The Electric Car Is Back: And Chris Paine's New Film Chronicles Its Triumphal Return

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Apr 26, 2011

Tesla's Elon Musk (left) meets GM's Bob Lutz. (Courtesy of Papercut Films.)
Tesla's Elon Musk (left) meets GM's Bob Lutz. (Courtesy of Papercut Films)

NEW YORK CITY--From the depths of despair to cautious optimism, that's the career trajectory of filmmaker Chris Paine, whose very successful documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? has now been succeeded by The Revenge of the Electric Car. It's not a question of evil automakers crushing zero-emission vehicles, but of consumers justifying the investment and actually taking the plunge to buy them.

Revenge made its debut at the Tribeca Film Festival, followed by a panel discussion featuring several of the heavyweights from the film, including Carlos Ghosn of Nissan and Elon Musk of Tesla. Dan Neil of the Wall Street Journal, a fairly optimistic presence in the film (he's bought his last gas car), gently prodded the execs during the Q...A about "guarding against over-exuberance."

The film, which is beautifully shot and paced, covers the same territory as my forthcoming book High Voltage (Rodale), though I was able to see a lot more cars delivered into the hands of waiting early adopters. As critic John Voelcker points out, it's a movie without a villain, since the General Motors that was crushing cars in the first film is putting them on the market in the second one. Here's the trailer:

A central figure is the larger-than-life Bob Lutz, GM's vice chairman, at the start of the film and retired to opulence (with his own fighter jet) at the end of it. He once famously called global warming a "crock." Of what, you can well imagine. Although he was the driving force behind the Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid, I doubt he'd retract that statement now. He's blunt, looks good in a suit, and uses a cigar as a prop in the same way Groucho Marx did.

But Lutz is not the baddie here. If EVs fail, blame the iron laws of science, which make it really, really hard to get more than 100 miles out of a set of batteries. That gave rise to the phrase "range anxiety," and a concern about electric car performance that gets more acute when cold temperatures and use of the heater cut that range even further. The film ends just as the cars are being produced, so it doesn't tell that side of the story.

Revenge is a personality-driven film, and its characters--Musk, Lutz, Ghosn--leap off the screen. Each is seeing a plug-in car through to production, and the tension is provided by a worldwide recession that starting in 2008 threatens to derail the entire industry, not just the EVs. Musk in particular makes it clear how much keeping the Tesla Roadster (and its Model S successor) on track costs him personally: He's seen wearily heading out for one more sales effort, and plunging his dwindling bank account into the car.

Musk won't let Tesla fail, so it comes as a relief when customers (including filmmaker Paine) take delivery of the first cars. Ghosn is risking a lot on the Leaf, too, though Neil's assertion in the film that its failure could kill Nissan itself is a bit hyperbolic.

Ghosn took issue with that, and some other things, after the film in a panel discussion led by actor David Duchovny of "X Files" fame (he was there because, well, he once owned a Toyota RAV4 electric). Give us some time, Ghosn said, and remember that when the first cell phones came out they were huge, weighed a ton and supported only 20 minutes of battery life. "And since then we've made billions of those phones," he said.

The panel: from left, Dan Neil, Elon Musk, Chris Paine, Carlos Ghosn, David Duchovny. (Rick Kim Photography.)
The panel: from left, Dan Neil, Elon Musk, Chris Paine, Carlos Ghosn, David Duchovny. (Rick Kim Photography)

Musk compared the problematic packs in EVs to their laptop counterparts, which have steadily improved. "Yes," said Neil, "but laptop batteries don't need Department of Energy certification, or mobile heating and cooling, or crash survivability."

We see a lot of EV testing in the film, and given the safety needs of these wholly new vehicles it's only to be expected. But there's no substitute for actual customer miles, and that's just trickling in. It's a mixed picture, of course, with many Leaf owners (600 or so have been delivered) saying they're ecstatic and others complaining about getting stranded by over-optimistic range estimates. There's an adjustment phase underway, and we'll know a lot more in six months than we do now.

Some people say, with justification, that the rate of EV introduction in the next few years isn't likely to have much impact on oil dependency or our beleaguered climate. They want to see our current fleet made over with an electric plug. Representing the EV converter and home tinkerer in the film is Greg "Gadget" Abbott, who specializes in turning exhaust-spewing sports cars (Porsche Speedster replicas, Triumph Spitfires) into zero emission paragons.

Chris Paine gets his Revenge. (Courtesy of Papercut Films.)
Chris Paine gets his Revenge. (Courtesy of Papercut Films)

It's Abbott who has to start all over again after vandals burn down his uninsured Los Angeles garage, and everything in it. The road to profitability in this business is almost as long as for the big guys at Nissan, Tesla and GM, so Gadget's small-scale apocalypse resonates.

In the film, Musk and Lutz meet up at an auto show, and it's a great unscripted moment as they self-consciously banter. Without Tesla, the Volt probably wouldn't even exist because Lutz was propelled on the path by the very existence of the Roadster from an upstart would-be competitor. Who knows what they actually think of each other, but the fact is that they're in this whole electric car together.

Revenge of the Electric Car makes the case that the eventual triumph of plug-in cars is inevitable, given all our dead-end fossil-fuel dependence. If this were a Michael Moore film, it would have dwelt on the evil petroleum capitalists who got us into this fix, but Revenge is much sunnier than anything Moore would produce. Despite long odds, the EVs are here, hitting the market, reaching consumers and spreading their zero-emission message. Wave to Chris Paine in his Tesla Roadster when he drives past.

Get the Car Talk Newsletter

Got a question about your car?

Ask Someone Who Owns One