August 25th, 2008

Must-see documentary: "Who Killed the Electric Car?"

I finally saw "Who Killed the Electric Car?" the other night, after wanting to see it for about two years. I'd highly recommend this DVD to anybody who drives a car, or more broadly, anybody who gives a damn about the future of energy and transportation in this world (which, I hope, would be most people).

Yes, I'm sure one could raise arguments not addressed in the film, like the issue we're facing with hybrids concerning toxic battery chemical disposal. But there's only so much you can cram into a movie-length documentary, and this film builds a solid case and makes a slam-dunk indictment of a variety of parties who, directly or indirectly, conspired to kill progress and maintain the status quo when electric cars were poised to make substantial market inroads -- and start offering solution to some very serious problems.

I, for one, had no idea there were legitimate production electric cars hitting the highways in the late '90s. Granted, that's partly because it appears California was the only market for the pilot program, and I was living in New York at the time. But it's part of the point the film makes: the whole era has been neatly erased from history, and a lot of people have no idea it even occurred.

With hybrids at the forefront of today's technology geared toward reducing reliance on the internal combustion engine, we've gotten somewhat of a skewed impression of the future of cars. Namely, with the Prius serving as hybrid poster child numero uno, the idea is that ecologically responsible cars are boring and bizarre. The new "eco-chic" mandates that, if you wanna save the Earth, it's stylish to drive an underpowered, poor-handling, strange-looking car, all in the name of maximizing fuel efficiency down to every last drop of gas.

Granted, we've seen a few hybrids that deviate from this "minimalist driving experience" mantra, but on the whole, most hybrids still seem to be adaptations of less-sporty trim levels of existing models.

But this little historical lesson in electric cars tells us another story. They can be fast. They can handle well. They can be "sexy" (if car styling is your thing). And as battery technology continues to improve, all this can be accomplished with a vehicle offering quite decent range. The point is, alternative energy can revolutionize automobile technology without sterilizing/castrating the driving experience, for those of us for whom driving is more than just a way to get from Point A to Point B. I really hope the hybrid market moves more in that direction, especially as plug-in hybrids promise to up the efficiency ante another few notches. It can only serve to increase market appeal.

Many people like to point out that even with electric cars, you're still burning coal at a power plant somewhere, and hence doing environmental damage anyway. What this argument fails to realize (and what the film point out) is that centralized power production has a host of advantages over numerous individual combustion machines. The most important factor is that the "greener" you make the power grid (with things like solar and wind contributing to electricity production), the "greener" electric cars automatically become. And even with coal, centralized combustion is substantially more efficient, less polluting, and easier to regulate than countless fuel-burning cars running around. Plus, moving pollution centers out of populated areas greatly reduces health risks associated with poor air quality.

One possible implication here -- and something I've believed for some time -- is that today's gasoline-electric hybrids, while a step in the right direction, are still part of the problem, and hence cannot be part of the final solution. They represent a band-aid technology with a built-in expiration date. And yes, even if you switch to biofuels, you're still spewing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and possibly placing undue load on the food production infrastructure. The film does concede that fuel cells may be the wave of the future, it but also points out that practical, affordable, mass-market versions are still a long ways off, technologically. (And when you come right down to it, a fuel-cell vehicle is still an electric car -- it's just a self-powering one, where the only "exhaust" is water.)

All told, "Who Killed the Electric Car?" is a sad tale of industry and government collectively undermining progress in the name of blind, short-term profit. But it's also an inspiring story reminding us that there are real solutions to some of our greatest crises, and there are people who care enough to put everything on the line to bring those solutions to fruition.

Once again, I highly recommend this film.