New electric car film is…electric

Electric carWho killed the electric car? That’s both the title and the question at the heart of Chris Paine’s remarkable whodunit documentary on the history of the electric automobile.

The film, which traces the development of the electric car from its popularity in the early 1900s to its near-death in 2003, drew a packed audience and received a standing ovation at the recent San Francisco Film Festival.

For many, the electric car represents both hope for the future and a crushing example of how industry incumbents exert pressure on politicians to eradicate potentially viable environmental products from the marketplace.

Why did the auto industry, which started pushing electric cars in the mid-1990s, suddenly ask for the keys back to all their leased electrics, even when so many owners wanted to purchase them? I remember sitting in a new electric vehicle in 1997 and thinking it was the start of a revolution.

Look around the road today and you’ll be hard-pressed to spot a single one. The story is too complex to do justice to here, involving automakers, the oil industry, consumers, and the California Air Resources Board. You’ll have to wait until this compelling documentary opens nationwide on June 28th.

After the movie, I hitched a ride to the after-party in a 100+ mpg plug-in hybrid electric Prius provided by CalCars. There, the assembled crowd of electric vehicle owners talked about their cars with both passion and unmistakeable affection. One EV owner said he was living in “utopia” and spoke of the transformative power of using the solar panels on his house to fuel his commute. Sun to roof to car. Pretty simple and amazing stuff.

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  1. Anonymous - May 12, 2006

    100+ MPG DOES sound like utopia… i cant help but wonder how many kwh are needed to charge the batteray/the emissions from that and the balance between the two???
    although, if more and more electricty on the grid was from clean sources and at least produced nationally, it’s a benefit than fossil fuel gasoline from overseas…

  2. David Nett - May 17, 2006

    Ah, how I wish I had the guts to hack my Prius like that. I’m doing a renovation on my home this fall, part of which will be the installation of solar panels to soak up all that warm California sun. If I could plug my Prius in to use solar power to optimize its mileage (I get 50 – 52mpg on average now, with a mixed city/freeway drive), I’d be in commuter heaven. I’m just wary of that “voiding the warranty” issue.
    Perhaps Toyota will buckle soon and create a dealer-installable plug for my little guy. That’s something I’d gladly pay for.

  3. bruce mcgrew - May 17, 2006

    It’s interesting ,Porsche,yes, Ferdinand Porsche’s made a car in 1901 for Austro-Diamler that was powered solely on electricity.It was said,”That it was so silent it could be passing right behind u.”Electric cars have proved thier worth but, due to money hungry oil tycoons they have ceased to provide the ultimate solution.I bet that if electricity cost as much as oil there would b electric cars all around.

  4. Plug In America - June 15, 2006

    For an overview of the emissions question (from electric cars and power sources) that I conducted in research for my upcoming book, see
    Toyota announced just this week that it is working on a plug-in hybrid. Fact is, they could be selling one today. We can prod them to get one on the market sooner rather than later; see the contact info at

  5. Phil karn - June 16, 2006

    I also analyzed the power plant emissions attributed to EVs. They’re *very* clean compared to internal combustion engines:

  6. Pierre Véronneau - August 21, 2006

    I will not buy a new car until I can buy a zero emission vehicule ever…. so you lunkheads get your fingers out of your noses and put them on the market.

  7. edward rudelt - January 22, 2007

    i have a true concept car,because it only exist in my mind. but i though of a way to make an electric car to get 200 plus miles range per charge.i know how that might sound to most people.but i would like to talk to someone about my idears. how do i start ? how do i make sure no one steal my idear? i had this idear for over 20 years now. but i dont know who to trust. ill will not open up to someone unless they can give me some sort of guarantee that my idears will be protected. only respond if you are serious. thank you.

  8. mac - April 11, 2007

    You might have “idears” but that is not enough by a long shot. You need pilot projects with data. You need $ and investors, which means you need a good lawyer. Then if all comes together as you imagine, you need a good CEO. So, if that’s not what you want to do, just stop now.

  9. Anonymous - June 20, 2007

    Dear Edward Rudelt:
    If you are still interested in talking about your ideas, please write me at

  10. Doug Korthof - February 10, 2009

    To do 1000 miles driving per month (the national average) takes no more than 250 kWh of electric energy (the energy equivalent of about 7 gallons of gas).
    The average home uses 500 to 1000 kWh per month; some homes use more than 250 kWh for running an old refrigerator or two.
    So to do the average person’s driving, you would only need a fraction of your current electric usage.
    Moreover, the money you save NOT buying the average 50 gallons of gas it takes to go 1000 miles per month would more than pay the payments on a rooftop solar system large enough to make that much energy (1.3 kW, cost after rebate and tax about $6000).
    So what’s the downside?? Well, the only loser is Chevron Oil, which, ironically enough, owns control of the patent rigths for the NiMH batteries used on the only EV left, the Toyota RAV4-EV, and the standard EV battery.