An Interview With Chris Paine, Director of Who Killed the Electric Car

Interviewed by Noah Graff

Today’s Machining World Archives November 2006 Volume 02 Issue 11

Chris Paine, Director of Who Killed the Electric Car

Chris Paine is the director of the recent documentary, “Who Killed the Electric Car.” The film tells of the emergence of electric cars in California during the late 1990s and early 2000s and the car’s destruction by the same companies that invented and produced them. The film specifically focuses on the story of the EV1, GM’s electric car.

What did you want to achieve by making this film?
I wanted to turn people on to electric cars and plug-in cars, show that the technology is here, that these things are available and that they’re on the road. I think that was the main surprise for a lot of people, that these cars are possible. I also wanted to tell what I thought was an extremely entertaining, dramatic story about something that went wrong in America.

What’s the most important thing about the EV1 and other electric cars?
The most important thing is it’s a way to get America off foreign oil. Electricity is domestically produced, it doesn’t require any tankers from another country, and it incorporates American technology – certainly in the case of the EV1.

What’s your response to car companies saying CO2 produced from coal to make electricity for these cars is environmentally harmful?
It’s funny that the car companies would even bring up CO2, given their records for stopping any emissions controls for cars and any improvement for mileage per gallon since the 1970s. However on a macro level, it’s certainly a concern. The short answer is that the American domestic power grid, which is 55% coal, still drops your CO2 level by half of that produced by a traditional car. Also, as the power grid gets cleaner when electricity can be made renewably, electric cars will be even cleaner.

What is your response to GM’s claim that there wasn’t enough demand for the EV1 to be profitable?
This was the official reason that the EV1s were discontinued. In my film the consumers are one of the guilty parties, but our experience was that, A: Nobody knew that they were even an option. Most people had never even heard that they could get one. B: They were rarely available for sale. C: GM marketed them so that only a super early adopter would have had a chance to drive one.

Why does the film focus on GM more than the other car companies?
That’s a great question. Of course the other makers are mentioned, but the EV1 is sort of the protagonist of our story. GM destroyed their own creations. So I think in some ways they’re the best tragic figure.

Will the government play a bigger role for fuel efficient cars in the future?
Government is the most important player in this. Corporations won’t lead this. A push from the public is an incredibly important component in this as well, but without government regulation, we wouldn’t have had seat belts and airbags, and the mileage wouldn’t have gone up as the agreement says – from 13 to 24 miles per gallon.

What are you most optimistic about for the future of electric cars?
I think the big plus is that people are seeing that you can make money building plug-in cars. And I think that the public understands that with a plug-in hybrid you can go 300, 500 miles on range. As new batteries come on the market, it will really help electric cars out.

What are you the most pessimistic about for the future?
Resistance to change.

Do you believe that fuel cell technology is a practical goal by 2010 as GM claims?
No, I think the fuel cell is a boondoggle. I think GM and the others like it because there’s a lot of federal money attached to it, and it keeps them from having to do anything now.

What did you like and dislike about the EV1?
I loved the speed. I didn’t like that I couldn’t buy it, and it didn’t have a good tape player.

If you could drive any car for a day besides the EV1, what would that be?
The Tango by Commuter Cars up in Spokane Washington. George Clooney has one.

Would you ever buy anything from GM?
Sure! Sell us a plug-in car!

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