Revenge of the Electric Car: Inevitable or Impractical?
Much has changed since "Who Killed the Electric Car?," Chris Paine’s 2006 documentary that implied that General Motors helped strangle its own EV1 electric car in the cradle. For instance, the GM vice chairman who described global warming as a total crock of nonsense (he used a stronger word) talks in Paine’s new sequel about the age of electric cars as a "foregone conclusion."
The vice chairman, Bob Lutz, championed development of GM's Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid, which went on sale at the end of last year. But GM faces stiff road competition from Nissan, with its all-electric Leaf, not to mention a Silicon Valley upstart and even a garage tinkerer.
What a difference a couple of years makes.
The stories of those innovators form the heart of "Revenge of the Electric Car," which had its first screenings at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City April 22-23. In it, everyone gets to be the hero by supporting the new technology, perhaps in part because "no one wants to be remembered as a bad or evil person," as Dan Neil, automotive columnist for the Wall Street Journal, observes in the film.
Quite a cast of characters
The new documentary’s tension comes from the competing visions of how to make the electric car the dominant ride of the 21st century.
The diverse lineup of electric car champions comes with heroic nicknames in the film. Besides Lutz, who is dubbed "Mr. Horsepower," there is Carlos Ghosn, chairman and CEO of Renault and Nissan, who has bet Nissan's future on the Leaf. Ghosn's calculated business strategy of stealing a march on his rivals by aiming for average commuters rather than niche customers earns him the film nickname "The Warrior."
Going up against the big auto manufacturers is Elon Musk, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur who invested the millions of dollars he made from PayPal into founding private spaceflight firm SpaceX and electric car company Tesla Motors. As the film's "Rocket Man," Musk brings a can-do attitude and fast-lane lifestyle that partially inspired Hollywood's latest "Iron Man" films about fictional playboy-turned-superhero Tony Stark. Yet the film also captures an intimate portrait of his personal life; trying to change the world while raising five sons and going through a messy divorce isn't easy.
Then there is the little guy. Greg "Gadget" Abbott of Los Angeles runs his own small business that converts any regular gas-guzzling car into a zero-emissions electric vehicle in just a few days. Abbott embodies the type of small-scale garage innovator America loves to celebrate, and his story is the most poignant in "Revenge of the Electric Car."
No set date
The innovators and outside experts all enjoy using words such as "inevitable" to describe the electric car's resurrection, but "Revenge of the Electric Car" does not ignore the huge challenges that may yet stall the electric car’s future. The film covers GM's bankruptcy during the recent financial crisis, Nissan's all-or-nothing gamble on the idea that a mass market is ready for all-electric cars, Tesla Motors' near-death struggle to produce its expensive Tesla Roadster in a timely manner, and a livelihood-threatening disaster that strikes Abbott.
Such "engineers, innovators and entrepreneurs," rather than governments and regulators, will solve the problems facing electric cars, Thomas Friedman, a columnist for the New York Times, predicts in the film. Yet the film also shows how the U.S. government spent billions on bailing out GM, as well as extending a $465 million loan to Tesla Motors and a $1.4 billion loan to Nissan for building new factories.
The film does not fully explain why the electric car has opened the wallets of even the most pragmatic and profit-driven CEOs and investors, but viewers can revisit "Who Killed the Electric Car?" for a more in-depth exploration of the background issues.
Paine explained during a discussion that followed the April 23 screening that he wanted to avoid retreading those complicated issues in "Revenge of the Electric Car." That frees the sequel to be a much more optimistic tale focused on the human element. And in a time when corporations such as Best Buy talk about selling Americans on electric cars, there's much to be optimistic about.