Monday, July 17, 2006

Automaker denies claim of plot to pull the plug

Tuesday, July 11, 2006
Automaker denies claim of plot to pull the plug
'Who Killed the Electric Car?' sends GM on offensive
David Shepardson / Detroit News Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- General Motors Corp. has gone on the offensive in the wake of a new film that slams the automaker's decision to end its $1 billion electric car program.

"Who Killed the Electric Car?" debuted last weekend in Metro Detroit at the Main Art Theatre in Royal Oak. The movie tells the story of GM's EV1 car, which ran on electricity and produced zero emissions. GM eventually pulled the plug on the program and forced all 800 EV1 drivers to turn in their vehicles at the end of their leases.

While the producers acknowledge that consumers have not embraced electric cars, the film tries to make a case that the EV1 threatened the status quo and died as a result of a conspiracy among oil companies, government officials, car executives and others to keep electric vehicles off the road.

While only about 20,000 people have seen the limited release movie, GM is fighting many of its allegations. Type the movie title into some Internet search engines and the top result is a GM-sponsored link that directs consumers to a blog that tells GM's version of the EV1 story.

"We do have a responsibility to get our message out to people who will listen," said GM spokesman Dave Barthmuss. "We understand that the producers have a point of view. We want to get the facts out … This wasn't a commercially viable business. We lost well over $1 billion on the project. There is no conspiracy. If we could make a vehicle that could run on cow manure, we would do it if we could make money on it."

GM's proactive response may be an attempt to avoid the kind of beating the company's image took when GM was the subject of another film critical of its policies.

The automaker essentially ignored 1989's "Roger and Me" when it was being produced. The film by Michael Moore is a scathing portrayal of his pursuit of an interview with then-CEO Roger Smith after GM closed factories in Flint, Moore's hometown.

For "Who Killed the Electric Car?" released by Sony Pictures Classics, GM worked with the producers.

"The movie illustrates the emotion, the passion and the loyalty generated by the EV1 owners," Barthmuss said. "The problem was there weren't enough of them. We had only 800 people willing to lease the vehicles over a four-year period."

Chris Paine, the movie's director, who leased an EV1 in 1997, said in an interview Monday that with gasoline costing twice what it did when GM sold the EV1, consumers demand could now make it a profitable niche vehicle.

"Americans want cars that get 40 to 50 miles per gallon," Paine said. "GM had the technology of the future at their fingertips."

GM Chairman and CEO Rick Wagoner admitted in an interview published this month in Motor Trend magazine that killing the EV1 was his worst decision.

"Axing the EV1 electric-car program and not putting the right resources into hybrids … it didn't affect profitability, but it did affect image," he said.

"Who Killed the Electric Car?" traces the fallout from a 1990 mandate issued by the California Air Resources Board that 2 percent of all vehicles in the state have zero emissions by 1998, 10 percent by 2003.

The board picked the electric car for the target. GM, Ford Motor Co., Toyota Motor Corp., DaimlerChrysler AG and others began marketing such cars in the state.

GM had introduced the EV1 as a concept car at the 1990 Detroit auto show. The EV1 hit the market in 1996 and was available only through leasing.

In 2002, GM and DaimlerChrysler sued to overturn the California zero emission mandate -- which never took effect.

By 2003, Toyota said it would stop production of the RAV4 EV -- the only electric car available for sale, not lease. In April 2003, GM said it would not release leased EV1s for purchase by consumers, citing a lack of parts, and that it would discontinue the model.

Last year, activists staged 24-hour vigils outside a facility in Burbank, Calif., where GM had stored 78 EV1s destined to be scrapped -- a move that garnered lots of negative publicity.

"Could GM have handled its decision to say 'no' to offers to buy EV1s upon natural lease expirations better than it did? Sure," Barthmuss said. "We did what we felt was right in discontinuing a vehicle that we could no longer guarantee could be operated safely. So as right and as good as our intentions were, we understand that the moviemakers see them as wrong. We'll accept that criticism, but don't punish GM for doing a good deed."

At the Main Art, the film drew about 400 people over the weekend. The film moves to Birmingham Friday. Later this month it will open in Livonia, Sterling Heights and Auburn Hills.

Paine said he hopes to come to Detroit for a screening of the film. "I'm glad that Detroit and GM are taking the movie seriously," he said. "I wish they didn't feel like we were so threatening to them."

Bloomberg News contributed. You can reach David Shepardson at (202) 662-8735 or

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