Transcript - June 9,
BRANCACCIO: Welcome to NOW and welcome
to the ozone layer. Carbon monoxide, too.
I can feel
the traffic right here, some of the many by- products of the
internal combustion automobile engine. Smog, global warming --
many of us are already trying to help...living closer to work,
taking public transit where possible, or perhaps buying a
hybrid. Hybrids can be a cool, efficient alternative, but
don't kid yourself: in with the electric motor is still a
gasoline powered one, with a tailpipe. Whatever happened to
the promise of the fully-electric car? The plug-in kind,
producing no exhaust out the back, at all?
years ago, some big car companies started producing electric
cars, quite a lot of them. They worked, owners loved them,
they looked sharp and kicked butt coming out of a stop light.
So where are they now?
Dead, by and large. Killed by
their own creators in a stunning display of power politics and
spin...that's the view of a provocative new documentary. Chris
Paine's film is called "Who Killed the Electric
BRANCACCIO: Chris, good to meet
PAINE: You too.
guess you're presenting us here with a
PAINE: Yes, a bit of mystery. It's a
-- "Who Killed The Electric Car?" is about why the only kind
of cars that we can drive run on oil. And for a while, there
was a terrific alternative, a pure electric car mostly in
California. And then they all
BRANCACCIO: But you know it didn't
just happen that these cars became available. It had something
to do with a marriage, of good, old American innovation both
from the car manufacturers' point of view and also in terms of
air quality regulation.
PAINE: Well, you know,
Los Angeles has got very bad air quality problems. But
BRANCACCIO: You think?
Yeah. It was really bad in the 70s when I was growing up, and
then -- in the -- in the 90's, 80s and 90s, it really began to
increase too, because there's so many people moving to Los
Angeles. And California was looking at like one in four kids
had lung lesions and cancer and all these things were coming
So, they said, "We have to do something." And just
then General Motors had built an electric car, and they had
one at the L.A. Auto Show. And the regulators said, "Oh, you
guys can do an electric car."
required these electric cars. They passed these rules in 1990
that by 1998 about two percent of these cars would have to be
all electric, and by the year 2003, three years ago, what
would it be up to, about ten percent?
percent. Yeah. So this is a rea -- This is as big innovation
as, for example, the catalytic converter that California also
led the nation on. And New York and Massachusetts and many,
many states said, "Hey, this is a good idea, electric cars.
Let's see what happens in
BRANCACCIO: Well, you've got some
experience behind the wheel of one these EV1's. Does it
PAINE: Oh, oh, my God. I mean, most people
think the electric car -- you know, golf carts or something
for a little old lady, like it was in 1900. But these modern,
electric cars, I sat in a EV1, and you step on the
accelerator. And she -- whoo -- incredibly fast. And almost
totally quiet, just like a spaceship taking off. And I think
at that moment, the first time I drove in the electric car, I
was -- I was hooked.
Very convenient. You just plugged
it in at home overnight, charged the car. And then one day,
the car was taken away.
BRANCACCIO: It was
actually taken away from you.
PAINE: Well, not
exactly like that. They leased the cars, so you knew you'd
have to give the car back at a certain
BRANCACCIO: You couldn't buy one if you
wanted to buy one.
PAINE: No. No, what you said,
"Hey, okay, my lease is up." We said, "What's the cost to buy
the car out?" They go, "Oh, no option. We take the car back."
"No option? I wanna keep my car." "No, you can't have it." So
everybody who had these electric cars were mostly people who
really wanted to keep them. And they said, "No, we need the
BRANCACCIO: You mean really a lot of
passion about a stupid car?
PAINE: I know. I
never even liked cars until this EV-1 electric car. This was
BRANCACCIO: So, cut hard to
this, people who love their EV-1 electric cars so much that
when they're taken away, they stage a mock funeral for their
dearly beloved, but dearly departed cars. Let's take a
BEGELEY: What the detractors and the
critics of electric vehicles have been saying for years is
true. The electric cars are not for everybody. Given the
limited range, it can only meet the needs of 90% of the
SEXTON: People used to ask me, "Why
do you do what you do?" And I -- especially after I had my son
-- told them, "I figure if I do my job well enough, my son
will never know a time before there were electric cars on the
road." And he rode in an EV1 on the way over here. And he
said, "I wish we could keep the EV1 for a long time." And all
I could say was, "Me, too."
PAINE: Only in Los
Angeles would you have a funeral for a car, a bunch of
celebrities and so forth. But when you started going in to it,
you began to realize that something really had happened. That
it was foul play.
BRANCACCIO: Foul play
implicated in the death of these cars.
Well, because the cars represent something bigger than cars,
right? This is a -- The idea of the film is why is it so hard
for us to get off of oil. Why even when you have an electric
car can't they be given a real chance in the marketplace? And
-- And my experience is that almost no one knew about these
electric cars. So that's why we wanted to make the film to
like let people know that it really was an option. And
whenever you have big change, there's big forces that say,
"No, no, no, we don't want the change." And I -- I -- I think
that's a good reason to make a film.
They were pretty strict about this. They took the cars away.
And they didn't wanna just store them somewhere in the
off-chance that gasoline would ever go up to $3 gallon. Which
P.S. I think it has. They wanted these babies
Was it just GM that wanted the cars
PAINE: No, it was all the car makers. You
know, I mean, even Toyota and Honda which are green car
makers, supposedly, were after these cars. Ford, Chrysler,
they -- they took them all back.
it comes down to this perverse little scene in your film where
a legendary California broadcaster by the name of Huell Howser
uses his considerable charm to get into one of these places
where they crush cars. Let's take a look at
HOWSER: So we're gonna be able to see some
cars shredded today?
HOWSER: Which is not something most
of us get to see
MALE VOICE: We shred the car --
about a car a minute. A thousand cars a day on a good
HOWSER: And what's interesting -- the first
thing we noticed when we drove up here -- you're gonna be
shredding some new cars here, too! These look like perfectly
good cars! Why are you shredding them, too?
VOICE: Little bit of a mystery, really. Since I've been
here the last eight years, they bring us these cars from the
dealerships. And they say that they're test cars. And they've
been brought over to -- to test various emissions. And the
insurance companies won't reinsure 'em. So we have to watch
'em destroyed here.
HOWSER: That seems like a
MALE VOICE: It's a terrible
HOWSER: I'd like to drive off in one of
these things. Ladies and gentlemen -- that's the sound of a
crushed automobile being shredded into a million
BRANCACCIO: Chris, undeniably sad, but
really, I mean, the EV-1's pretty expensive. You can't drive
even from, if it was on the East Coast, New York to D.C. in
the thing, because of the battery range. Was there really
demand for these things?
PAINE: In reality,
every single electric car that was made, people wanted. And
they just stopped making them. They claimed that people didn't
want them, but all the evidence suggests, the waiting lists,
that there really was demand.
it's time just had not come.
PAINE: Yeah, well,
that's what they claimed. Gasoline was $1.50 a gallon, and
people were in love with SUVs. That was sort of what was
happening. That was the landscape.
Clearly, of course,
by now, 2006, the time for the electric car should be here,
and it's unfortunate that they don't have any to sell. But
even then, even when these cars came out, the way they tried
to sell these cars to the consumers is almost sort of reverse
psychology. Like they didn't really want people to buy the
BRANCACCIO: What do you
PAINE: Well, they would have these
campaigns where the -- the car would look like it was being
introduced in the middle of nuclear winter or something. So
it's like --
BRANCACCIO: You mean the ad sort
of had that look to it?
PAINE: The ads had this
dark, scary look. You don't really want one of these
BRANCACCIO: So you would argue an unusual
way to sell a car. In fact, here is an example of what some
critics say is an odd way to sell an electric
VOICE: How does it go, you will ask
yourself. And then you will ask, how did we go so long without
it? The electric car:
PAINE: Yeah, the first
time I saw that ad I thought it was like a civil defense ad
for nuclear war.
BRANCACCIO: Well, I mean, they
spent millions of dollars advertising the
PAINE: Yeah, well, that's what they say. In
fact they say they spent a billion dollars, they spent
millions advertising, but those of us that watch the story,
that -- where -- where's the evidence? Please show us the
numbers. The -- the numbers really aren't there. And then, if
you look at the advertising -- the advertising does not, what
shall we say -- make one want to buy one of these
BRANCACCIO: Well, let's take a look at
what General Motors says about all this. They said look, they
tried -- they tried to do advertising, they tried to come up
with a cool car. Nobody wanted it.
EXEC): Our goal at GM is to make the full functioning
battery electric vehicle a commercially viable business
opportunity for general motors.
spokesman Dave Barthmass has worked for GM for nearly 10
BARTHMASS (GM EXEC):We spent in excess
of one billion dollars to drive this market -- to build a
market. That means award winning advertising. Developing the
vehicle. Developing the re-charging infrastructure. And in a
four-year time frame -- from roughly 1996 to 2000 -- we were
able to lease 800 EV1's.
what's in it for the car companies to stop a program like
that? I mean, you see Pulitzer Prize-winning car critic from
The Los Angeles Times. His name is Dan Neal. He's in your
film. He says, "Come on, if the consumer wanted a car that ran
on -- ran on pig dung, GM would make it. They just don't want
this thing." What's in it for killing something that works at
least a bit?
PAINE: Well, you know, this is a --
this is really the heart of the movie. It's like why would car
companies destroy the very car they created in the first
place. It's -- One of the characters says it's like an act of
cannibalism. And certainly it seems like it now when you look
at General Motors with nothing to sell, except for their
trucks and SUV's and a small number of compact
Well, the thing is is that car companies since --
for 100 years have been selling the internal combustion
engine, and that's an engine that needs to be fixed and re --
repairs. And there's lots to it. They know how to do it, and
they have a big margin. If you say how about an electric car?
You know, it's -- it's a totally different
BRANCACCIO: What? There's less maintenance
on electric cars?
PAINE: Well, there's --
there's almost no maintenance, because there's no internal
combustion engine. So there's no carburetor. There's no
tune-ups. There's no air filters to change. There's not even a
transmission. So the electric car really challenges the whole
fundamental business structure for the car companies. And
unfortunately the -- the electric car's another problem. It
doesn't use any oil. So, the electric car instantly goes after
two bedrock industries in the country, and that makes it a
very difficult sell.
BRANCACCIO: The oil
industry that provides the fuel and the lubrication for a --
for a conventional car and of course the car companies that --
BRANCACCIO: -- would
rather what? I mean, in your film, you argued rather sell
rather larger cars.
BRANCACCIO: Let's take a look at
ROMM: There's no question that people who
control the marketplace today -- the oil companies -- have a
strong incentive to discourage alternatives. Except
alternatives that they themselves control. And, you know, just
as General Motors 40 or 50 years ago bought up the trolley
systems and shut them down, the oil companies have opposed the
creation of an electric infrastructure.
Well -- In the process of making the film, I began to think of
cars, especially SUV's and trucks, as being like those
printers you get you know from the office supply store for
$49. And then you buy these $79 cartridges to make them run.
And that's kind of the way it is with the gas car.
might practically give it to you, like I think some of the big
car companies are giving 'em away, but then you add up the
repairs and the gasoline over the years. And that's where the
BRANCACCIO: You know, Chris I open all
these big ads from the oil companies these days, and they're
touting all this cool alternative fuel research that they're
supporting. Our hydrogen future for instance. I mean they --
that could undermine their -- their business model, yet they
seem to be embracing some alternatives.
If hydrogen can do a better job as an energy carrier than
electricity then by gosh it should be the carrier of choice,
the problem is that it's not even close.
How far will this car drive on that amount of
GAS STATION ATTENDANT: It gets about
approximately about 100-125 miles a gallon.
GAS STATION ATTENDANT: Uh
NARRATOR: A fuel
cell car powered by hydrogen made with electricity uses 3 to 4
times more energy than a car powered by
BUSH: This is the beginning of some
fantastic technology and, uh, thanks for having us out here we
are going to look at some other vehicles in a minute but, uhh,
you know hydrogen is the wave of the
PAINE: Well, hydrogen fuel cell was a
big surprise for us as filmmakers. Because, California, when
they said, "Okay, car companies you don't have to make
electric cars anymore, you win." And the car companies said,
"Great. We'll build zero emission vehicle hydrogen fuel cell
And, we were all very excited about them. But,
as we began to look at the evidence, it turns out the hydrogen
fuel cell was a really bad deal. And it certainly doesn't --
doesn't warrant quite all the enthusiasm it's been
BRANCACCIO: What's wrong with hydrogen?
I mean it would be cleaner.
PAINE: Well, I think
the reason the oil industry likes hydrogen so much is that
hydrogen is basically a way for them to ship something around
in their trucks, to charge to fueling stations, just like oil.
It's the same exact paradigm for the oil
BRANCACCIO: As opposed to plugging
something in, in your garage.
in, very different. The oil industry doesn't want people
plugging in, they want people filling up. So -- hydrogen works
for them in that sense. But this is all 15, 20 years down the
road if they perfect this technology.
And -- the work
we did -- the research we did on film indicates the hydrogen
fuel cell is a lot farther off than industry would have you
BRANCACCIO: So you're not intrinsically
against it, it's just that you are, from your study of this,
skeptical this is something that could come to our
environmental aid anytime soon.
PAINE: Yeah, I
mean, that's really it. I mean, electric cars -- battery
powered electric cars is a technology that exists today. We
could all have them.
We could have millions of them on
the street right now working very effectively, using
domestically created electricity, charging off solar panels.
Hydrogen fuel cell -- which they convinced California to wait
for, is ten, 15 years off and, unfortunately, it turns out to
be a much less efficient -- user of energy than if you just
used a battery in the first place.
So, your film actually renders judgment in some of these
cases. You -- you stamp on your screen, "Guilty." When it
comes to -- the car companies, they would argue with that. You
stamp on the screen, "Guilty" when it comes to the oil
industry, they would argue about that. But, what about you and
me -- us, the consumer? I mean, we may not have run out
initially. I lived in California at the time, I didn't think
to get an EV1, maybe I'm partly guilty in this
PAINE: This is why we -- took on the
consumer as part of the suspects for this -- for our
BRANCACCIO: But, ultimately, you don't
lay blame on the consumer?
PAINE: Well, no,
ultimately we do.
PAINE: We -- we -- in fact, when we
first showed this to some of our producers, they're like, "I'm
not sure you want to make the consumer guilty. I mean, after
all they're -- they're your audience for your
BRANCACCIO: People who pay money to get
in to see this movie.
PAINE: Yeah, it's like --
BRANCACCIO: But you do have a guy in the film
who, about the consumer, says this, when we hear energy
efficiency -- I'm paraphrasing.
BRANCACCIO: When we, the consumer hear
energy efficiency, he says, we think smaller cars. We think
cold houses. We think living like
PAINE: Right, right. Well, it's
really true isn't it? I mean, ultimately we, as consumers, are
-- have a lot of herd mentality. And, whatever's hot, we go,
we buy. And -- clearly when the electric car came out in the
90s everybody was buying SUVs.
DIVINE: When SUVs first came out people were like, oh I
can't drive that it's a tank I can't see over that, I'm going
to murder somebody in that, oh that's too big but they
convinced people this is safer, you need a big car, you need
this for your family, bigger, safer...
idea of a penny pinching ev1 that was super green, you know
that didn't get a lot of traction where as the idea of a
gigantic SUV that would crush your neighbor, that did get a
lot of traction
PAINE: Commercials were about
SUVs, your neighbor had an SUV...
also helps as your film points out, there was a big tax break
for many people if you bought an expensive
PAINE: That's right. You -- if -- you could
get -- if you bought a 6,000 pound -- SUV or more, you could
get a -- I think a $100,000 tax deduction as a small business
BRANCACCIO: And 6,000 pounds is a pretty
PAINE: Yes, it's very big. In fact,
a lot of these cars are -- are too big to go on residential
streets, but they've never enforced those laws. The problem
is, is that the electric car was given small incentives. And a
lot of times -- government incentive makes a big -- big
difference in what succeeds and
BRANCACCIO: Alright, so the electric car,
in that version, doesn't make it, but when you look around you
now, the so-called Hybrid is hotter than the San Diego freeway
during a mid-summer rush hour. I mean, everyone's grabbing
those things. Success there!
PAINE: Yeah, yeah,
it's terrific. The hybrids are taking off. And this is a great
thing, because hybrids get people used to the idea of having
electricity in a car.
In fact, you'll find that when
people drive hybrids -- within the first couple months, you
begin to see them just trying to keep their car in electric
mode. They don't want to hear that gas engine turn up -- turn
over. And, I think this is very
BRANCACCIO: So, we can change
PAINE: Yeah, but the problem with
the hybrids is that they still run on
BRANCACCIO: There's still a tailpipe,
there's still some pollution when the gas engine turns
PAINE: And you still have the internal
BRANCACCIO: Well, it's
interesting to me in the film, you could have left it with
these images of -- of death -- the demise of the car, but you
don't. You come back towards the end of the film, with a -- a
different vision of the future.
PAINE: I think
-- United States is particular good at creating innovation.
And, even though the electric cars in our film were destroyed
-- a lot of new electric technology is coming to the forefront
now. For instance there's the plug-in
BRANCACCIO: Plug in
Now, for people to understand this -- typically -- if people
don't understand this, a hybrid now, you never plug in. You
either turn it over, gas engine runs it and puts energy into
the electric part of it, but it doesn't plug in the
PAINE: Right, yeah. Well, the difference
with the plug in hybrid is you take your hybrid car and at
nighttime you plug it in your garage and it charges overnight
and then the first 40, 50 miles of your next day driving is
all electricity. So, your gas never kicks on. So, suddenly
you're seeing the equivalent of 150 miles per gallon in a
BRANCACCIO: And if your batteries run down
then there's a little engine to get you where you're
PAINE: Then the engine turns on and it
keeps you going.
BRANCACCIO: So some people are
making these modifications, turning hybrids into the plug in
PAINE: Right, right -- right now it's
mostly people doing conversion kits. But -- there are
rumblings from Toyota and others that -- plug-in hybrids may
be coming around the corner. I -- I'm hoping to hear it out of
-- General Motors and Ford too.
They could do it, it's
just they don't -- so far, they've lacked the will to really
invest in electricity as a way to power
BRANCACCIO: But if you're bucking for sort
of the ultimate revolution here in clean transportation, you
gotta have a bigger coalition than these kind of Tom Hanks, Ed
Begley Jr. characters that you've got in the film who love
their EV1 cars. You need more people focused on
PAINE: Yeah. Well, in the film -- at the
end of the film, we have -- what is this new coalition? And
this includes -- what groups do we have? We have -- What Would
BRANCACCIO: So you have
BRANCACCIO: -- in making the world
a better place.
PAINE: And we have the tree
huggers and we have a lot of Reagan people that are -- part of
a group called, Set America Free.
Well, you're talking about them as neo-conservatives. What's
the neo-Conservative -- pony in this
PAINE: Well, I -- I think conservative
because these are people that look at the transportation
issues from a National Defense point of view. And they go, "If
we spent so much money protecting the flow of oil
BRANCACCIO: From the Middle East --
PAINE: From the Middle East, this was not good.
Whereas if we use electricity, this is domestically produced
and it's possible that it can be renewable. This is good for
the long term.
So, these neo-Conservatives, if you
will, have joined with the Environmentalists and really
anybody who says, "Okay, I'm done with gasoline. How can I get
off this stuff?"
BRANCACCIO: I mean, given the
price of gas these days -- given the uncertainty in the Middle
East and so forth -- one wonders if these car companies are
having second thoughts about their decisions involving the
PAINE: I think they really are. I
mean, car companies have all of these big cars sitting in
their lots right now. And even last week, Rick Wagoner at GM
said that axing the EV1 was probably the worst decision he
made on his watch.
It's too bad. I feel like the
electric car story was an example of us losing two years,
maybe five years at a time when we don't really have a lot of
time to play with.
BRANCACCIO: Well Chris, thank
you for this.
PAINE: It's been
BRANCACCIO: Chris Paine is director of,
"Who Killed the Electric Car?" It appears in some theatres in
New York and Los Angeles on June 28th. And it's likely to show
up at a theater near you sometime this summer.
that's it for NOW. From the middle of traffic somewhere, I'm
David Brancaccio. We'll see you next week.