Highway Robbery

A new film vows to avenge the death of the electric car

Megan Michelson

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

If gas prices haven’t been keeping you up at night, wait until you see Who Killed the Electric Car?, a feature documentary rolling out nationwide this summer. Part eulogy for the General Motors EV1 (a battery-powered car that was recalled under mysterious circumstances in 2003), part Michael Moore–type indictment of Detroit, Big Oil, and federal and state governments, the Sundance darling promises to make every fill-up sting just a little bit more. MEGAN MICHELSON spoke with director Chris Paine, 45, while he navigated his electric Toyota RAV4 on the freeways near his Santa Monica, California, home.

Not to blow the ending, but who did kill the electric car?

The title is rhetorical. It’s about what went wrong in America and how we can do this better next time. It’s about more than the electric car; it’s a metaphor about why our country is having such a hard time breaking the oil habit.

That may not play well in Texas.
Yeah, it was tough getting oil-company people to talk to us. I didn’t want to have one of those point-your-finger documentaries that don’t get the other side. I’d call them and leave messages, but there was a lot of suspicion that we were going to roast them.

Why was GM so eager to get these cars off the road?
They’ll tell you it’s because nobody wanted the car. The truth is a far bigger issue. That’s why I made the film. The answer won’t fit into a sound bite.

Will electric cars come back?

They already are. That was the hard thing about the title for us. A lot of people are buying hybrids. Next time, they’ll buy pure electric cars, and they’ll never have to go to the gas station again.

What about the promise of fuel-cell cars?

They’re great for people who don’t like change, because they won’t be available for 20 years. We could have electric cars right now.

You Can’t Be Serious

Thanks to the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, life can actually get even more carefree after college. Applicants for the $25,000 stipend face several rounds of interviews and essays, but the payoff is worth it: a year to follow your bliss. I should know. Ten years ago, I convinced the Watson board (the fellowship is named for IBM’s unconventional founder) to let me study traditional beer brewing in Africa and Europe. I thought I had the best post-college trip ever until I heard about Alexandra Cheney, one of this year’s 50 winners. Starting in August, the 23-year-old graduate of Massachusetts’s Wheaton College will be surfing top breaks all over the planet as a means of studying the connection between surfers and environmental protection. The Hispanic-studies-and-English double major, who plans to pursue a Ph.D. in film studies once she returns, will have to submit quarterly reports on what she’s learning about coastal degradation and conservation efforts. But otherwise the Santa Monica native will spend the next 12 months riding waves from North and South America to Africa and Asia. “Yeah, my closest surfer friends are insanely jealous,” says Cheney. Us, too.
—Christian DeBenedetti