100 years ago, there were as many electric cars on the road as there were gasoline-powered ones. Then, as now, electric automobiles were more efficient and quieter than their counterparts. At that time, mass production, the development of automatic starters, and cheap oil ended up driving electric cars off the market entirely.

So what’s the excuse, now? This is the question writer/director Chris Paine tries to answer in “Who Killed the Electric Car?” Using interviews with environmental activists, politicians, auto industry insiders, and celebrities (of whom Mel Gibson is, surprisingly, one of the most coherent), Paine attempts to solve the mystery of what happened to the first, and last, electric car produced by a major auto manufacturer: the GM EV-1.

The EV-1, developed in the late 1980s, was made available for lease in America in the ‘90s. GM left it on the market for less than a decade before discontinuing the vehicle and refusing to renew existing leases, eventually repossessing all remaining EV-1s and towing them off to be crushed (in blatant contradiction to GM’s official stance that the cars were going to be “recycled”). The film chronicles the attempts of a few people to save the remaining cars and, at the same time, attempt to reverse existing policy.

Like most documentaries, “Who Killed the Electric Car?” works best when it sticks to the facts. Showing us the details about the California Air Resources Board caving in to the automakers and repealing their 1990 Zero Emissions Mandate, for example, is much more effective than coverage of some goofy mock funeral for the EV-1 with Ed Begley Jr. providing the eulogy.

So who did kill the electric car? There are many suspects, and as it turns out, most of them are guilty. Consumers are to blame for caring more about size and looks than efficiency, car companies are to blame because they’re unwilling to manage the dichotomy between short-term profit loss and the immediate profitability of SUVs. Oil companies funded consumer groups to oppose electric charging stations and opposed alternate technologies they don’t control, and the federal government gave tax credits to companies for buying SUVs and has done nothing to increase fuel efficiency standards. And never mind that Chief of Staff Andrew Card is a former GM VP and Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice is a former member of the board at Chevron.

Given the increasingly dire predictions about global climate change and the state of affairs in the Middle East, developing a car that doesn’t require gasoline seems like a no-brainer. No one has ever accused the likes of GM or the Bush Administration of being forward thinking, however.

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