Reporter's Notebook: Revenge of the Electric Car

GM turned its back on electric vehicles, but now they're making a comeback.

October 21, 2011, 11:50 AM

October 21, 2011&#151; -- 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."

Paine seems content simply knowing that so many multi-national corporations have done an about face. They get it. He's not about to rub anyone's face in it. Asked if his film is truly revenge, he quickly responded, "Nobody wants to hear people say I told you so, and the movie doesn't do it." About the same time that GM killed the EV1, they ironically purchased the Hummer brand. They were also going bankrupt. Since that time, a government rescue has helped return the company to profitability. As Paine puts it, "they made a lot of bad decisions" but he doesn't want to stick it to them. "The car companies kind of did an about face on the electric car, from it'll never work, nobody will ever buy one, to hmmmm, maybe this IS a good idea."

The EV doubters still exist. Commentators such as George Will question the fiscal prudence of spending millions of dollars of taxpayer money on federal subsidies that lower the end cost of EVs and plug-in hybrids by up to $7,500 per car. Will opines, "The Volt was conceived to appease the automotive engineers in Congress, which knows that people will have to be bribed, with other people's money, to buy this $41,000 car." He questions the efficacy of subsidizing EV chargers. "The federal government, although waist-deep in red ink, offers another bribe: Any purchaser can get a tax credit of up to 50 percent of the cost (up to $2,000) of an extra-powerful charger."

Always looking to recover some of my tax money, I happily applied for and received $12,500 in federal and state rebates, and a free charger. As an early purchaser of an electric car, I was recently invited to a preview of the film. Arriving at the screening, it was immediately apparent that the audience would be an informed crowd. Over 40 Nissan LEAF EV's filled the parking lot. Owners wandered the lot admiring the funky little cars that, amazingly, all looked alike. It was one giant happy family.

Kaherine Zachary is Senior Manager of Communications for Nissan of North America. She has a theory as to why electric cars have made a comeback. "Plugging something in has become second nature. You go home, you plug in your phone. Going home and plugging in you car is not a crazy thing to do, and one that people are finding more convenient than going to the gas station." Zachary believes that EV's are finding greater acceptance because, "70% of people drive less than 40 miles a day. This car works for a lot of people's lifestyles."

Paul Scott has been an EV driver for more than 20 years. He is a board member of Plug-in America, an activist organization that promotes electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles. He believes that Paine's original documentary educated millions of viewers about what happened to EVs. Scott says the sequel is the "next installment of that historical record. These cars are absolutely coming back and with a vengeance."

When I asked Chris Paine what was the most amazing thing he learned over the 5 years of film production, he responded, "The amount of electricity it takes to make one gallon of gasoline. The oil companies don't want you to know. If you put the same amount of electricity in an electric car, you can go 20 miles, so why have this in-between step? I thought I knew everything, but clearly, I don't!"

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