Conspiracy theories abound in EV1 flick
Mark Rechtin is Los Angeles bureau chief for Automotive News.
This has led to some unknowns producing brilliant independent films. But it also has allowed those with an agenda to create propaganda posing as documentaries.
Such is the case with "Who Killed The Electric Car?" It's a film rife with political posturing, unsubstantiated allegations and flat-out errors.
Don't get me wrong. The public needs to learn that massive consumption of fossil fuels is dangerous. We rely on unstable Middle East nations to sustain our economy. And burning oil contributes to global warming.
However, "Who Killed The Electric Car?" is a ham-fisted effort that ignores the realities of the free market. Instead, it rests on half-baked left-wing conspiracy theories.
The film castigates automakers, oil companies, the federal government, the California Air Resources Board and even the American consumer as part of a gigantic plot that spelled the demise of the electric car. Of course, targeting General Motors and Big Oil sells a lot more movie tickets than the more basic idea that consumers knew that electric vehicles were not ready for prime time.
Bad batteries acquitted
Amazingly, the only "suspect" in the movie that is acquitted is the battery technology, although battery shortcomings kept electric vehicles from being market-ready. But that's far from the only departure from reality that the film takes.
"Killed" portrays a list of 4,000 hand-raisers -- consumers who want more information -- as a groundswell of demand for the GM EV1. But hand-raisers are not buyers. Typically, 4,000 hand-raisers equal about 50 purchasers.
Auto executives would break their momma's legs for advocates like the EV1 fans in the movie. But were GM's 800 EV1 buyers really worth a $1 billion investment?
Simply put, American consumers voted with their wallets against electric vehicles. Consumers had serious problems with a two-seat vehicle that could drive for only 80 miles before it had to be recharged for four hours. When a car isn't profitable, it gets the ax, no matter how good (or not) it is. GM would probably kill the Corvette if it only sold 800 units.
The filmmakers also miss the economic truths of electric vehicles. Toyota's RAV4 EV cost more than $100,000 each to build, far more than its $30,000 sticker price after incentives. The cost of its $32,000 battery pack isn't scalable by volume. Who is going to make up the $70,000 difference?
The filmmakers gloss over those facts. Instead, they make the leap that consumers would have bought the EV1 in droves, if only GM and Big Oil hadn't intimidated California regulators into spiking their electric-vehicle mandate.
Several interviewees allege GM didn't try hard enough to market the EV1. Yet GM's outstanding ad campaign, where appliances crowd around the car as it purrs down the street, is barely given notice by the filmmakers.
GM spokesman Dave Barthmuss, Ford engineering guru John Wallace and Toyota EV manager Bill Reinert make occasional appearances to try to stanch the bleeding. But they are merely straw men countered by the likes of starry-eyed EV1 sales consultant Chelsea Sexton, recalcitrant former GM executives and celebrities Mel Gibson and Phyllis Diller.
The film rightly decries Americans' appalling choice of hulking SUVs as personal transportation. But it also pays scant notice to the recent success of hybrid cars. It mocks the potential for fuel cells. It is as if electric cars are the only true path to vehicular enlightenment.
"Killed" also is riddled with blatant misrepresentations and manipulations. A panorama of the polluted Los Angeles harbor skyline is referred to as "the black cloud of death" by a local politician. But those emissions are diesel particulates that come from ships and 18-wheeler trucks, not from cars.
Also, an ominous bass line thrums in the background whenever the Bush White House or Big Oil is mentioned, a cynical emotional ploy.
"Killed" vilifies GM for recalling its EV1 fleet. But it conveniently omits that Toyota sold or leased more RAV4 EVs than GM built of its EV1 -- and that those Toyotas remain in customers' hands today.
Not that "Killed" is without credible zingers. It trumpets a confidential 1995 document from the American Automobile Manufacturers Association seeking a PR agency to combat "growing acceptance of electric vehicles."
The movie notes that electric vehicles received a maximum $4,000 federal tax credit in 2002 but that some big SUVs, vans and pickups were deductible up to $100,000 as a business expense in 2003.
And there is the disquieting coincidence that the month after GM bought the Hummer brand from AM General Corp., GM canceled the EV1 program.
But "Killed" plays way too loose with the facts. The death of the EV1 is the stuff of MBA dissertations on why the free market chose not to embrace electric cars in volume sufficient to warrant mass production.
This movie should leave the conspiracy theories to those who ponder what really happened to John F. Kennedy in Dallas that afternoon in 1963.
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