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June 9, 2006
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NOW Transcript - Show 223
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Transcript - June 9, 2006

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 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?

About ten 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 Car."

BRANCACCIO: Chris, good to meet you.

PAINE: You too.

BRANCACCIO: I guess you're presenting us here with a whodunit?

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 disappeared.

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?

PAINE: 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 up.

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."

BRANCACCIO: They 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?

PAINE: Ten 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 California."

BRANCACCIO: Well, you've got some experience behind the wheel of one these EV1's. Does it go?

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 point.

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 cars back."

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 something special.

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 look.

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 population.

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.

PAINE: 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.

BRANCACCIO: 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 destroyed

Was it just GM that wanted the cars back?

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.

BRANCACCIO: And 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 this.

HOWSER: So we're gonna be able to see some cars shredded today?

MALE VOICE: Absolutely.

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 day.

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?

MALE 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 shame!

MALE VOICE: It's a terrible shame.

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 pieces.

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.

BRANCACCIO: Maybe 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 cars.

BRANCACCIO: What do you mean?

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 cars.

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 vehicle...

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 car.

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 cars.

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.

BARTHMASS (GM EXEC): Our goal at GM is to make the full functioning battery electric vehicle a commercially viable business opportunity for general motors.

NARRATOR: GM spokesman Dave Barthmass has worked for GM for nearly 10 years...

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.

BRANCACCIO: But, 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 cars.

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 game.

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 --

PAINE: Yeah.

BRANCACCIO: -- would rather what? I mean, in your film, you argued rather sell rather larger cars.

PAINE: Yeah.

BRANCACCIO: Let's take a look at this.

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.

PAINE: 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.

They 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 money is.

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.

RIPPEL: 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.

BUSH: How far will this car drive on that amount of fuel?

GAS STATION ATTENDANT: It gets about approximately about 100-125 miles a gallon.

BUSH: Really


BUSH: Interesting.

NARRATOR: A fuel cell car powered by hydrogen made with electricity uses 3 to 4 times more energy than a car powered by batteries.

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 future.

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 cars."

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 getting.

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 industry.

BRANCACCIO: As opposed to plugging something in, in your garage.

PAINE: Plugging 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 believe.

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.

BRANCACCIO: 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 story.

PAINE: This is why we -- took on the consumer as part of the suspects for this -- for our story.

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 movie."

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.

PAINE: Yeah.

BRANCACCIO: When we, the consumer hear energy efficiency, he says, we think smaller cars. We think cold houses. We think living like Europeans.

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.

THOMAS AND 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...

NEIL: The 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...

BRANCACCIO: It also helps as your film points out, there was a big tax break for many people if you bought an expensive SUV.

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 owner.

BRANCACCIO: And 6,000 pounds is a pretty big vehicle.

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 fails.

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 good.

BRANCACCIO: So, we can change behavior.

PAINE: Yeah.

BRANCACCIO: This shows.

PAINE: Yeah, but the problem with the hybrids is that they still run on gasoline.

BRANCACCIO: There's still a tailpipe, there's still some pollution when the gas engine turns on.

PAINE: And you still have the internal combustion engine.

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 hybrid.

BRANCACCIO: Plug in hybrid.


BRANCACCIO: 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 wall.

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 car.

BRANCACCIO: And if your batteries run down then there's a little engine to get you where you're going.

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 kind?

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 cars.

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 this.

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 Jesus Drive?

BRANCACCIO: So you have Christi-Evangelicals --

PAINE: Evangelicals.

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.

BRANCACCIO: Well, you're talking about them as neo-conservatives. What's the neo-Conservative -- pony in this race?

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 electric car.

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 great

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.

And that's it for NOW. From the middle of traffic somewhere, I'm David Brancaccio. We'll see you next week.

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