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Movie Plumbs the Demise of the Electric Car

In 1996, General Motors rolled out its groundbreaking EV-1 electric cars, and customers such as filmmaker Chris Paine began leasing them. But by 2003, the cars were being recalled and most were ultimately demolished. Paine's new film, Who Killed the Electric Car?, examines the factors at play.

The film accuses GM of not supporting the EV-1, not making enough of them, not marketing them and in fact, not actually selling them. (Because the cars were considered experimental, GM would only offer the cars for leasing.)

GM was not the only company developing EVs at the time. Toyota, Ford and other manufacturers began offering the cars in response to California's Zero Emissions Vehicle (ZEV) Mandate, a 1990 measure that required car companies to sell a certain percentage of zero emissions vehicles in the state.

GM denies that it did not want the EV-1 to succeed, pointing to its billion-dollar investment in the program and claiming that consumer interest in the car was too low. In 2002, GM and several other car companies sued to get California's ZEV mandate repealed. The following year, California's Air Resources Board relaxed the mandate's requirements. When the leases on EV-1s ran out, GM recalled the cars.

Other "suspects" in the movie's murder-mystery theme include oil companies, the federal government and consumers themselves. Though the extent of the demand for electric cars and the car industry's role in their failure is debatable, the movie points out that car buyers still failed to embrace an alternative to the gasoline status quo.

Who Killed the Electric Car? opens in New York and Los Angeles this week, and begins screening in theaters around the country next week.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Iris Mann