EV1 at the Petersen Automotive Museum "Revenge of the Electric Car"
Whoever said, “Revenge isn’t sweet?” has not seen, ‘Revenge Of The Electric Car‘ the new documentary directed by Chris Paine, which is the sequel to the 2006 documentary “Who Killed the Electric Car?” While Revenge Of The Electric Car is not flawless, the film provides a compelling tale of the resurgence of the electric car.
Revenge Of The Electric Car revolves around four men who have played roles in bringing electric cars onto our roads. Bob Lutz Vice Chairman of General Motors (GM) is referred to as Mr. Detroit; Rocket Man, Elon Musk Co-Founder and CEO of Tesla Motors ; The Outsider, Greg “Gadget” Abbott who builds his own electric cars; and The Warrior, Carlos Ghosn President and CEO of Nissan and Renault who is the driving force behind the all-electric Nissan Leaf.
I assumed the movie would be biased toward electric cars, and in the first 10 minutes of the movie, there is little doubt of this.
The opening scene with Dan Neil, the Wall Street Journal automotive journalist, clearly establishes the movie’s premise. He proclaims, “Electric cars are the only way forward.” Mr. Neil is a well respected writer, having won a Pulitzer Prize for writing about cars. Throughout the movie he serves as the main voice pushing the story along, adding his insight and wit.
Bob Lutz, a GM executive who has been at numerous car companies, encouraged the development of the Chevy Volt. He was not always a believer in the technologies, and is often blamed for killing off GM’s EV1 program. One of the important events chronicled by the movie, is the PR disaster GM experienced when it shut down and destroyed all EV1 cars. In the film ,when he discusses why GM’s board was not excited to build the Volt, Lutz says, “The company had lost so much money on EV1.” Mmm…. let’s not forget that it was Lutz who had the cars crushed.
Lutz though, is unapologetic about both his actions and his prior comments. He is a charismatic, smart, and competitive man, which Paine shows well. Lutz’s push to build the Volt not only helped GM’s image, but insured his place in automotive history. Lutz, as Neil points out, is a bit of an egomaniac.
Elon Musk, CEO and Co-Founder of Tesla, is the man who forced GM and the big players in the auto industry to rethink how they view electric cars. He showed that it is possible to build electric cars and not the slow, unimaginative, and boring cars people associated with electric propulsion. Tesla choose to make the Tesla Roadster, a cool and fast electric car.
Of course what you learn as an audience, and what Musk and his Silicon Valley buddies realize quickly, is that it is not easy building and selling cars. Lutz makes a point in the movie that it is a lot harder than you think.
There is a bit of a surreal moment when Musk is checking over a warehouse of Tesla Roadsters that had issues and problems. Car #23 had a bad powertrain. Musk said , “Replace it, take it out, put a new one in, and table the old one for analysis.” He expresses to the Tesla employee that customers might start losing confidence. Chris Paine, the director, chimes in that #23 is his car. Musk is caught a bit off guard, then compliments the color of the car. I guess Paine knew the gamble he made when he put down his deposit for his Tesla Roadster. Tesla delivers his Roadster a year later.
Greg ‘Gadget’ Abbott is an independent entrepreneur who chooses to build his own electric cars. Gadget also does electric car conversions for those willing to spend a hefty sum. Both Gadget and his wife are dedicating their lives to building electric cars. Gadget I think, is one of the most compelling characters in the movie, if not the most compelling. His challenge includes rebuilding his life and business after his main workshop is burned down due to arson. Gadget lost $250,000 in uninsured tools and several of his electric cars. The only thing that survived the fire was a controller, “I can built a car with that” he says. You can tell he is down but he always seems to be unfailingly optimistic.
Carlos Ghosn, who is President and CEO of Nissan and Renault, seems to have shown up the entire auto industry by building the Nissan Leaf, a fully electric car that is affordable to the masses and available worldwide. Neil says that Ghosn, “Is not a visionary” but I disagree. The Brazilian-Frenchmen has a vision to make money with the Leaf. That is a vision that could truly change the world and what our transportation infrastructure looks like.
It is important to note that Nissan sold around 10,000 Nissan Leafs in 2011, while GM sold 6,000 Volts. It seems Ghosn made the right decision as the Leaf’s technology might position of the leader in electric cars. When Paine asks, “Do you feel you are ahead of the game?” Ghosn replies, “I don’t feel, I am!” showing his confidence and business acumen.
There is no denying Chris Paine’s bias toward Elon Musk and Tesla, as demonstrated by the flashy montage of Musk’s and Tesla’s rise with celebrity commentators, compared to Bob Lutz’s and Carlos Ghosn somewhat laid back static sequence. This reflects the different personalities to a degree, but it is still hard to miss the bias.
For instance, a short segment involving Martin Eberhard, one of the co-founders of Tesla, is a bit odd. It does not fully explain the story and makes it seem like Musk and Tesla are the good guys for kicking Eberhard out. There is no way to know what happened, but judging from Musk’s mass firings, it might be safe to assume he was probably the bad guy in the story.
The movie focuses too much on Musk, while ignoring other interesting characters. Gadget’s story of how and why he started building electric cars would have been interesting to hear. (Maybe this will be on the DVD bonus features.)
What the movie does show is Tesla’s difficult road to making cars. Musk is at one point forced to wire all his money to Tesla to make payroll. He might be brash and arrogant, but he had a lot of faith to stick with Tesla. I respect Musk for that, and look where Tesla is now.
The movie has its share of celebrity appearances, featuring Danny DeVito, Anthony Kiedis (Red Hot Chili Peppers), Arnold Schwarzenegger and others. The movie is narrated by Tim Robbins, the actor and well-known liberal activist. He describes himself as a EV enthusiast.
The other two interesting characters, along with Mr Neil, that provide comments and insight are Ray Wert, editor of Jalopink, and Owen Thomas, the editor of Valleywag. They casually talk about the auto industry on a park bench, giving additional insight to the story.
With a growing need to meet energy needs and oil becoming more expensive, harder to find, and from hostile places, electric cars may be as Dan Neil puts it, “The only way forward!” The movie claims that it costs $1 equivalent per gallon to “fill-up” an electric car. Of course what it does not emphasize… we still get most of our electricity from fossil fuels!
Paine tells a compelling and fascinating account of the resurgence in electric cars and the people behind them in the film, which is what he wanted to accomplish. He details the trials and tribulations of Tesla, GM, Nissan, and Mr. Abbott, each story ending with optimism and hope for the auto industry.
Revenge Of the Electric Car is a must-see for any car enthusiast, auto journalist, environmentalist, or person who wants to be informed of what the auto industry will look like in the future.
Revenge Of The Electric Car will be available on DVD on January 24th, 2012.