Reporter's Notebook: Revenge of the Electric Car

VIDEO: Chris Paines documentary chronicles the global resurgence of electric cars.
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If revenge is sweet, Chris Paine should be on a sugar high. Paine is best known for his 2006 cult classic "Who Killed the Electric Car" which explored why several hundred happy little electric cars went from being parked in driveways and garages to rotting in sands of the Sonoran Desert.

Over 20 years ago, General Motors began development of the EV1, an all-electric passenger vehicle that was universally hailed as a game changer. Tom Hanks and Danny DeVito drove one. So did Chris Paine. One GM manager described EV1 drivers as having a "wonderfully-maniacal loyalty." With that kind of consumer acceptance, it seemed as though the electric car would be in the hands of thousands of drivers by Y2K.

Just as so many dire predictions of Y2K proved incorrect, the future of electric cars suddenly became about as bright as a solar eclipse. Although hundreds of the spunky little two-seaters were leased (they were never made available for purchase) GM ultimately turned its back on the electric car. Quickly, and as quietly as possible, the cars were gathered up, crushed, and taken to GM's proving grounds at a remote site near Phoenix, Ariz.

But, the funny thing about technology is that once the knowledge is out there, it's hard to pretend that it never existed. Electric cars are back and, not surprisingly, so are their loyal fans. In fact, it looks like they brought their kids.

From the quirky little Nissan LEAF to the super-hot Tesla Roadster, electric cars are once again cruising American streets and this time there are thousands of them. Almost all the big automobile manufacturers are racing to get their gasoline-free models to market.

Paine's latest production, "The Revenge of the Electric Car" lovingly chronicles their return. The film debuts today on screens in New York and Los Angeles. As much as you expect it to be a story about technology, it's really a tale about people.

It profiles four EV visionaries, each navigating separate paths, which they hope, will lead to production and, ultimately profit. Their stories are skillfully woven together, each presented in their own voice.

GM executive Bob Lutz is "Mr. Detroit," working to hard to bring the plug-in hybrid Volt to market. Nissan President Carlos Ghosn is "The Warrior," whose passion is the all-electric LEAF. Tesla CEO Elon Musk is "Rocket Man," struggling to keep his fledgling company afloat. Greg "Gadget" Abbott is "The Outsider," whose tiny company converts classic cars to electric drive.

The film reveals each character's distinctive path to productivity, and Paine's access was conditional on his promise to maintain confidentiality of their trade secrets.

Paine didn't want it to be an "issue movie." He wanted it to be a profile of entrepreneurship and how hard it is to create change. He says, "You feel good knowing that things are heading back in the right direction." He credits global insecurity and basic economic factors, such as high gasoline prices, which forced carmakers to take another look at electrics. "National security and oil pushed it from the right, environmental issues pushed it from the left, and capitalism pushed it at the center, and that is where fundamental change happens."

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