An Electric Car, Booted

Off the street and out of the Smithsonian: GM's discontinued EV1 is no longer on exhibit, despite a new documentary on it.
Off the street and out of the Smithsonian: GM's discontinued EV1 is no longer on exhibit, despite a new documentary on it. (National Museum Of American History)

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By Linda Hales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 16, 2006

The central mystery of the new movie "Who Killed the Electric Car?" is why General Motors created a dynamic battery-powered auto that drivers loved, only to crush it to smithereens.

The mystery, meantime, at the National Museum of American History is why a rare surviving example of that car -- a silvery-blue 1997 EV1 sedan -- would be removed from display yesterday just as interest in the innovative vehicle seems bound to grow.

In the movie, which premieres June 30 and goes into wide release July 21, writer-director Chris Paine celebrates the creation of the EV1, a nonpolluting car that generated so much passion among its fans that drivers staged a public funeral to say goodbye. Paine also excoriates GM for halting an experiment in gasoline independence under pressure from Big Oil in "one of the biggest blunders in the history of the automotive industry."

GM, which donated the EV1, happens to be one of the Smithsonian Institution's biggest contributors. A $10 million gift in 2001 paid half the cost of the history museum's new transportation exhibition hall, which was renamed to honor the benefactor. But museum and automaker say the EV1 was removed from view with no thoughts of public reaction to the movie or the display.

"There was no pressure from GM to remove the car from display," spokeswoman Michelle J. Werts said. The museum, which closes for renovation in September, simply needed the space for another vehicle, she said.

"It's not that I picked up the phone," said GM spokesman Dave Barthmuss, who defends the company in the film. "There is no conspiracy to do away with the EV1 at the Smithsonian. There is no Oliver Stone-esque conspiracy at GM to do away with the EV1."

Paine, who was on his way to a screening in Detroit last night, was not happy that the EV1 was in the museum in the first place.

"It's so sad that EV1 is being portrayed as history," he said by phone. "It's not an example of 'failed' technology. It's an example of what the 21st century can be in this country, if we had the willpower to do it. The Smithsonian should take the car out of the museum and put it back on the road."

The story of the EV1 is a classic 1990s tale of government regulation, corporate innovation, brilliant engineering and consumer lust for the Next New Thing.

The film chronicles how GM developed and launched a fleet of silent, aerodynamic electric vehicles to meet California's zero-emissions mandate. The shapely two-seaters with a GM logo enjoyed a brief ride in California and Arizona from 1996 until 2003, when they were taken off the market and destroyed. (GM says it was concerned about safety; others say the company wanted to head off the loss of proprietary secrets.)

Paine was one of the original drivers. The director started to make a comedy about Los Angeles drivers going nutty over cars, but the project turned serious after he encountered perfectly drivable EV1s being crushed and shredded at the Mesa Proving Grounds in Arizona.

In the film, images of President Bush and Vice President Cheney set a political tone, although California regulators set standards for zero emissions that forced automakers, including Honda and Toyota, to experiment with electric cars. Ralph Nader weighs in. So do Mel Gibson and Tom Hanks, who drove EV1s.


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