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An In-Depth Look at the New Face of the Automobile Industry

Review: Revenge of the Electric Car (Documentary)

Like its predecessor, Who Killed the Electric Car, Chris Paine’s new documentary, Revenge of the Electric Car, captures the significant, seemingly insurmountable challenges facing the nascent electric vehicle industry. But this time the story is more personal, and much more optimistic.

When Who Killed the Electric Car came out in 2006, it captured a national sense of outrage, disbelief, and frustration. The film followed the development and release of GM’s electric car prototype, the EV1, which though never sold was leased out to hundreds of enthusiastic early adopters. Then, in November of 2003, GM recalled every last EV1 and had them crushed and stacked at a remote site in the Sonoran Desert. The project was axed, and it wasn’t clear why.  Supporters and leaseholders of the EV1 were understandably outraged.

Who Killed The Electric Car was, as its title suggests, an indignant investigation into the behind-closed-doors decisions that led to the early demise of a promising little car.  The film cast a harsh light on automakers who seemed unwilling to reveal their real reasons for quashing the project.  But for the new film, Chris Paine and his film crew got inside those closed doors, and Revenge offers an intimate and detailed look at the top brass in Detroit, Japan, and California who have been shaping the automotive industry for the last five years. Interest in electric cars, it seems, is surging.

The film spends a lot of time with GM’s powerful and charismatic Bob Lutz, a titan of Detroit known as “Mr. Horsepower.”  In his final years at GM, Lutz, famous for denying global warming, became an unlikely champion for the environment and led the development of the Chevrolet Volt, which runs on batteries and has a back-up gasoline engine to allay “range anxiety.”

“It’s a thrill, I just wish there were of them,” says Lutz, watching a new Volt on the production line receive its battery pack.  “My own personal prognosis for Volt sales is way, way beyond what GM currently says.”

We get a very personal look at Elon Musk, the co-founder of Tesla Motors, an upstart California company that builds the sporty electric Tesla Roadster and the upcoming Model S. Musk is also the founder and CEO of SpaceX, a private space shuttle company. The director Jon Favreau says he took direct inspiration from Musk when bringing the Iron Man character, Tony Stark, to the big screen. But Paine captures Musk at his most vulnerable: exhausted, approaching bankruptcy, leader of two high-profile tech companies, with five boys and a recent divorce. The close perspective adds some very real human drama to the scenes of Tesla’s struggles and successes. 

And we get to shadow the impressive and calculating CEO of Nissan, Carlos Ghosn, who has decided to enter the EV market at an unprecedented scale. His Nissan Leaf is an all-electric car with about a 100-mile range, and Ghosn wants to produce 150,000 per year, which would bridge the wide gap between a niche product and the mass market. It’s a risky business proposition, but through the clips of Ghosn touring assembly plants, explaining strategy in boardrooms, and presenting the Leaf at auto shows, one can see he certainly doesn’t lack for confidence.

Photo providedGreg "Gadget" Abbott shows off the batteries in his converted car (film still).

In fact, none of these men do. All three acknowledge just how difficult it is to bring electric vehicles to the market, but they choose to plow ahead, and Revenge does an excellent job of capturing the highs and lows of their campaigns. It also lovingly depicts the story of a fourth, and very different, entrepreneur: Greg “Gadget” Abbott, a California tinkerer living in a bus with his wife and working to retrofit existing cars into full-electric vehicles. Despite major setbacks, Gadget is still gung-ho about the future of his little business.

The one thing that Revenge clearly lacks is a villain. This is quite a shift from the anti-corporate tone of its prequel, but maybe this is a good thing. Revenge is a story about entrepreneurs pushing forward, and the film’s final act evokes optimism, ebullience, and a growing sense of momentum. Economic risks and hardships remain, and those batteries are still too darn expensive, but that’s not going to stop anyone like Carlos Ghosn and Elon Musk. As Bob Lutz tells Chris Paine halfway through the film, “You can argue that [the electric car] was never really dead… I would say the electrification of the automobile is a foregone conclusion.”


Revenge of the Electric Car opens in the Bay Area today. 

Brian Scoles, Intern, Earth Island JournalBrian Scoles photo
When not writing for the Journal, Brian pursues all sorts of interests not at all related to his degree. He is passionate about intentional community living, wilderness exploration and leadership, and most recently, activism. He also works with Applied Mindfulness and is a contributor at Sustainablog.

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