/engineer, according to his Wikipedia biography. Here’s a Time magazine bio as well.

Anyone else seen this? Any other thoughts on the movie from H&E readers? – TL


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One Comment
  1. Anonymous permalink

    Who Killed the Electric Car is a fantastic film! Everyone should see it.


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