With Who Killed the Electric Car? liberals have announced they may have found their antidote to talk radio — the movie documentary.
Trying to counter Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity with Al Franken and Janeane Garofalo obviously isn’t having much success. But after the example of Fahrenheit 911, liberals have now hit the screen with a barrage of documentaries — The U.S. versus John Lennon, Al Franken: God Spoke — with lots more to come.
The documentary is the perfect medium for the liberal message. It’s centralized, easily manipulated, and based on visual imagery rather than rational thought. Rush Limbaugh succeeds so well on radio because of the clarity of his analysis, not because of what he’s wearing or how he looks on camera. (Remember how poorly Limbaugh did with his own TV show.) Talk radio also allows listener feedback. The main attraction is the contribution of callers and the give-and-take with listeners.
With the documentary, the filmmaker controls the show without interference from the audience. Interviews can be edited and sooner or later pretty talking heads will prevail. That’s what happens in Who Killed the Electric Car?
The story is built around California’s attempt to mandate a “no-emissions vehicle.” Way back in 1990, the California Air Resources Board ruled that auto companies would have to make zero emissions vehicles 10 percent of their fleet in order to keep selling cars in the state. The objective — as with the recent pledge to cut greenhouse gases 25 percent by 2020 — was to “force technology.” The law did not specify but a zero-emissions vehicle would obviously have to be an electric car.
Although they protested all along, GM, Ford and Toyota all produced electric cars and got them onto the market in the late 1990s. By 2000, however, it was obvious they weren’t going to meet the 10 percent goal. Customers weren’t buying them. Instead, the car companies dumped them onto rental agencies, where they mostly sat on the lot. In September 2000 the Air Resources Board reduced the requirement to 4 percent and in July 2001 it was cut to 2 percent. By that time the electric car was widely considered a technological disaster. The CARB eventually switched the mandate to include gas-electric hybrids and fuel cell vehicles. With gas prices rising, hybrids have actually been selling very well without any state mandates.
Why did the all-electric car fail? There is one simple reason. Although Who Killed the Electric Car? never mentions it, recharging the battery to go only a short distance takes 20 to 40 minutes. The movie features lots of peppy shots of people pulling up to gas stations and slipping a gas-pump-like recharger into their vehicles. But it doesn’t show them standing around for nearly half-an-hour waiting for the charge to finish.
And that only provides you with enough power to get home. Putting an overnight charge on the battery so it can go 120 miles the next day takes four to six hours. All this had no appeal to drivers.
In 2002, Vijay Vaitheeswaran, energy correspondent for the Economist and an enthusiast of solar power, arrived in California researching his 2005 book, Power to the People. When he rented a car, he found the agents ecstatic to provide him with one of their electric cars, which were crowding the back lots. Since he was writing a book on energy, he decided to give it a try. Here’s what happened:
The vehicle proved to have a much shorter range than I thought it would — closer to 50 miles than a 100. The fact that I sped along at 80 mph in those empty HOV lanes might have drained the battery faster, but only certain highways had that lane; more often, I was crawling along in traffic like everyone else. And most of the time, I was going nowhere at all, since my vehicle kept running out of power. Charging proved the biggest nightmare. There were plenty of chargers around, but some were of the wrong sort; others were locked or nonfunctional. And rather than the “pretty quick” recharge, my useless battery took more than five hours for a full charge. As a result, my entire visit turned into a fiasco of delayed or missed appointments, apologetic cell-phone calls, and panicky exits from the highway to obscure malls and commuter-rail stations in search of a charger. [Power to the People, pp. 192-193.]
In fact, when Toyota started marketing its hybrids in 2004, the company deliberately left off any plug-in charging mechanism because it didn’t want customers to confuse them with electric cars. The electric car had such a bad reputation, the company feared it would hurt sales. Instead, the battery recharges from energy off the brakes. Even so, savvy consumers started hot-wiring their hybrids, installing their own plug-ins so they could take power off the grid. In its latest models, Toyota has finally relented and installed an electric hookup.
So why would anybody make a documentary entitled Who Killed the Electric Car? Well, the answer is obvious — it fits all kinds of conspiracy theories about the oil and auto industry. The movie is a hodgepodge of conflicting accusations. At one point the oil companies are criticized for raising the price of gasoline in recent years. Next thing you know, President Reagan is being indicted for driving the price of oil down during the 1980s so he could get America “hooked on oil.”
To make their case, the filmmakers have managed to round up five people who say they loved their electric cars and were devastated when the auto companies took them off the market. Significantly, all of these people were leasing their EV1s. None actually bought them.
Most confusing of all is the film’s portrayal of the hydrogen car as a lynchpin to the conspiracy. According to the filmmakers, the auto companies were decoying everybody when they persuaded the Air Resources Board to include hydrogen cars in the 4 percent mandate. Yet environmentalists themselves have long been among the biggest promoters of hydrogen cars. Amory Lovins, the soft energy guru who helped design California’s “conservation-and-renewables” electrical program (the one that led to the California Electrical Shortage of 2000), is understandably missing from this documentary. Lovins has spent the last decade promoting his “Hypercar,” a superlight vehicle that runs on hydrogen fuel cells. In fact, most environmentalists enthusiastically supported a “hydrogen economy” until President George Bush endorsed it in his 2003 State of the Union speech. Then it became part of the conspiracy.
Despite all this, we are actually fumbling toward a low-emissions future that could play a huge role in reducing our foreign dependence on oil. The plug-in hybrid seems to be the vehicle of choice. It gets more than 30 miles to the gallon and allows consumers to recharge off the electrical grid. (Of course, that will eventually require more power plants, but that’s another story.)
Given this more-or-less happy ending, why would anybody now make a movie claiming the whole electric-car episode was a conspiracy? Maybe because liberal ideology is built around such fantasies.