To understand writer and director Chris Paine’s new documentary, Revenge of the Electric Car, you really need some background from his 2006 film Who Killed The Electric Car? The ensuing five years is only one product cycle in the auto biz; but these last few years were unlike anything the industry has seen in more than half a century.
Who Killed opens with a mock funeral for GM’s EV1 electric car at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, complete with Hollywood celebrities and environmentalists. It’s a fitting introduction to Mr. Paine’s investigation into the untimely death of the EV1.
The film follows the fight between a group EV1 drivers and an evil corporate monster by the name of General Motors that refused to extend the leases or sell the cars to the lessees at the their stated residual values. You just know this isn’t going to end well.
The saddest and most dramatic moment from Who Killed takes place on March 14, 2005 when GM trucked all the remaining EV1s from a nondescript storage parking lot in Burbank to a desert graveyard where they were all crushed. [GM did donate a disabled EV1 to the Petersen Automotive Museum.]
There was a lot of blame to go around as far as who really killed the electric car. GM didn’t want to send a mixed message of “clean” versus “dirty” vehicles to its customers and its dealers didn’t see much service revenue from an electric car.
Then there was the false hope, pushed by oil companies, of a hydrogen fuel cell car when mass market hydrogen technology and infrastructure was still decades away. And it goes without saying that Big Oil isn’t thrilled with a transportation future that doesn’t involve sales of their products.
And then there was the surprise villain, the California Air Resources Board (CARB), that caved into pressure from automakers, oil interests and federal and state politicians to get rid of California’s zero emissions vehicle mandate. Once the mandate was gone, GM no longer needed the EV1 in its portfolio.
At the end of Who Killed The Electric Car? there was a ray of renewable sunlight that pure electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles were already mounting a come back. The Tesla Roadster was promising and aftermarket tinkerers were modifying the standard Prius to be a plug-in vehicle.
Fast forward to 2011 and oh how things have changed. The world economy tanked in 2008 and we are still in a recession or a jobless recovery, depending on how you look at it. GM and Chrysler were put though government-sponsored bankruptcies in 2009 and both have emerged stronger than ever with new products people are actually buying. And Americans are buying smaller cars with smaller engines.
In 2010, the previously-unstoppable Toyota juggernaut hit an iceberg with numerous sudden acceleration, safety and quality problems. Ford survived the Great Recession without a government bailout and it’s now on a roll with great new products people want.
But most significantly, GM is back in the EV game with the Chevrolet Volt, a plug-in electric-hybrid vehicle and the battery-electric Nissan Leaf is on sale now. Of course, Los Angeles is ground zero for both of these advanced alternative fuel vehicles.
Mr. Paine’s new documentary, Revenge of the Electric Car, opens with classic aerial views of the Los Angeles freeways. Dan Neil, arguably the smartest and most influential automotive journalist in the country, the man that critiques anything from a Ferrari F458 sports car to a Mazda5 minivan, explains his transformation from a gasoholic to a true EV believer.
Where as Who Killed is a “who done it,” Revenge is about “who’s doing it” and the race to be first to market with consumer-friendly electric cars. To tell the story, Pain weaves together the tale of four very different but equally dedicated EV protagonists.
First up is the mercurial, PayPal-rich entrepreneur Elon Musk, a co-founder and CEO of Tesla Motors. Tesla’s precarious finances nearly bankrupt both the company and Mr. Musk. In one dramatic scene, Mr. Musk is accused by angry Tesla customers of perpetrating a bait-and-switch by selling them a Roadster at one price then raising the price on delivery. Astonishingly, Mr. Musk pretty much admits to doing just that.
Cigar-chomping, fighter jet piloting, egotistical, Mr. Horsepower, EV and global warming skeptic and (at the time) GM Vice Chairman “Maximum” Bob Lutz is the unlikely champion of the Chevy Volt. Mr. Lutz had the foresight to drag GM out of its self-made corporate sink hole and pushed for the development of the unique extended-range electric Volt.
Although GM’s 2009 bankruptcy slowed it down, the Volt became a production reality in December 2010. The fact that it exists is no small miracle given GM’s legendary insular, glacially-paced culture and most of the credit goes to Lutz.
Then there is the impenetrable and laser-focused Brazilian-Lebanese-French Carlos Ghosn, the Chairman and CEO of Nissan and Renault. He is confident in his leadership and he’s bet the future of Nissan on the electrification of the automobile. If he’s right, Nissan will become a global leader in electric cars.
The role of the backyard converter is played by the real-life Greg “ Rev. Gadget” Abbott, a scrappy guy who can electrify any car. Based in LA, Greg and his company, Left Coast Electric, struggle to stay in business. You really root for Rev. Gadget and, in the end, Greg and his wife successfully drive an electrified vintage Porsche 356 Speedster replica the more than 120 miles from LA to Palm Springs on one charge. It’s a beautiful love story – both personal and professional.
Revenge of the Electric Car is well knitted together and fast paced. The filmmakers had unprecedented access to the inside workings of Tesla, GM and Nissan and the results are both revealing and fascinating.
Tim Robbins narrates and smart editing interjects all different perspectives from politicians like Gavin Newsom, celebrities like Danny Devito and Stephen Colbert, and journalists like Thomas Friedman of the New York Times and Ray Wert of the automotive website Jalopnik.com.
The story of the electric car is still being written; but if you want to know how we got to where we are, Revenge of the Electric Car is a rare and intriguing look behind the scenes of the highly-secretive automotive industry.
Elon Musk, Rocket Man:
Bob Lutz, Mr. Detroit:
Carlos Ghosn, The Warrior:
Greg “Gadget” Abbott, The Outsider: