Last weekend I got the chance to see Revenge of the Electric Car at the American Film Institute’s Silverdocs (the movie will have a commercial release in a few months). It was made by the same man who did Who Killed the Electric Car, Chris Paine, and it’s focus is the resurgence of the electric car in the auto industry, as well as in the efforts of independent automakers.
Revenge is as good as Killed, for sure; I’d recommend the movie to everyone. But I have to say that after watching the movie, I had to wonder if the title should have been The Empires Strike Back. My original understanding was that Paine spent a lot of time with a number of independent automakers concentrating on electric vehicles. Yet Revenge ended up featuring the efforts of General Motors to create the Volt, and Nissan’s engineering of the Leaf, as well as their joint efforts to assure the rest of the world that they were serious about electric vehicles. It all came off either as disingenuous (GM) or avaricious (Nissan), the auto empires battling for market share at any cost.
GM Executive Bob Lutz gave a particularly stirring performance as a Thurston Howell III-type millionaire, not even trying to pretend he has an ounce of concern for the plight of anything save his bank account. Everything that came out of his mouth regarding electric vehicles dripped of sarcasm and disdain… yet, at the same time, you could see he was going through the motions only because he knew his personal fortune would rise or fall as a result. In the end, he pushed GM to bring a hybrid vehicle, not an electric, to market, and retired from the playing field, apparently upset that he’d be spending his final days on his sprawling ranch with its fish-and swan-filled “pond” (Lutz draws a fairly pathetic-sounding homely out of that pond… cue appropriate audience groans). GM, for all appearances, seems to be doing much the same as the EV1 experiment: Kicking out a car because they feel they have to, but not because they want to, nor because it’s right. Everyone who left the showing had the eerie feeling we’d someday be seeing the massive recalls we were introduced to by the previous documentary… by none other than Bob Lutz.
Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn came out looking much better than Lutz, as he was shown forcing the Leaf through a company that, clearly, barely knew what had hit them. Ghosn presented himself as being certain that the electric car was the car of the future, and that Nissan had to capture that market to assure their future. All the same, Ghosn’s priorities weren’t with the green factor of an electric vehicle; he responded to it as any business exec would respond to a fad that he thought would make the company piles of dough. Much like Lutz, the only thing Ghosn saw at stake was his paycheck. To his credit, it seemed to be working, and Nissan is today renowned as the only major automaker with a consumer-ready all-electric vehicle. The empire to watch.
Then there was PayPal mogul Elon Musk, the man behind the Tesla Motor Company. Though he’s portrayed as an independent, it’s hard to see anyone with millions of dollars, a successful internet empire and a new company trying to be the first into commercial space, as a “little guy.” Musk risked, and lost, a large part of his fortune in order to build a rich man’s toy speedster… and then discovered that he could not support a company on that one uber-expensive electric car. Musk appeared interested, even dedicated, but somehow not very savvy when it comes to creating a car company with cars people will actually buy. He is now faced with converting an operation making $120,000 cars, to one that can make a practical electric sedan at about a sixth of that cost, or close its doors. At the end of the movie, the jury was still out over whether his bid at auto fame would result in the 21st century equivalent of an Oldsmobile… or an Edsel.
Finally, the movie covered Greg Abbott, a man working out of a garage to convert existing cars into electrics. Although it seems “Reverend Gadget” Abbott was making progress with his business, perhaps it was only the very photogenic disaster of a fire in his garage, wiping out his operation, and his difficult but ultimately successful recovery into a new facility, that managed to keep him off the cutting room floor with his fellow independent entrepreneurs. Still, while Musk, Ghosn and Lutz were all seen at the end of the movie, trying to put a brave face on their uncertain futures with electrics, it was Abbott who was finally presented as the hero of the hour, driving around town with his wife in a converted electric car of his own making, and revealing at the end that it got even better mileage on a charge than his own previous estimates, and far better than his corporate competition.
Unfortunately, most of us are left to deal with the GMs and Nissans of the world, the empires that have brought vehicles to market, not because we need them, but because they hope to make a profit off of them. The viewer gets the feeling that the great and noble concept of the electric car has just been co-opted by the money moguls, and that there was no telling how their obvious financial agenda would actually benefit the rest of us in the long run. We know from past experience that these empires are just as likely to abandon electrics, if fortunes don’t smile upon them; and we will be at their mercy, just as we were during a certain EV1 episode.
And thanks to Revenge, we now know very little about what alternatives there might be to the empires… after all, no one mentioned a Gadget franchise opportunity.