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Who Killed the Electric Car

Who Killed the Electric Car (Chris Paine)

The world is turning more green by the day as consumers not only become more aware of what corporate America is up to, but realize that we hold a lot more power than we’re willing to wield. A group of consumers and concerned citizens, including a Hollywood director and a former EV1 Sales Specialist at General Motors (G.M.), made their voices known, both in front of and behind the camera.


The documentaries “An Inconvenient Truth” and most recently, “Who Killed the Electric Car?” have replaced the summertime reading beneath a tree, mainly because it would be nice to be sitting underneath that tree 20 or 30 years from now.

Director Chris Paine started off as the proud owner of G.M.’s electric car, the EV1. It was quiet, used no gas, so there was no muss, no fuss, when it came to maintenance. This secondary car became his primary car, because most of his daily driving fell under the 40 mile mark. But then he was asked to return it, as most EV1 users were. And no, he could not extend the lease. And if he didn’t return it, he would go to jail as if he has stolen it.

When this happened to all the other EV1 owners, that’s when the advocacy for electric cars ignited.

Paine saw the story unfolding but “no one was had ever put the pieces of the puzzle together.” Why had car makers invested billions of dollars only to pull the cars off the road and send them to scrap metal cemetery? He found out, and assembled this documentary to educate America, since the media, who’s decision to skew or neglect to distribute the facts (something Dan Rather may have experience with), fell short of telling such a powerful tale.

Delving into the series of events presented in the film, we learn that the car was designed too well for the comfort of an American car company, how its efficiency could keep us from spending money on parts and labor for combustion, fuel driven engines, how the oil companies had their thumb on legislation in California, and of course, how the current Bush administration got the federal government involved to add even more pressure to eliminate mandates for electric cars.

Chelsea Sexton appears in the film as a former EV1 sales specialist at G.M., who turned advocate for the vehicle once she was laid off in 2001 after seeing her precious car and the fruits of all her team’s labor crushed. Her involvement went on to leading protests outside her former place of business, and when the war was lost, her efforts continued on in other grassroots organizations, including Plug-in America. This organization is pushing to have the mandates returned to all states, to educate consumers on their gas efficient auto choices, and push car makers to support a “plug-in hybrid,” which would have double the battery capacity as a Prius, but the key for usability is you can re-charge it from a household electrical outlet. And, if needed, distance trips can be done via the back up gasoline engine.

During their tour through Denver, Kaffeine Buzz grabbed them for a few minutes to talk about the film and it’s potential impact on the growing movement to change corporate business and government practices, which we hope can not only get us away from foreign oil, but save our increasingly polluted earth.

Kaffeine Buzz: Every time a documentary comes out that’s this strong, like “An Inconvenient Truth,” where the facts are all laid out in front of you as in your movie, where it’s boom, boom, boom, you cant’ help but again wonder about the press, the media who is supposed to be reporting the facts. Why is it that documentaries seem to be, more and more, the way we really learn about what’s going on in our world and what is affecting our everyday lives?

Chelsea Sexton: That’s kind of the reason Chris made the film: he couldn’t get the media to cover the story in the first place. And if you look at the percentage of ads the auto industry buys, it’s not that far of a leap to understand why, at least as a factor. It’s discouraging. (Looking at Chris) You just went on CNBC for the film and had an interesting experience.

CP: With the CIA Director, Jim Woolsey, he’s not an environmentalist…

CS: Yea he is.

CP: He is? I didn’t know that.

CS: Yes, [he uses] solar panels on his house and everything.

CP: But his perception comes from one of national security about oil dependence. So we were on CNBC together and while we were on the show talking, you know those graphics they run at the bottom that look like a ticker? It would say things like “Electric cars take eight hours to charge,” and “Electric cars go a maximum of 70 miles. Consumers didn’t want them.” When it’s presented as a graphic, it’s perceived by the audience as fact. And basically all it was, was GM’s spin on this story, the same spin since the day I got my car in 1997.

CS: What’s interesting is, since the premise of the film is that, perhaps the car companies and the industries are disingenuous in their marketing, but then to have a news agency repeat it without question?

KB: Do you think it’s lazy journalism where they just want to be fed the information or is it again related to their corporate business structure?

CP: Well, I think there’s a lot of pressure. For example, in the L.A. Times, G.M. axed a $25 million dollar advertising budget after, well really, the first article finally covered the electric car vigil that Chelsea was running. What they said was their reason was, one of their [automotive] reviewers said something like, “G.M. executives should be taken to the mat for the new Pontiac car.” They axed that budget. Now if you look at how much money that is and what they’ve done to a major daily paper, it’s like next time they have to do a car review, they’re going, “Well…”

CS: They probably won’t write a bad car review. And it wasn’t even that bad. They gave it a less than stellar review.

KB: Chelsea, I wanted to ask you personally about silencing information. I know that large corporations of that level and of course the government have different methods and ways of keeping people quiet. What kind of pressure did you receive from having been a former employee of G.M. and then being a supporter and advocate of the electric car after you were laid off?

CS: Well, when we were first laid off we got all kinds of lectures, “You have to change your phone number. You have to change your email. You’re not allowed to talk to the EV-1 drivers. WE OWN THEM. I bet they loved to hear that. And it was all ‘cause of that stuff. And of course they asked us to sign initial agreements, and the first one they asked me to sign when I left was, “You can’t ever talk about having worked on this project.” You’ve got to be kidding me. From a professional standpoint alone, this is not only the vast majority of my career, but it was literally a third of my life and they’re asking me not to put it on my resume and to not do anything beyond that one resume line. We eventually got that watered down a bit but I had to hire my own lawyer and fight that just to be able to go on with my career. I’m sure they’ve not been fans of this [movie] since then, but I think they realized the reality of their situation as well in terms of really trying to come after me. It looks like – big auto company goes after young mom – but then I have had a few threats here and there. At the same time, you have to take your hits for whatever you’re going to believe in. There’s no other way. I don’t scare easily.

KB: Good for you! Thank God you have that attitude. I wanted to ask next about the State of California and what took place under the noses of residents at that time, including me, and what the Bush administration is doing with hydrogen, which seems to still be tied to the oil companies and doesn’t seem to be economically viable. Do you think this is just a ploy to placate citizens and have them thinking that the government is actually trying to find fuel alternatives?

CS: Every administration has its own technological darling. And hydrogen is this administration’s darling. It’s so far out that it’s nothing that’s an immediate threat to anybody. After the expense of it, if it ever does happen, it would need to fit in the current oil industry paradigm, and figure out the transport and storage, and then the need for refineries and finally making it to gas stations nationwide. And that’s not the biggest thing I have against it. We have nothing against people making money. But, they need to by building what consumers want to buy.

CP: With hydrogen, for the government to spend a half billion dollars on this, and the physics, just science, is that it takes 2 – 4 times more energy to use to make the hydrogen versus just using a car in the first place. It’s gonna loose. It-will-loose in the marketplace. It’s the stupidest thing you can do with that money. Meanwhile, the Chinese are pouring money into lithium batteries. There’s all kinds of bio fuels, renewable diesels, all kinds of things that could be getting that money, and instead it’s just a handout to companies that don’t need it.

CS: It’s a disproportionate amount of money. It’s not about, “Let’s do a little research and see what happens.” It’s receiving a disproportionate amount of funding and political will.

KB: Plus, I cannot understand why oil companies, of all companies, are getting subsidies when they are making so much money right now. Their profits are amazing. What do they need subsidies for?

CS: I don’t think they do. That’s what’s interesting. We’re less about bashing a particular technology or fuel and are more about trying to create more choices and level the playing field as much as possible to the extent that you’re going to [offer] incentives, like with Plug-in technology and put some efforts there. I would never tell somebody, “You don’t have a choice to drive a Hummer. That’s not an option.” How arrogant and hypocritical would that be for me? Choice is one of these cornerstones that we frame America on. By that token we are advocating for the same choice, especially when the choice we want has already been proven to work, proven to be in demand, and is economical.

KB: Speaking of Plug-In, it started off as another organization…

CS: Don’t Crush?

KB: Right. Why do you think that the folks had more success with keeping the 1,000 or so Ford and Toyota vehicles from being destroyed?

CS: We approached every campaign differently. We didn’t start out by saying, “Let’s go after all the automakers.” We started with just the first one. We took a different tactic with each company based on its corporate culture. Ford, in their efforts of…greening their blue oval, and how they were jumping on that bandwagon, I think they saw if nothing else, the PR value and saying, “Let’s be responsive to our consumers. Maybe we didn’t realize how popular they were before. Okay, they’ve come to us with their concerns, let’s answer them.” You know, that sort of stuff. But it still took a week of a couple guys spending 24 hours a day in the flatbed of their truck.

So yea, they won, and I think people were encouraged by that. So we just had to make a choice. Do we do G.M. or do we do Toyota? Really, what ends up making G.M. the choice was knowing the drop dead date for those cars to be crushed. It was a bit of a “now or never” moment. I went as the most realistic about our chances, because I know the company. I think we probably knew weren’t going to win because they had never sold any of these cars before. Ford had at least sold a Ford Ranger. They set that precedent.

G.M., there was just so much more angst there. The more we wanted it, the more they won’t do it. There were a lot of heals digging in. So we knew our chances, but it was such an iconic car, with a passionate driver base and a huge waiting list, that we at least could raise awareness. We decided to go for it, but it took a while. For a few weeks people sort of ignored us, but then we made front page of the Washington Post and it just sort of caught fire. And that’s also when G.M. decided they couldn’t take it anymore and started sending trucks.

After that, luckily the Toyota campaign was a little easier because they saw all the media attention we’d gotten. Their corporate culture really couldn’t take that. It took about six weeks of protesting on Saturdays and a much later campaign with them. But we’re still having to hold all the automakers to it. We’re still having to keep up on them and make sure they don’t renig, because they are trying here and there. They’re still trying to crush the car.

CP: Toyota is still back pedaling. Chelsea meets with Toyota and [asks] “What about Plug-in Prius’?” And they’re, “Why would we make Plug-in hybrids when there’s already a waiting list for gas hybrids?” Okay, there is a solution that’s more than just your immediate business issue. This is called, for America, getting itself away from foreign oil. That’s HUGE. And, it is sort of silly, that two American actresses in Los Angeles have to get arrested in front of a huge truck with all these union drivers for the media to even write about electric cars. I hope this movie mainstreams this more. So far, television’s not covering this story.

KB: It’s not?

CP: Not really. We’ve got Starz, but it’s all going to be printed buzz. When the mainstream sees that it’s catching fire, then we’ll start getting “Inconvenient Truth” type coverage. But we’re not a presidential candidate. We’re potential threats to your advertising budget.

KB: What about the entertainment community? This is where you come from and it was obvious in the movie, others that were involved were actors in Hollywood. Considering that they have connections into television and media, are you making any headway there?

CS: Interestingly enough that was part of our strategy for the end of the G.M. program. We were very low on cars anyway, we had such a hard time making a case to lease them to anybody, but the one we could make a case for was the celebrities. Our whole goal was, if we could raise enough awareness about them, then the car companies will have to get on board, people will be more aware of what’s going on and just how much the auto companies are low balling them in terms of what’s possible, and the media will have to tell the story. The celebrities have more potential to get on Letterman than I do. (laughs) We did try that, and Tom Hanks got on Letterman, but it’s not as easy for them as you think.

KB: What about the L.A. Film Festival? Are you looking forward to that?

CP: Yes. Tom Hanks will actually be out of town for that. Really, who’s getting us is, NRDC, Set America Free From Oil and some of these other activist groups, and then like your group and any group that’s tied into alternatives. Then suddenly the public is paying attention to the movie.

KB: And it’s opening nationwide, right?

CP: Yes. Did you see that list? It’s amazing. It was like 15 cities when they bought the movie before Sundance from us, and now it’s about 100 cities.

KB: That’s fantastic. Where do you guys go from here after the tours are over, and how are you continuing to impact this movement through Plug-in?

CP: Chelsea’s executive director of Plug-in. They’re really going after states to get states to put these mandates back on the books. They’re good. You’ve got to keep the pressure on and have laws. Sure, you can give them money to do things, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to do them. Laws count on the legislative side. On the film side, we want this movie to keep rolling out as more and more people get it. It’s more than how good a film director I am or if I suck, it’s more about the story. That’s what I’m committed to until the end of the year.

CS: We are trying to get the mandate reinstated, because if the California mandate hadn’t been gutted, there would be up to a million cars on the road today that are electric. There’s about a dozen other states that do what California does, so you can see that rolling snowball. But we as consumers also have to have more faith in our ability to make change. We have to demand what we want and not settle for the status quo, otherwise that’s all that will be built, and not just politically, but with our wallets. Otherwise, we’re going to be back in 10 years and telling a similar story. I know I’m too stubborn to let that happen, and I know you are too. (looking at Chris)

CP: You can be more stubborn than me.

“Who Killed the Electric Car” is currently playing at the Mayan in Denver.


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