Chris Paine’s 2006 documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? arrived with perfect timing, capturing the country’s collective frustration with sky-high energy prices as well as our growing disenchantment with the automotive alternatives on offer. Let’s hope his sequel, Revenge of the Electric Car, previewed last week in New York and set for wide release this October, proves equally as prescient. The film, which captures what may turn out to be the first stages of the auto industry’s evolution away from oil, cruises smoothly over the finish line where its predecessor ultimately stalled short.
For Revenge, Paine scored fly-on-the-wall access to three of the most charismatic leaders in the auto industry. And he did so at a key moment — just as each was in the midst of executing a high-risk, multi-billion-dollar bet on battery-powered cars. Add in the fact that Paine’s crew was filming during the 2008 economic crisis and implosion of GM, and the result is more than just a snapshot of the gamesmanship behind the creation of mass-market vehicles. Revengeoffers a look inside the minds of business leaders struggling through one of the most troubled periods of recent economic history.
As the documentary opens, U.S. automakers face an environment that’s radically different from the cheap-oil days that ruled when GM developed its first electric vehicle, EV1. Now oil prices are running at historic highs, and governments around the world have begun to put some real muscle behind the idea of the electric car.
Here’s Bob Lutz, GM’s American-born vice chairman and a veteran of the Big Three (Chrysler, Ford, and GM), becoming the unlikely champion of the Chevy Volt, and opening a door to GM’s salvation after the company’s downfall. Known in Detroit as “Mr. Horsepower,” Lutz personifies the about-face that the industry as a whole went through in the time that passed between the making of the two films. Once a deep skeptic of EVs, he now artfully tilts GM’s monolithic culture toward his goal of developing the Volt.
Facing off against GM is the enigmatic Carlos Gohn, the Brazilian-Lebanese CEO of Nissan/Renault, which is building the all-electric Leaf. Gohn’s orderly execution of the Leaf offers a welcome perspective on EVs from beyond American borders. After all, battery-powered cars are likely to flourish on the roads of Paris, Shanghai, and Tokyo before they do here, for the same reasons that small cars did.
Playing counterpoint to the corporate titans is Paypal-founder Elon Musk, a charismatic South African-Canadian struggling to steer the scrappy Tesla from startup mode to full-scale manufacturing. With confidence bordering on hubris, the then 38-year-old is at once inspiring and pain-inducing, as he underestimates the complexity of manufacturing and struggles to produce a stream of fault-free $100,000-plus electric sportsters. (This while also navigating his way through a painful divorce and playing doting dad to his five sons.) There’s real drama in watching Musk’s brave face flicker as he inspects an armada of faulty cars and in watching him awkwardly deliver the news to early depositors that the price of their vehicles will have to rise yet again.
One of the film’s delightful subplots involves the struggles of Greg “Gadget” Abbott, a goateed indie tinkerer who made a brief appearance in Who Killed and who excels at retrofitting classic cars with batteries and electric motors. With an infectious, mischievous air, Gadget offers a reminder of the gear-head roots of EVs’ most devoted fans.
Unlike with his first film, where Paine came to the topic too late to build a “how-it-happened” tale and leaned instead on activists and half-baked acolytes, Revenge captures rich natural tension as it unfolds. Who Killed, for example, featured a parade of Hollywood A-listers (Tom Hanks) and B-listers (Phyillis Diller), many of them sore about having lost their exotic cars and whining about GM’s decision to kill the EV1. Revenge gives us mercilessly few Hollywood prima dons — though Danny Devito does get downright giddy test-driving the Volt.
It won’t be giving anything away to tell you that the end of Revenge is a happy one. Of course, it’s far from the end of the story. Should Paine opt to complete what seems like a natural triptych, the final installment will no doubt prove more global in scope. Beijing has set national EV goals that dwarf those of Washington, for example, and the Chinese have much deeper capital resources. They also have a strong knack for building things like smart grids, which will be necessary for the wide-scale adaptation of EVs. And the race to build a better battery is heating up elsewhere overseas, with labs in dozens of countries working to build batteries capable of matching the range of your average gas tank.
With the gee-whiz stage of EV creation now complete, GM, Nissan, and Tesla also face the tougher slog of turning these enormous bets into reliable, mass-market machines that can actually make some money. Sales of EVs and hybrids are so far running far below the ambitious targets set by national governments, including our own.
Lurking farther out is the persistent threat of volatile oil prices. Many, myself among them, would argue that the real killer of the electric car was cheap oil. In the late 1990s, prices hit a post-’60s low, in inflation-adjusted terms, at the very moment that GM’s EV1 was being rolled out. That wouldn’t make it easy for any $1.25-million prototype to get off the ground, I don’t care how many starlets tell you it’s a great idea. Sub-$2-a-gallon gasoline may seem unimaginable to us today, but a double-dip recession — a real possibility given the anemic economic growth and sovereign debt woes on both sides of the Atlantic — could send energy demand crashing, rendering the EV once again an intolerably uneconomic prospect.
Revenge closes with a scene featuring the Los Angeles Times reporter Dan Neil. The sole automotive writer ever to win a Pulitzer, Neil is cynical about the industry’s abysmal record on eco-cars. At the same time, reflecting on a lifelong affair with gas-guzzlers, he admits that in recent years even he has begun to “let go” of the idea of the traditional car, and to acknowledge that it may finally be rolling toward the sunset.