Documentary Review: Chris Paine’s Who Killed the Electric Car (2006)?

chelsea sexton who killed the electric car
After attending a mandatory course (to get my definitive Swiss drivers license) on how to drive ecologically and save a lot of fuel I was kind of confused. One of the instructors mentioned that the electric car isn’t actually as eco-friendly as you’d think. That was the first time I had heard someone say that. It seemed counter intuitive to what I thought to be true, so naturally being a film buff the logical reaction was to seek out a documentary that would discuss the issue in a more sensible and in-depth manner, so I decided to watch Chris Paine’s Who Killed the Electric Car? 

This is Chris Paine’s debut film, which he later followed up with a “sequel” Revenge of the Electric Car (2011). In Who Killed the Electric Car? Paine looks at the history of electric cars in the US. Did you know that there were electric vehicles driving around in the 1910s? Electric cars are hardly the new and hip thing most people would like you to believe, they’ve been around since the beginning of the automobile industry, but not unlike Betamax, they lost out to the combustion engine. Why did this happen? Especially after GM introduced a perfectly functional electric car in the 1990s, in the EV1.

Paine goes over the suspects, the people or groups of people who might be responsible for the death of the electric car. While I was more interested in hearing if the electric car is really the more ecological alternative, this documentary doesn’t really focus on that. It is briefly mentioned at the beginning that detractors of electric vehicle doubt that there are environmental advantages involved, namely because producing electric energy can be as polluting and there’s the whole battery issue as well. Paine is not interested in further looking into the issue, but almost takes for granted that electric cars are more efficient.

I was a bit disappointed that they didn’t research this in more detail, I am now convinced that the electric car is the best solution. As this documentary indirectly proves electric energy can be produced by renewable sources of energy like water, wind and sun. The research in car batteries for electric vehicles is so advanced in the meantime that they allow better runtime and improved lifespan. What I found weird is that at the end the filmmakers focus on hybrids. It’s not really clear why other than the fact that there aren’t many commercially viable options for electric cars at the time when the documentary was realized.

The documentary really focusses on the case of GM and the EV1. It’s amazing that a company like GM would even create an electric car, but then for “mysterious” reasons they pulled  it out of the market. Paine tries to find out the possible reasons for this happening. Before anyone says “conspiracy theories” I’d like to point out how precise and meticulous his research is in that regard. He interviews people who worked for GM at the time and specifically people who were involved in the EV1 program and commercialization.

From those interviews it’s more than apparent that the reasons the EV1s were taken out of the market don’t have anything to do with market research or lack of consumer demand. Car manufacturers would like you to believe that people aren’t ready for electric cars, because of the limited range. The truth is that there are only advantages to electric cars, especially today. Batteries have improved, they last longer and they recharge quicker. 90%-95% of people’s daily commutes can be easily done without even having to recharge. The problem is that car companies didn’t actually want to sell these cars.

GM created the EV1 to comply with the Californian legislation at the time, but then corporate interests and big oil took over. These cars were never really marketed to people. They never made an effort to make them appealing. I’ll spare you the details, but it’s quite upsetting, especially because Americans would benefit from less oil consumption: More independence from middle eastern countries, cleaner air and greater competitiveness with Japanese car manufacturers like Toyota or Honda. Electric cars may cost more (right now), because of limited production, but there are less maintenance costs and aren’t subject to unstable oil prices.

What I liked about the documentary is that it ends on a hopeful note for the future. People like Chelsea Sexton (in the picture above) who are willing to fight for what they believe are truly inspiring. I like that Paine interviewed some actors, like Mel Gibson, who used to drive EV1s. I liked that he didn’t slam republicans, but showed how there are people working for the environment on both sides of the political spectrum. The film also feels distinctly American and patriotic, which is though to explain, but it’s a smart choice to adopt this tone, to appeal to people who maybe think that only hippies would drive an electric vehicle.

Even though this documentary is now 8 years old, I found it still very current and useful. I don’t own a car yet, but when I’ll have enough money to be able to purchase one of course I’ll look into the more efficient and environmentally friendly options (not compromising on design, of course). Like the people in this documentary I dream of a future where everyone drives zero-emission vehicles powered by electricity produced by renewable energy sources. I don’t know how long that’s going to take, but oil won’t last forever and the electric vehicles are currently the best solution for everybody in the long run.

8 out of 10


  1. Alina (literaryvittles)

    Whaaaaat? Electric cars have been around since 1910? And General Motors made an electric vehicle in the 1990s?! This is news to me as an American. Just goes to show that big oil is dangerously effective with their marketing.

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