Phil Patton | Reviews

Another Wrong Turn for Chris Paine

Revenge of the Electric Car,
director Chris Paine’s sequel to Who Killed the Electric Car?, premiered on April 22 (Earth Day) at the Tribeca Film Festival. After the screening, Paine appeared on a discussion panel with two of its main subjects, Carlos Ghosn, CEO of Nissan, and Elon Musk of Tesla. Dan Neil of The Wall Street Journal was also on hand, and the moderator was the actor/writer/director David Duchovny.

The choice of moderator was apt: Paine’s first film, which was embraced by people who should have known better, bears approximately the same relation to reality as the series for which Mr. Duchovny first became known, The X-Files.

The first film suggested that only a conspiracy of Detroit suits stood between a clamoring public and “emissions free” driving because General Motors had ceased selling its EV-1 electric and crushed the cars.

If only it were that simple.

Most informed proponents of electric cars were surprised by the reaction to Paine's first film. GM had crushed prototype cars for decades, and the idea of a company that had shown so little ability to run its own business running a conspiracy was laughable. As for the car itself, it was a crude but respectable gesture and never attracted enough interest to be commercially viable. What was revelaing was that so many people wanted to believe the tale. So why the suspeciion? Perhaps because it was Detroit's history of resisting safety and energy improvements had created a vast reservoir of pubic ill will. Those of us who drove the serviceable if limited EV-1, and those who invented it, notably the late Paul MacCready, the legendary engineer at Aerovironment, knew how hard it was to develop electric vehicles.

The story of the EV1 is almost exactly parallel to the folklore of the 1947 Roswell crash, the ur-incident of flying saucer “suppression.” Both involve a few shards of wreckage handled by massively incompetent public relations efforts on the part of large, impersonal organizations. In one case, the wreckage was bits of metallic foil and other debris and the organization was the U.S. military. In the second instance, a limited-production vehicle crashed and burned with the assistance of Detroit lawyers and General Motors.

Paine’s new film is said to describe “a resurgence of the electric car,” which is correct only if you count the first 20 years of the 20th century, when electrics represented about half of all cars sold, as the first surge. The film focuses on the Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf, both of which have just arrived on the market. It also looks at Tesla, a business run by Elon Musk, the PayPal millionaire, who also owns the rocket company SpaceX. Tesla has produced about 2000 two-seat cars with Lotus bodies and Ferrari price tags. The fourth focus is on DIY auto builder Greg “Reverend Gadget” Abbott, who retrofits old cars as electrics.

The film is entertaining but it should not be taken seriously in any discussion about energy or transportation policy.

Automobile industry leader Bob Lutz, a veteran of Chrysler as well as GM, plays at being Lutz, a cigar-chomping ex-Marine pilot lending affability to the older white male category. (For some reason, Paine has found it necessary to inflate Lutz’s resume, erroneously crediting him with inventing the BMW 3 series and the Ford Explorer.)

Despite his well-known history of overly optimistic sales and performance projections, not to mention fits of arrogance, Elon Musk comes across as sympathetic in the film. He laments having to raise prices for customers who have believed enough in his product to put down deposits. He lays off employees in the recession and has little time to see his kids. He is running multiple companies in the midst of an acrimonious divorce. The children make an appearance, along with Musk’s willowy young fiancée. (At first I took her for the au pair.) He seems like any other hassled young parent even when we’re told he’s “down to his last $3 million.”

There are many humorous scenes, like the one in which Danny DeVito, apparently an EV-1 fan, drives a Volt. He likes it. But this is the man, after all, who is memorialized in the film Get Shorty buying John Travolta’s line about the Oldsmobile Silhouette as “the Cadillac of minivans,” and who co-starred with a Yugo in the comedy Drowning Mona. He has a sense of automotive humor.

But choosing a car just because Danny DeVito — or George Clooney — drives it is no recipe for good consumerism or good energy policy. Nor is Paine’s film much of a guide to real issues. He is to electronics what Ron Paul is to economics.

The success of the EV, as Paine depicts it in his sequel, is as exaggerated as the conspiracy he presented in Who Killed the Electric Car?

The Volt will be produced in only a few thousand units, while output of the Leaf, according to Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn, speaking on the panel, is limited to 25,000, even though the company claims a list of 250,000 interested “hand raisers.”

And sales numbers for electrics will remain low for a while. Ghosn estimated that 750,000 electric cars will be sold by 2015. (The Obama administration has targeted a million cars in a similar time frame.) But there are 750 million cars on the planet now and with the Chinese market growing by 33 percent annually, not to mention the acceleration of car ownership in India, there will soon be 2 billion vehicles on earth.

What accounts for Paine’s distortions? Too much love, and too little detachment. Revenge of the Electric Car is a character-driven film in which the director is a character. At one startling point, the camera turns and we see Paine's face in the Tesla delivery center. We learn that he is buying a $125,000 Tesla Roadster.

A few months after Who Killed the Electric Car? came out, in 2006, I was surprised to see Paine at a fancy GM press event in Detroit. It turned out he had brokered a deal with GM to have inside access to the development of the company’s Chevrolet Volt, an electric car with a small, assisting engine. Paine agreed to release no footage until 2011. Later, Nissan and Tesla agreed to similar terms.

The focus on these companies results in a limited perspective. Few viewers will come away with the understanding that beyond GM, Nissan and Tesla are other companies with longstanding electric car programs. Now there are electrics from Ford, Mitsubishi and BMW. David Duchovny recalled driving an electric Toyota RAV 4.

Nor will viewers understand a basic inconvenient truth — that the electric car is no silver bullet. “Emissions free” is the misleading phrase that is still tacked onto the Volt and Leaf.

For a long time, remember, those in search of green power plants for cars had passed over electric cars in favor of other technologies. EVs were seen not as cars with no tailpipes, but as cars chained to a smokestack, given that most electricity in the U.S. is generated by coal- and oil-fueled power plants.

Not only was (and is) the grid dirty, it was ramshackle: the Northeast blackout of 2003 showed how rickety it was and, around the same time, Enron’s price manipulation of the California portion of the electrical net led to the recall and removal of Governor Gray Davis. Alternatives? In the wake of Fukushima, nuclear power is no longer as reassuring as its new converts in the green world (e.g., Stewart Brand) have believed it to be.   

But none of these concerns are anywhere in the film. During the panel conversation, Paine glibly brushed off the question of where electricity for the electric car comes from as “the whole coal theory.” The rest of the panel provided some of the thoughtful discussion the film avoids.

Ghosn offered a reasonable scenario for the possible future of electric cars. He compared the technology with that of mobile phones, pointing out that the first cellular telephones were huge and required hours to charge for only a few minutes of talk. Now they serve as remote offices and fit into our pockets.

But technological improvement cannot be taken for granted. Despite the proclamations of wide-eyed visionaries, there is no Moore’s law for batteries, and a lot of smart people have been working on them for a while. The advantage of electric cars is not just the efficiency of centrally generating energy but flexibility in the sources. Any discussion of electric cars has to include making the wellspring of electricity greener.

Both Paine films about electric cars may say more about our collective conscious than about automotive technology or energy policy. Duchovny asked the panel: How much does “range anxiety” — the worry about battery capacity in an electric car — have to do with the open-road mythos, the highway as a symbol of freedom?

The idea that you can drive on endlessly is a fairy tale fostered by hundreds of photographs of roads disappearing in perspective and dozens of scenes in films, from Chaplin to Thelma and Louise. We are searching for neat, simple answers to a fundamentally disquieting problem that threatens not just our way of life but our world view. Gas-powered or battery-powered, it is a myth most of us have a hard time relinquishing.

Posted in: Product Design, Social Good

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