The Compleat Guide to the Electric Car Movies of Chris Paine

Jamie Lincoln Kitman

Jamie Lincoln Kitman | Dec 07, 2011

Who killed the electric car? Chris Paine's 2006 documentary of the same name made the case that General Motors had more than a little something to do with it, committing a heinous crime when it pulled the plug on its promising EV1 electric car program scant years -- and around 1000 cars -- after its launch in 1996.

While the title surely seems an oversimplification, the underlying claim by Paine, an EV1 driver himself, is that GM came to the belated realization that it might retreat from its considerable electric car commitment (made in response to a bold California state regulation mandating pilot production of electric vehicles). I find it entirely credible and supported by the facts. Abandoning electric vehicle manufacture soon after it started (even though it was largely outsourced), GM figured it might get back to the serious business of 24/7 SUV selling with little penalty. But they were wrong.

General Motors' EV1. (Creative Commons/Rick Rowen)
Ironically, having initially mistaken the regulatory mood in the land, GM had reckoned itself compelled to deliver a credible effort for its first modern electric car. And so it did, fairly dusting competitors' lame responses to the California mandate, such as Chrysler's glorified golf carts and Toyota's tubby, battery-powered RAV4s. But such agreeable, forward-thinking behavior was clearly aberrant. GM, which could have gotten a huge head start on the entire electric vehicle industry had it stayed the course, would soon return to type -- prodded, in Caine's estimation, by oil companies, enabled by craven bureaucrats and the best, elected officials money could buy – knowing they should, could and would get away with abandoning EV1. Disappointingly, California scrapped its requirement and GM was, as the young people used to say, outie, or, my favorite, Audi 5000.

Looking to undo the California regulation requiring electric cars, GM assumed the ludicrous task of assassinating the character of its own decent and innovative product in court, which it did by arguing that EV1 was a hopeless stinker. In a successful 2001 legal challenge to the California mandate, GM maintained that its labor of love "demonstrated the minimal market appeal of electric vehicles based on cost, range and infrastructure issues." Two years later, GM began pulling leased EV1s off the road, while smitten owners clamored unsuccessfully, some in court, to keep them. Before George Bush had finished his first term in 2004 (his election and presidency being a not unrelated bit of background to this story), all EV1s save a handful were out of sight, crushed and stacked at GM's high-security Arizona proving grounds.

EV1s crushed and stacked. (Creative Commons: Plug In America)

GM's public posture was dubious in its particulars (what infrastructural element is more ubiquitous than electrical outlets) and depressing in its short sightedness. We don't make money on EV1s, the corporation and its apologists loudly complained. But surely nobody thought they were going to make a profit on their first 1000 electric cars? What kind of self-imposed hurdle is that? Toyota surely lost money on its first-generation Prius hybrid and look what it got: a powerful brand, a licensable technological leg up and a marketing fig leaf large enough to excuse some of the grossest pickups and SUVs known to man.

Who Killed the Electric Car? generated a surprising amount of hubbub with its suggestion that -- despite a claimed investment of  $1 billion -- GM didn't want electric cars to succeed. How could that possibly be, bellowed the film's critics? Why would a big corporation, General Motors no less, have done something foolish, irrational and internally inconsistent, such as investing in something it later thought to abandon, unless there was an excellent reason?

Well, excuse me, but I can't hear you, I have a Hummer division in my ear. Seriously, folks, do we really need to debate whether or not GM was capable of doing stupid, illogical things? Some it’s come to regret (Hummer, anyone?), others have just been left for the rest of us to regret. The important thing now is that the company has come in recent times to rethink the whole question of electric propulsion--its post-bankruptcy conversion is depicted quite favorably in Paine's latest film, The Revenge of the Electric Car.

Focusing on four players in the modern electric car saga, Paine does a fine job telling the more recent chapters, wherein the category left for dead in the first film has begun to rise, phoenix-like, in the form of new products from Tesla, Nissan and GM.  Except, of course, GM's Chevy Volt isn't a full electric. Rather it's a hybrid with both gas and electric motors. Still the Volt marks progress -- in theory it's not too dissimilar to the car GM built in the 1990s for the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles. In an amazing slight of hand, which involved GM, Ford and DaimlerChrysler accepting a combined $1 billion in taxpayer money during the Clinton administration, it built one 80-mpg hybrid demonstration model, with the thinly veiled purpose of forestalling stricter emissions and fuel economy regulations.

The Revenge of the Electric Car is a reasonably dramatic tale, a history in progress, even for those who don't live and breathe cars. For good measure and some additional freaky color, Paine weaves in the story of Greg "Gadget" Abbott, a sometime electric car-builder -- when he isn't suffering from environmental health problems or mental collapse or attending costume balls wearing the codpiece and powdered wig of a 19th-century French aristocrat -- who works out of ramshackle old warehouses with his hippy wife for company, converting old Triumphs and Porsches into EVs.  Serious amounts of face time with Tesla's Elon Musk, Nissan's Carlos Ghosn and GM's Bob Lutz are more historically significant and are revealing, in a different way, though Gadget Abbott is probably the one you'd want to party with. Come to think of it, maybe not.

While the film views the players' motives as largely benign, it doesn't answer to my satisfaction what stands in the way of another wholesale industry retreat from electric cars -- and let me re-iterate here my broad support for the technology, which I believe though still imperfect is clearly one important plank of making the automotive transport category less polluting -- but it does provide valuable insight into the difficulties makers of electric cars face. It also reminds us what extraordinary personalities are required -- and always have been -- to launch industrial ventures as ambitious as car companies, much less ones that require new infrastructures and technology sets to thrive and, not to mention, revised government policies, enormous amounts of consumer education and a laundry list of other costly, hard to obtain pre-conditions.

It's no wonder the electric car industry needs not just endless amounts of capital, but its own Henry Ford and William Crapo Durant, themselves the Steve Jobs and Larry Ellison of their day. That is to say, the industry needs committed, total weirdos, with outsized personalities and messianic tendencies to the fore. And there's nothing wrong with that. If you don't at the very least think you've got the Lord on your side because He told you to do what you're doing-- and it's not clear some of the stars of this film don't think they are themselves the supreme rulers of the universe -- then you're likely not up to the job of building and selling electric cars.

So it's really not surprising or upsetting to learn that these guys are all to be found residing somewhere on the spectrum of arrogant egoist  - high-functioning nut-job - control freak - techno-geek.. Musk, the famous founder of eBay, is busy trying to build spaceships when he isn't attempting to launch the world's first serious volume electric car maker. An Israeli, he is by turns awkward, bombastic and forlorn. Ghosn, a Brazilian of Lebanese descent, is the reptilian technocrat workaholic who famously rescued Nissan from the precipices of bankruptcy, while simultaneously running France's Renault, only to launch Nissan into the most radical change in direction any major car company has taken, possibly ever, literally gambling its future on the ultimate success of electric cars.

And finally there is Bob Lutz, the octogenarian old-hand, the silver-haired ex-Marine who had seemingly finished his career at GM by talking up the Volt after decades spent talking down subjects like fuel economy, air pollution controls and global warming. Prior to his re-appearance in this film, Lutz was likely to be remembered for what was worst about late 20th-century GM.

Bob Lutz speaking in Detroit, Michigan in October, 2008. (Creative Commons/Ed Schipul)

Filmed at a low point in his life -- he'd just been put out to pasture by GM during its bankruptcy reorganization as a symbol of all that was "once" wrong with it (though the company has since rehired him) -- the cigar-chomping Lutz speaks at times with disarming frankness. And even if you can't help disagreeing with many of the things he's said and done over the years -- or can't help calling out this self-interested charmer for the clearly opportunistic way in which he's rewriting his own legacy to include a starring role in the development of a technology he fought and/or failed to champion most of his career -- he's a character you can't help but like. In fact, if only he had 50 more years to give to this new technology. Then again, with developments in medical science, who's to say he doesn’t?

Call it The Revenge of Bob Lutz.

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