REPORTER: David Brill
As the price of petrol goes through the roof, you're looking at the future of motoring - the electric car.
REPORTER: It's your own fuel station, isn't it, really?
LINDA NICHOLES, E-CAR ENTHUSIAST: It's my own fuelling station. Very convenient!
At least that's what electric car evangelist Linda Nicholes believes.
LINDA NICHOLES: Do you want to go for a ride in my EV?
REPORTER: Yes, please. Where will we go?
LINDA NICHOLES: I'm not sure, we'll just go where the road takes us.
REPORTER: We're running, are we?
LINDA NICHOLES: Yes, we're running.
REPORTER: It's very quiet, isn't it?
LINDA NICHOLES: Yes.
Linda bought her all-electric Toyota RAV4 a decade ago. California wanted to reduce smog and forced its car companies to produce zero-emission vehicles.
LINDA NICHOLES: One of the things I think I enjoy most is the quiet, no-vibration, peaceful ride. I feel very empowered by driving this car. I'm no longer a gasoline junkie.
Linda says her car is a dream come true. When she gets home, she simply plugs it in and recharges the batteries. In a few hours she'll have enough power to drive about 150km.
REPORTER: And that's it?
LINDA NICHOLES: That's it.
Her total electricity bill for the house and two electric cars, is an astonishing $2 a month. That's because she's covered her roof in solar panels. They generate so much electricity she sells power back to the grid when she's not plugged in. She says that if she charged her car directly from the grid, it would still only cost the equivalent of 20 cents per litre of petrol.
LINDA NICHOLES: The beauty of electricity? It's cleaner, it's cheaper - and this is very important it's domestically produced, and no war has ever been fought for electricity, and even more particularly, no war has ever been fought for solar, and it never will be.
This is a free, solar-powered public charging station in Los Angeles, one of a network of stations developed in the '90s to support electric vehicles.
CHRIS PAYNE, DOCUMENTARY MAKER: This is one of those electric chargers. You just push a button in the car and it opens up the charging port.
Chris Payne is another electric car enthusiast. But his is the only electric car there. The rest are conventional cars using it as a parking station.
CHRIS PAYNE: That's it. We used to joke that it only takes three seconds to charge an electric car. But I'll want to leave this here for 45 minutes at least until I get a good pop.
If you think all this sounds too good to be true, then you're right. Chris Payne is a documentary maker, and his latest feature is 'Who Killed the Electric Car?'
WHO KILLED THE ELECTRIC CAR.: In 1996, electric cars began to appear on roads all over California. Athey were quiet and fast, produced no exhaust, and ran without gasoline.
It tells the incredible story of how, after rising to the challenge of producing electric cars in the 1990s, California makers dumped the idea soon after.
PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: Keeping America competitive requires affordable energy, and here we have a serious problem - America is addicted to oil.
It's only this year that the American Government has realised that driving around in gas-guzzling tanks that depend on foreign oil is not the smartest energy policy.
CHRIS PAYNE: An electric car says we can use our own energy to power our cars, we don't need go defend oil in the Middle East. So the fact that the electric car was killed at this moment in history is sort of a double crime.
The star of his film is the EV1, an all-electric 2-seater put on the market by General Motors in 1996. It was futuristic, fast, and, by all accounts, adored by all who drove it.
TOM HANKS: Believe it or not, that sucker goes. That thing will take you down the PCH so fast you could get a ticket.
MEL GIBSON: I did kind of feel like that, that sort of wheeeeeee! And the way it takes off out of the cave. I had this gate that opens, and...
CHELSEA SEXTON: The EV1 in particular was really special just because it was really cool and fast and fun to drive, and one of the things that GM did so right when they set out to make that car was to absolutely shatter the golf cart myth when it comes to electric cars.
Chelsea Sexton was part of the General Motors sales team for the EV1. She's now an activist in a campaign to promote electric cars. According to her, General Motors abandoned the EV1 because it threatened the big players in the industry.
CHELSEA SEXTON: What GM didn't count on was those cars being so good they would challenge the status quo of the auto industry, of the oil industry.
Chris Payne's documentary says that General Motors never really believed in the EV1, and didn't promote its clean, green advantages. In effect, it murdered its own baby.
DAVE BARTHMUSS, P.R. GENERAL MOTORS: We made every effort to make a business out of the EV1. We don't spend in excess of a billion dollars to set a vehicle up for failure.
Dave Barthmuss is manager of public relations at General Motors, and says that far from a conspiracy to kill off the electric car, there was simply no mass market for it.
DAVE BARTHMUSS: You could only go roughly 100 miles or so before you had to recharge it, and then it took roughly 4-8 hours to recharge the vehicle, and for something like that to work for a mass market, you really had to adapt your lifestyle to meet the needs of the vehicle, versus a vehicle that's going to meet your needs.
But according to Chelsea Sexton, General Motors was just not committed to making the electric car a success.
CHELSEA SEXTON: In my experience, to sell a car in the ad, you need to show a picture of the car in the ad, tell people where to go to see it, some little facts about the car. That sort of thing helps when you are trying to sell a product, and that stuff was just gone from the advertising. So, yes, certainly we got indications along the way that they weren't as sincere about this, as they would have people believe.
REPORTER: In the film, even people working for GM, even said that they felt that after a year or so, that the heart wasn't in GM to continue on with this. The felt they weren't getting the support, they weren't getting the advertising or the marketing. It was if you were forced into by the government to do this.
DAVE BARTHMUSS: Well, I'll tell you, they're a handful. There are a lot of emotions within General Motors about the EV1, certainly. It was not an easy decision for us to come to, to end production and marketing. It was not easy for us to spend well over $1 billion and not recoup our investment. It wasn't easy for us to develop award-winning advertising, to set up a unique sales and service force, to have a vehicle that ultimately only generated 800 leases. So, in essence, we did everything that we could to grow the market in California. No matter how disappointed and angry some people are over our decision to end production and marketing, there are simply two sides to every story.
Documentary maker Chris Payne concedes that the number of miles in a battery charge was a problem for the EV1 sales.
CHRIS PAYNE: A lot of consumers said, "No, I don't want a car that only goes 100 miles on a charge. I want a car that goes 300 miles on a charge, I have a long way to drive." Well, it turns out that most people, especially commuters, the national average in the States, for everybody, the average miles that you drive a day is 30. So a car that can go 60 miles or 100 miles a day really can work as a perfect second car. In my case it became my primary car very fast. And then you had that gas car for those rare times when you really do need the range.
While new and better batteries are in the pipeline, GM says there's still a long way to go.
DAVE BARTHMUSS: I have not seen an auto company come out with a battery program that has a vehicle that will have the kind of range and quick charge that's needed to appeal to a mass market at a price point where the common man and woman can afford it on a monthly basis.
Electric car enthusiasts scoff at the affordability arguments. They point out that at the same time the EV1 was dropped, GM was busy promoting the most expensive and biggest gas guzzler of them all - the Hummer.
DAVE BARTHMUSS: I know that there are charges that we killed the electric vehicle program in order to create the Hummer, or be able to afford and pursue the Hummer program. Again, there is no conspiracy to cut off the electric vehicle because we wanted to pursue heavier and larger vehicles. People did not demand the EV1 from GM in large enough numbers, for us to pursue it.
CHRIS PAYNE: The Hummer was the ultimate SUV. And in fact, when it came out, you could get up to a $100,000 tax deduction if you were a small business owner for owning one. So the government gave a message to the people. The message was - buy these huge monstrosities. Meanwhile, the electric car, when they were on the road, the maximum tax credit you could get was $4,000. So this is how government shapes the future, and unfortunately the American Government was pushing Hummers and no wonder in some ways the car companies walked away from the EVs and concentrated on these Hummers.
For the electric car activists like Linda Nicholes, the battle is not over, even though the dream of the EV1 has been lost. The final nail in the coffin came in 2004 when GM trucked away the last of the EV1s to be crushed. Linda and other activists managed to save their cars from the shredder.
LINDA NICHOLES: This picture was taken in Arizona at GM's proving grounds. What you see here is the crusher actively involved in flattening these beautiful little EV1s that are stacked up like so many cords of wood, flattened into useless coke cans and shredded into a million pieces. These EV1 cars represented a reality, a reality that was working and that can work again and needs to work again, and will work again. These cars are not dead, electric cars are just temporarily unavailable. The dream is still alive.
REPORTER: Why did you then recall all the cars and crush them? Why did you do this?
DAVE BARTHMUSS: Well, first... no, we did not recall the vehicles early. Everybody signed a 3-year lease agreement and agreed to what was going to happen at the end of the three years as far as turning the vehicle back in to General Motors. Yes, the other half of the coin, is those vehicles were then sent to the recycler. Now, part of the recycling process involves crushing the stripped body, so that it can be shredded and all the various metals can be separated for recycling use. Now, the reason that we did not want to leave the vehicle in the hands of owners after the lease expiration is because we did not have a significant amount of parts to keep the vehicles running safe.
REPORTER: So you made up your mind at that stage that you weren't going to make a spare parts division for that car?
DAVE BARTHMUSS: We simply did not have enough parts to keep those vehicles on the road, going in a safe manner. We felt it was not the right thing to do to allow a vehicle to be left in someone's hands that we didn't have the confidence we needed to know that it would be operated in a safe manner.
The idea of a car maker producing a new model without spare parts sounds almost as implausible as the policy that allowed new cars to be destroyed. In Chris Payne's documentary, a reporter happened across some Honda electric cars just as they were about to be shredded.
WHO KILLED THE ELECTRIC CAR.: And what is interesting, the first thing we noticed when we drove up here, you going to be shredding some new cars. These look like perfectly good cars. Why are you shredding them up?
MAN: Uh, little bit of a mystery, really. Since I'd been here these last eight years, they bring us these cars from the dealerships and they say that they are test cars and there have been brought over to test various emissions and the insurance companies won't re-insure them so they have to watch them destroyed here.
REPORTER:That seems like a shame. I'd like to drive off in one of these things. Ladies and gentlemen, that's the sound of a crushed automobile been shredded into a million pieces.
The death of the electric car has left the market to enthusiasts like John Wayland.
JOHN WAYLAND, E-CAR ENTHUSIAST: Why bring gasoline when you can run on American electrons?
He and his friends have converted their old petrol cars to electric power.
WOMAN: No batteries. The whole car is batteries. Did you hear him turn it on? It's silent.
JOHN WAYLAND: What's wrong with that car over there? It has a gasoline engine that won't start.
WOMAN: This is cute. And these are all the batteries? The whole front end is stuck of them, too.
REPORTER: What do you think?
WOMAN: I think it's pretty cool.
REPORTER: Have you seen one before?
WOMAN: No. No, I have not. Not full electric. And I love the way he's got it in an old Datsun.
REPORTER: Did you know that GM and the big companies were going to make them at one stage then stopped making them?
WOMAN: No, I didn't, but if they make these then that puts a whole bunch of millionaires out of business, doesn't it?
REPORTER: So what did you think of it?
WOMEN: I like it.
REPORTER: What is going on here today?
JOHN WAYLAND: We've got one, two, three, four, five electric cars on charge right now, all at the same time. This is the Wayland EV juice bar. This where you come to suck amps. This is suck amps central. If you look in here right now, this is the mighty Ziller Z2K.
REPORTER: What does that do?
JOHN WAYLAND: That is the motor controller that divides the amperage from the batteries to the motor. In other words, it's a speed control. It's like a giant light dimmer. Only this one happens to be a 600,000-watt dimmer. 0.6 megawatts, yeah, it's a lot of juice. This is the White Zombie. This happens to be the world's quickest street-legal electric door slammer. It too has a Ziller controller, a mighty Z2K. It came from the factory with 69 horsepower and about 70 foot pounds of torque. It now has about 300 horsepower, and 772 foot pounds of torque. Because it has so much torque, we do not need a transmission. Electric motors have full torque at zero RPM and they have an abundant amount of torque.
REPORTER: So what do you do here with your electric cars? You've been involved with them for 25 years, you've got your friends around here today, tuned them up for a bit of racing tonight. What's behind all that?
JOHN WAYLAND: Well, first of all, we don't want to wait for Detroit, or Toyota or Nissan. We're not going to wait. We convert our own cars in our backyard. It's not that hard. As long as you can turn a wrench, know a little bit about electricity, you take out all that pollution-belching stuff and you put in an electric motor and motor controller, charger, a little bit of hard work, and you've got yourself an electric car. It's not that hard to do. What we're doing today, though, we've turned into evangelists, with capital EV. We like to show the general public that the electric car isn't dead. Every time we hear of these negative spins going on, we hear news reports that are inaccurate, we like to show people, well, I'm sorry, you're being misinformed.
John Wayland and his mates are obsessed by the same passions as other car nuts - power and speed. Tonight they're off to that Mecca of rev heads, the drag racing track.
JOHN WAYLAND: And this car will be racing tonight? This car will be racing tonight. It runs at a very quick 12.1 seconds in the quarter mile, and generally dricks the tyres off the ground and keeps them up in the air for about 50 feet on launch.
REPORTER: All on electricity?
JOHN WAYLAND: All on electricity, man. It's the amps. We've got the amps.
John's little white Datsun, with the mighty Ziller power converter under the bonnet, is about to show a petrol car a thing or two. The EV enthusiasts have obviously solved the power problem. They also say they now have a battery that will last between 400km and 500km without a charge. But is anybody in Detroit or Washington DC really listening?