Revenge of the Electric Car

Not long ago, the electric car was left for dead by greedy special interests. In a new documentary, Chris Paine chronicles its unlikely resurrection.

10.23.09 9:00 PM ET

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Not long ago, the electric car was left for dead by greedy special interests. In a new documentary, Chris Paine chronicles its unlikely resurrection.

If we can’t have flying cars in 2009, is it so much to ask to at least have a car that plugs in?

According to the EPA, passenger vehicles account for nearly 20 percent of America’s greenhouse gas emissions and 40 percent of the nation’s oil consumption. In 1991, California addressed the issue with a zero-emissions vehicle mandate, and by 1996 the first of several thousand electric cars hit the streets. Reaching speeds of up to 140 miles per hour and ranges exceeding 150 miles, they were fast and efficient.

But 10 years later, most of them had been crushed. Director Chris Paine, one of the early adopters, responded with a documentary film, Who Killed the Electric Car?, that aimed to solve the mystery of how an efficient, gas-free, high-performance vehicle was suddenly pulled from the market. What he unearthed was a coordinated effort by oil companies, car makers, the federal government, and others to get rid of a product that they feared would disrupt their profits. The New York Times called the film “an effective inducement to rage.”

How times have changed. Today, most major automakers—along with a slew of startups—trumpet the electric car they have in development, with several models debuting this week at the Tokyo Motor Show. Paine spoke to The Daily Beast about his next film, Revenge of the Electric Car, the dazzling new models about to hit the market, and why the old gas-powered dinosaurs will never go away.

Click Image Below for A Gallery of Electric Car Models About to Hit the Market

Who Killed the Electric Car? showed just how passionate the early adopters of GM’s EV1 were. Mel Gibson had to submit a résumé to prove he was worthy of leasing one. How did you end up in that crowd?

I said I would never buy a new car unless it was not running on gasoline. And when GM brought an electric car to market I thought the future had arrived. It was nice feeling at least a little bit of control over our energy equation. So when we had to return the cars because the leases expired and there was no option to buy them, it was pretty hard to take. And we were convinced that there was more to the story than what the car companies were saying—that there was no customer demand. Most people just never had a chance to drive them.

So how did you decide to do a film about this?

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It started with trying to get the media to cover it. We contacted 60 Minutes and 20/20 and said, “Hey, this is a worthy story. California and the car companies have spent millions of dollars. This is a radical new technology.” And we couldn’t even get a short piece. So we decided to hold a mock funeral for the electric car. We got some coverage, but the reports were, “Electric car Enthusiasts Say Goodbye to Electric Cars and Get Ready for Hybrids and Hydrogen Cars,” which we never mentioned at all. We thought, “My God, is the media getting a press release from the car companies saying that’s the story?” That’s when we decided to make a movie.

It’s disturbing to hear the news organizations weren’t more interested in investigating.

While we were making the film we asked why and were told, anecdotally, that a lot of television news had gotten burned by their Firestone rollover coverage. The media did a great job reporting these SUVs weren’t actually that safe when you consider they rollover when the tires blow, and so a lot of them lost advertising revenue. In those days nearly 50 percent of television advertising was auto.

That film had a long list of suspects for who killed the electric car: the auto industry, oil companies, consumers, the California Air Resources Board, the federal government, and the hydrogen fuel cell. All were found guilty to some extent. Are any of them exonerated in Revenge of the Electric Car?

Nobody likes to change, and that’s really why better technology takes a while to break through. Every one of those suspects had good reason to be skeptical or kill the electric car. The car companies, because they didn’t think they could make money on them in the short-term and they were making such big margins on SUVs. And they didn’t want a car that might rob their aftermarket.

Because there are fewer parts and less maintenance for electric vehicles?

Right. There’s no transmission and no tune-ups or oil changes required. My Toyota RAV4 EV (electric vehicle) has never needed service and the EV1 had one service call in the five years I had it.

What can we expect to see in Revenge of the Electric Car?

We’re tracking the fortunes of GM with the Volt and Tesla, initially with their Roadster and now the Model S, and the electric Smart Car. And then we’re tracking a whole group of other manufacturers and related stories like Better Place in Israel and what the Chinese are up to. I think we’ll definitely see a few of the same people from the first film. I don’t know if Martin Sheen will narrate again—he was fantastic. Chelsea Sexton is now consulting for a venture-capital firm, VantagePoint, in Silicon Valley, but she’s still working with us on this film.

I read you were filming in Iceland, which relies on a huge natural geothermal resource. Can you tell us about that?

The beauty of Iceland is that 100 percent of their electricity is renewable, so they don’t have the coal problem. And in 25 years, 15 percent of our energy in the U.S. could easily be geothermal. You don’t have to live on top of a volcano like Iceland does. But the irony in Iceland is they don’t have any electric cars, and they have to import all of their oil. So Mitsubishi and others have pilot programs in progress there. And they’re not a country that drives tiny cars. They’re SUV, truck-drivin’ cowboys.

Sexton managed the leasing of GM’s EV1s and very publicly fought the company to keep the program alive. But they invited her to test drive the Volt for your next film. Is your relationship with them as complex as it sounds?

Everything is complex right now. Taxpayers are now co-owners of GM and it’s complicated for us because we don’t want to be an extension of their public-relations arm. But on the other hand, if they are doing a great product we want to showcase it.

And you quoted one executive from the company as saying, “The public won’t forgive GM twice.”

Rick Wagoner, the former CEO whom Obama pushed out, has said his biggest regret was killing the EV1. We were considering doing the first movie as a corporate suicide instead of a murder mystery, because it really is a tragedy for them. They were so far ahead of Toyota. They were ahead of everybody and they gave up five if not 10 years of technology leadership.

Has GM confirmed with you precisely when they expect the Volt to hit showrooms and how many they plan to make in the first year?

The current timing of the film is somewhat based on seeing whether GM is going to be delivering Volts by the end of 2010 as they’ve committed to. It looks like they are going to do it. Of course, it’s not going to be profitable out of the gate because it’s a new technology and it’s not amortized. But we’re not going to release a movie called Revenge of the Electric Car until average consumers can actually buy electric cars. Otherwise, we’re just feeding into the marketing hype.

What about the wave of startups that already have electric cars in production, like Tesla, or plan to soon, like Aptera and Fisker? Do you think they’ll be able to successfully compete alongside the giants?

Not all of them. It takes an incredible amount of money to run a car company. So it’s in part a question of who can maintain financing. The bulk of the market is going to remain with the GMs, but Tesla’s gotten a huge boost with the Daimler deal and a $465 million federal loan. And Better Place has the idea that batteries should be leased. Why does everybody need to buy the battery when it can easily be the most expensive part of an EV? You might get a 60-, 120- or 220-mile battery pack. Just the amount you need.

With, according to them, the ability to switch them out for a fully charged one in less time than it takes to fill a tank with gas.

Yeah. It’s like a cellphone. Only you buy per mile instead of per minute.

And what about other players like BYD, the Chinese auto company that Warren Buffett has invested in?

We’re going to China, so we’ll be able to provide some firsthand information on that in this next film. But it’s easy to underestimate the complexity of entering the car market with a new brand. Hyundai and Kia have been in America for 15 or more years now and are just getting real market share.

Which car is most likely to be the biggest competitor to the Volt?

Nissan and Mitsubishi both have a great shot at it. And who knows, maybe Ford will hit the market in a big way. They just got a huge loan from the [Department of Energy] for advanced vehicle development as well. But GM seems to have the jump again because they’ve really been focusing on it. And frankly, the Tesla Model S, which will probably be about the same price as the Volt initially, has a good shot, too.

Are consumers really ready to adopt plug-ins in large enough numbers to really make them stick?

The biggest challenge for consumers is going to be price point. They wish it could be a clean car and get better mileage, but in the end it’s about what they can afford. A lot of government leadership is required. Electricity is still relatively cheap compared to gasoline and if we had to pay gasoline’s true cost, I think it would really help with the faster adoption of EVs.

Do you envision a time when gas-powered cars are the minority?

By 2020, EVs will be well on their way, so maybe 10 or 20 years after that. It’s said that the auto fleet turns over every seven years, so as more and more electric cars are manufactured there will be a crossing over. Certainly the gas car will become the minority, but it won’t be rubbed out entirely.

Matthew Dakotah is conducting a series of interviews with global environmental leaders for The Daily Beast. An award-winning journalist, he has directed 14 magazine and Web site redesigns and worked at Hearst and Emap. As vice president, group editorial director of Homes & Lifestyles Publishing, he initiated coverage of sustainable development and secured contributors from The New York Times, The Washington Post, Architectural Digest and Princeton. Follow Matthew on Twitter: @matthewdakotah.