The Electric Car Exacts its Revenge

“I didn’t even like cars.”

Not exactly what you'd expect to hear from a film director best known for his work documenting the rise, fall and rebirth of the electric car.  But after driving electric cars for the past ten years, Chris Paine, who just a few years ago asked Who Killed the Electric Car?, has become a car guy, prone to discuss the finer points of his all-electric Tesla Roadster, plug-in hybrid Chevrolet Volt or dearly-departed General Motors EV-1.

As it turned out, the 2006 release of his first film coincided with several major turning points in the electric vehicle (EV for short) story, documented in Paine’s follow-up, Revenge of the Electric Car, released last Friday.

“I wasn’t going to make a second movie,” says Paine.  “It just came out of hearing that the industry was about to reverse itself, and we already had the connections.  You don’t usually see things shift, especially in giant industries.  So maybe we should take advantage of this window and watch what happens?”

A lot happened.  The future of the electric car was suddenly in the hands of surprising advocates, as the new film follows four somewhat eccentric central players: Bob Lutz, the outspoken GM executive who unexpectedly leads the push for EVs in his hanging-by-a-thread car company; Carlos Ghosn, the larger-than life CEO of Nissan who puts his formidable reputation on the line to produce an affordable all-electric car; Elon Musk, the overstretched Silicon Valley entrepreneur who juggles production of his sleek Tesla Roadster EV with a commercial space flight company; and master tinkerer Greg “Gadget” Abbott, who converts beautiful vintage cars into EVs, until disaster strikes.

Paine says that the focus this time around was purposely on the people involved with the EV revolution, not the issue itself.  “What changes people’s minds is emotion and a sense of momentum and charisma,” Paine explains. “So let’s do a story about people with incredible charisma – risk takers – that for whatever motivation, whether environmental or completely non-environmental, have decided that electric cars are where we're headed.  And we ended up with a very different kind of movie.”

Despite the confidence of even former EV skeptics like Lutz and Ghosn, Paine says that there’s still one looming barrier to changing people’s minds about electric cars: “Low gas prices. That will delay it. Because when people fill up their truck or cars for $100, they go ‘Damn there must be something cheaper.'  And electricity is $1 per gallon in equivalent cost.  So ordinary people are saying, ‘Wow, this electric car thing might be a solution for my pocketbook.'  If they keep oil prices $3 or below it'll take a lot longer, if it’s $5 it'll be a lot faster.”

For the auto executives featured in the movie, however, plain old competition was a major driver for them to pursue EVs, and in some cases, even convinced them to open up their businesses to Paine’s team of filmmakers.  Paine was already a Tesla customer when he approached Musk about documenting his company as it developed its Roadster EV.  Musk agreed, and immediately Paine let GM’s Lutz know about the filming arrangement.  “Tesla was a real thorn in Bob’s shoe,” Paine says, recalling Lutz’s reaction to the news, “'God these guys are doing it?  I knew it!'” Soon after, Lutz convinced the GM board to let Paine follow the development of the Chevrolet Volt.  Nissan flew two executives to Paine’s home for an intense hour-long questioning over tea along with one of Paine’s producers.  The two execs immediately hopped back on a plane to Japan and soon after, Paine got approval to start tracking the Nissan’s highly-secretive Leaf program.

With greater access to these companies of course comes the danger of subtle manipulation.  As one former Frontline producer working with Paine’s team directed: No junkets, no special favors – it’s a thin line but stay on this side.  “We didn’t want to become part of their spin machine,” Paine explains, “Greenwashing for any of the car companies. Our job was to tell the story of how change can come from the inside.”

One of the auto companies' fellow guilty parties from Who Killed the Electric Car? shows no evidence whatsoever of changing: big oil.  Clearly, the oil industry is no fan of the electrification of the automobile for obvious reasons, but Paine explains that there’s more to the story: “They're one of the largest users of electricity in the world.  All the power lines go in (to the refineries) because they eat up an incredible amount of electricity to get the crude oil to turn into gasoline.  So why not just bypass the oil, and run cars?”

The oil industry almost won another battle with EVs thanks to the 2008 economic collapse.  All of the electric car programs were uniquely vulnerable in a tense economic and political climate.  In the middle of filming, Paine remembers expecting the worst: “We're in our second act and the movie becomes ‘Curse of the Electric Car.'  And these programs all go down and we're stuck with Hummers and SUVs for another ten, twenty years.  But then, miraculously, the Volt survived the bankruptcy at GM, and all the other things that happen in the movie start to turn things around.”

The film indeed ends on a bright note, and although sales of both the Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf have been fair, Revenge of the Electric Carpresents a convincing case that the shift towards EVs is inevitable, however slow the process.

Leaving the EV story with a happy ending certainly makes sense, so Paine is thinking about shifting gears for his next film.  “I'm thinking that the next film will not be about electric cars,” he proposes. “But I made that prediction last time so who knows.”

So what might be the subject of his next film?  Bikes.  Wait, bikes?

“Yeah I love bicycles! Did you know bicycles were only invented around the time that the car was invented?  I thought bicycles came from ancient China, but they came from about 1874. Look at what bicycles are today – they're a cultural revolutionary force.  I mean there’s a lot of great bike movies out there so…maybe something else.”

Maybe, but with more and more electric and hybrid models coming out, I wouldn’t completely rule out one more chapter to complete an EV trilogy.