On this day in 2006, “Who Killed the Electric Car?,” a documentary about the aborted attempt by the auto industry to create an electric vehicle, debuts at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah. The movie posited that there was a conspiracy between oil companies, automakers and the government to kill the electric car.
The film focused on the efforts in the 1990s of several automakers, including General Motors (GM), to develop an eco-friendly, gas-free vehicle. In 1996, GM, then the world’s biggest automaker, debuted its first electric car, dubbed the EV1. It was available in just two states, Arizona and California, and for lease-only. During its years in production, from 1996 to 1999, a total of around 2,500 EV1s were made. In late 2003, GM announced it was pulling the plug on the EV1 program and wouldn’t renew any leases. The company cited the high cost of producing and maintaining the vehicles as a reason for the EV1’s demise. However, as The Los Angeles Times noted in 2009: “The EV1 began in the 1990s as a response to a zero-emission vehicle mandate by California’s Air Resources Board… When, finally, GM and other automakers managed to get California to soften its zero-emission mandate in 2002, [GM CEO Rick] Wagoner promptly canceled the program.”
Electric vehicles have been around since the pioneering days of the auto industry. In the early 20th century, the Columbia Runabout, which could travel 40 miles on a single electric charge at speeds of 15 mph, was a best-seller, according to Time.com, which noted: “Before her husband Henry’s mass production of gas-powered cars crushed the electric industry, Clara Ford drove a 1914 Detroit Electric, which could last 80 miles without a charge. The oil crisis of the 1970s, coupled with a burgeoning environmental movement, led to renewed interest in electric vehicles, although no automaker was able to develop a car that garnered mass appeal.
By 2008, GM, along with the rest of the American auto industry had been hit hard by a global economic crisis and slumping auto sales. GM accepted a multi-billion-dollar bailout loan from the federal government in order to remain in business. However, in March 2009, company CEO Wagoner was ousted by the Obama administration and in April of that same year, GM filed for bankruptcy. The company was criticized for continuing to focus on its sport-utility vehicles and small trucks despite a growing consumer demand for smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles. (In 1999, GM acquired the Hummer brand, known for its oversized, gas-guzzling vehicles). The Los Angeles Times reported: “Wagoner has said the biggest mistake he ever made as chief executive was killing the EV1, GM’s revolutionary electric car, and failing to direct more resources to hybrid gas-electric research. This admission is acutely painful for green-car advocates who know GM squandered its early lead in electric-hybrid technology.”