Jul 5, 2006 at 12:00 am

It’s easy to see how the conspiracy theories got started. The commander in chief is an oilman. His vice president is an oilman. His former chief of staff was a former VP of General Motors. His secretary of state was on the board of Chevron. Is it really a surprise that oil industry profits are at an all-time high and there’s war raging in the Middle East? Is it any wonder that the average fuel efficiency of today’s cars has plummeted while pollution has increased? Did the EV1, the fully operational electric car GM introduced in 1997, even have a shot in hell of surviving the Bush regime?

Many believe the ill-fated EV1 was doomed to fail long before it ever hit the assembly line, that the shadowy powers that be would never allow a gasless automobile with little need for maintenance to arrive on the mainstream marketplace.

Aggravating those suspicions is the Smithsonian Institute’s recent decision to remove the EV1 from public view and replace it with a tricked-out robotic SUV. Could it have had anything to do with the double-barreled film releases of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth and Chris Paine’s Who Killed the Electric Car? The timing couldn’t be more suspicious.

It’s probably why Dave Barthmuss, GM’s manager of public policy, sounds so defensive in a phone interview with Metro Times. When discussing the fate of the little electric car that could — but didn’t — Barthmuss maintains that GM was committed to selling the EV1, but consumers weren’t buying. Gas was relatively cheap when the car debuted, and America had gone SUV-crazy. The public just wasn’t interested in a vehicle that had only two seats, a range limited to 70 miles and required an overnight charge. It wasn’t some sinister corporate plot, just a matter of dollars and cents, he says.

Still, that doesn’t quite explain GM’s refusal to allow loyal customers to actually purchase their electric cars once their lease was up, the political lobbyists who worked overtime to undermine California’s zero-emission mandate, or the oddly secretive demolition of recalled EV1s. Worse still, Paine’s documentary features Barthmuss promising that the reclaimed cars would not be crushed and thrown on some scrap heap, only to then show piles of crumpled EV1s tucked away in some desert facility straight out of The X-Files.

Nevertheless, Barthmuss makes a good point when he asks: How much money should a company be expected to lose on a revolutionary new product, if the customers simply aren’t interested in buying it?

Metro Times asked Chris Paine, director of the controversial documentary, to shed some light.

Metro Times: Why would the auto industry invest a billion dollars in developing a marketable electric car, then turn around and undermine the very policies that brought it about?

Chris Paine: Every year the car companies come up with concept cars for their auto shows that they rarely intend to bring to market. What happened was California regulators saw the electric car and said, “Wow, the technology’s already here.” Because of severe air quality issues they were determined to reduce emissions and here was this car ready to be produced. So, they put in place the Zero Emission Vehicle Mandate. GM never would have mass-produced the electric car without that law. They were caught off guard and the state backed them into a corner where they had to deliver. In California, we’re just too big a market to ignore. But eventually they figured out how to fight their way out of the corner.

MT: In the film, you compare the parts and fluids necessary to keep a gas-powered car running versus the maintenance required for the EV1.

Paine: And it was next to nothing [for the EV1]. The electric car took on too many business models of what a car is supposed to be. Parts and fuel are a big part of the economic equation. This is the only GM car ever put into production then taken off the market and destroyed. It was happening as recently as last year, the same time that oil prices jumped to $2.50 a gallon. Here you have this car, created by American ingenuity to get us into the new era, and it gets shut down. It’s distressing. Not because crying actresses and actors have lost their car but because it’s a symbol of what our country can achieve.

MT: When the EV1 came out, the majority of the media message seemed to be, “that’s the car that crazy ’ol Ed Begley Jr. drives.” Do you worry people will laugh at the strong sentiments displayed by some of the owners in your film?

Paine: Marshall McLuhan says that every tool we use is an extension of our body, so cars become attached to us in strange ways. A lot of Americans define themselves by the car they drive and spend huge amounts of time working on their cars. More than we’d probably like to admit, our country is in love with the car. That said, people who worked on the EV1 felt like their industry worked overtime to marginalize electric car owners.

MT: When gas was $1.50 a gallon people weren’t up in arms the way they are now. Given the recent spike in gas costs to $3-plus, are any U.S. car companies showing renewed interest in the electric motor program?

Paine: Toyota and Honda have certainly shown interest. I don’t know what it’s like in Michigan, but in California, the market for the Prius is huge. But domestically, Ford is the only one who talks seriously about it. The Escape is a pretty good vehicle, and if you read between the lines it seems like they’re expanding their hybrid product line. GM, on the other hand, boasts they’ve increased mileage by 10 percent. Which is what, two extra miles per gallon?

What you don’t hear U.S. automakers talking about, and Toyota only recently addressed, are plug-in hybrids. If there’s anything I want people to come away from with this movie, it’s that plug-in technology is a great thing. The first thing it does is substantially puts us off oil to power our cars. The utility companies say that they can charge up tens of millions of cars at night with no need for additional utility plants. The real-world cost per gallon would be around 70 cents per gallon. The implications are huge … we would no longer be slave to foreign oil.

MT: Electric car technology would be a boon for the utility industry. Why did their interests get trumped by the oil industry?

Paine: Utilities did invest millions. For instance, Atlanta Georgia Power invested huge amounts in charging stations for cars that never got delivered to them. The Department of Water & Power in L.A. built hundreds of chargers. They now sit unused. If you look at the oil industry and the tactical moves they made, most of their strategy involved making sure the utilities didn’t get state money for electric charging. When they won most of those battles, the power companies saw the writing on the wall. After that it was just a matter of the car companies ceasing production.

MT: What do you hope your film will accomplish?

Paine: I hope it inspires states to bring back and commit to zero-emission mandates. It’s one thing to offer the carrot of government grants to develop alternative technologies but you also need the stick. The good thing about laws like these — whether it’s seat belts or catalytic converters — if everybody has to do it, no one company is taking the full weight of the risk. It forces competition to produce something that will benefit society as a whole. I’d also like to see people get turned on to the notion of electric cars. I think if the product were really given half a chance it would catch on. Electricity doesn’t necessarily mean sacrifice. Sure, there a few adjustments, but the potential payoff is huge.

MT: Are there any other countries that have shown interest in developing an electric car?

Paine: Oddly enough, only England is doing anything and that’s mostly been fueled by the tax that’s been imposed on vehicles entering London. Suddenly, there are six electric car companies moving into London. Which is just an example of how governments can poke industries into moving technology forward. I’m not a socialist by any means but when it comes to cars I think it’s a good place for governments to flex their muscle.

My funny story about Ed Begley is that when I first got my EV1 I heard how he had one and that he was going to be at a play reading in Hollywood. So, I drove down there in the car, hoping I’d run into him backstage and we’d chat about our cool electric cars. He came out and I said, “Hey, I got an EV1 too. I parked it outside but I didn’t see yours.” And he says, “Well, I only live 5 miles away, so I rode my bicycle.” I felt like such a pretentious poseur. He really walks the walk.

MT: How do you feel about your film being sandwiched between An Inconvenient Truth and Pixar’s Cars?

Paine: Well, I wish had a famous actor to be one of our car voices. And we should have lobbied Pixar to include an EV1 in their film. One thing that the movie reminds us, however, is how much Americans love their cars. And the people that had the EV1 really loved their car. The love affair with the car is a pretty deep part of our country’s psyche.

MT: Pulitzer-winning Los Angeles Times car critic Dan Neil, who appears in your film, seems pretty critical of its central thesis.

Paine: Williams generally believed the car company line: that consumers simply didn’t want the car, that they were in love with SUVs. That gasoline was cheap and people weren’t interested in becoming early adaptors to a new technology if they didn’t have to be.

In recent months, however, Dan’s been coming around to our film’s position. I mean, to be fair, our film acknowledges that consumer disinterest contributed to the demise but that’s only a small part of the overall story. If you look at the marketing, it seemed determined to scare customers away. Look, I’m not trying to say there’s some monolithic conspiracy with the car and oil companies. I don’t believe in conspiracies. But I do believe change is difficult and the status quo will fight hard to keep change from occurring. The electric car is something more people should know is an option in the marketplace.

MT: How did GM’s attitude about the EV1 compare to other models of cars that haven’t been successful or catered to a very small population of car buyers? (i.e The Viper, the first Hummers)

Paine: Once they decide to stop making those cars you didn’t see them recall the model off the street, destroy them then go out of their way to hide the deed. This is why electric car drivers got so hot and bothered about it. Because if the Viper fails in the specialty car marketplace they don’t hunt down every model and demolish them. There seems to be a built-in fear by car companies with regard to the parts and repair industry and the oil industry: If there’s a line of electric cars driving around people will get used to them, and after your neighbor’s had one for five years you might be willing to try one. I make the case in the film that the electric car really threatened these two industries and that’s why they took them off the road.

In Lansing they have all the molds, plants, technology and workers. I like to see them get the whole EV1 Program started again as a specialty car market. It’s not just spoiled Hollywood actors who want this car. The waiting lists for these cars had several thousand people. It was inevitable that more and more people would be willing to try this technology — especially now with gas prices going through the roof. The car companies just chose not to do it.

Metro Times contacted GM’s Barthmuss to ask about gasoline prices and the development of electric-hybrid cars.

His response: “For competitive reasons I can’t go into specifics, but we’re working on some exciting stuff. Stayed tuned.”

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]