The Ampere Strikes Back
In his latest documentary 'Revenge of the Electric Car', Chris Paine investigates the rebirth of the electric vehicle.
In the summer of 2006 documentarian Chris Paine declared the consumer electric vehicle dead. Done. Over. Finito. In his film 'Who Killed the Electric Car?' the Californian director detailed how pro-oil legislation (tax breaks for SUVs and the scrapping of the California Air Resources Board's zero emissions mandate being just two examples), industry conflicts of interest (doesn't the automobile manufacturers' marketing of electric power as clean imply that their core product is dirty?), and 30-year-low oil prices conspired to keep petrol-powered cars king of the bitumen. The modern electric vehicle was run off the road before it was even out of first gear.
Emblematic of all this was General Motors' EV1, the unassuming plug-in runabout cast as the film's ill-fated hero. Launched in 1996 the EV1 was the first modern era mass-produced electric vehicle to be 100 per cent designed and manufactured by a major automaker. Spurred into action by GM's decision to cancel the EV1 programme just seven years later, Paine picked up his camera and followed a cadre of enthusiasts as they lobbied to keep the car in production.
Despite a series of vocal protests the motoring giant recalled the cars, which were only ever available on hire purchase, leaving their erstwhile lessees to peer helplessly through storage facility chain-link fences at their beloved former rides. Eventually the cars were rounded up, crushed and shredded like empty beer cans. Less than a decade after the first model rolled off the production line the dream of quiet, emission-free motoring was stomped into the tarmac under the feet of the almighty gods of piston and petrol.
But five years can be a long time, even in the slow-moving motoring industry. And in his latest film, 'The Revenge of the Electric Car', Paine traces the electric vehicle's Lazarus-like return from the dead.
"A lot has changed," explains Paine. "On one side many people, from all parts of the political spectrum, began to push for this. The US military is interested in beginning to wean the country off petrol because they can see it is a limited resource. Forget the environmental issue; using domestic power makes sense from a national security point of view. From the environmental side of course global warming is a big issue and coal and oil do not help that problem at all."
The price of petrol
While this confluence of factors does undoubtedly provide a compelling case for electric vehicles, Paine acknowledges that the business world rarely listens to anything other than the jangle of cash.
"We could have outlined the hundreds of reasons that electric cars are on the rise again. But perhaps one of the most important, at least in the US, petrol reached $4 a gallon," he states. "Electricity is running at about a dollar for the equivalent amount."
Add to this the advances in the underlying technology such as improved batteries extending the cars' usable range and faster, more efficient charging systems and it becomes clear just how much has changed since the EV1 was taken off the road.
"On the technology side batteries have improved a lot thanks to computers. With lithium batteries you can do things that you couldn't do with lead acid batteries and even nickel metal hydride batteries. The cars just became increasingly advanced and then people knew you could do it. I think a certain amount of public pressure was created because people were tired of a monopoly in one kind of technology in automobiles. It was like why is there one kind of car, why is the technology just monopolised by just one kind of idea?"
Whatever the motivating factors, it's clear something of a sea change is taking place in the motoring industry. Nowhere is this more clearly illustrated than in the case of Bob Lutz, former VC of GM and motor industry lifer. Known throughout Motor City as Mr Horsepower, and incidentally one of the US's more vocal climate change deniers, Lutz became an unlikely champion of electric vehicles following a late-career epiphany. Paine tracked this old-school business behemoth across the country as he worked tirelessly to push the Chevy Volt electric vehicle into production.
Similarly, on the other side of the Pacific Paine turned his cameras on Carlos Ghosn, the Brazilian-born French head of Nissan, as the company prepared to launch their entry, the Leaf, into the increasingly competitive EV market. Like Lutz, Ghosn was vehemently opposed to electric vehicles but performed a dramatic about-turn on the issue. However, the similarities between the two men end there. Compared to his rambunctious American counterpart Ghosn is serious, clinical and almost eerily calm.
Every story needs a plucky underdog and Paine found his in the form of billionaire PayPal co-founder Elon Musk. The director follows Musk as he prepares his startup Tesla to launch its assault on Detroit in the form of its eye-catching 288hp Roadster sports car. Throughout the film he is shown flying by the seat of his pants as he struggles to guide the nascent company from prototype to profit. Since the filming of the documentary Tesla has shifted its focus from the sports car to the more practical, more affordable Model S saloon, a car of which Paine, who also owned a Roadster, is a big fan.
"I think they are frontrunners in innovation and so it is really important, and I think our film discussed this a little, to have someone who is out in front and shaking the trees. Then the Audis of the world say, 'well we can do that Model S sedan the Audi way,' and everybody else comes to it. Even Elon, I think if you interview him, will say that one of the most important things they are doing is stimulating and inspiring the rest of the industry. Whatever you think their potential is down the road I got to drive this model S for the first time at the start of the week and I have to say it's pretty impressive."
Whether they have taken their cues from Tesla or not lots of other manufacturers are throwing their hats into the electric vehicle ring. Currently in development or production are BMW's ActiveE, Renault's FluenceZ.E., Mitsubishi's i-MiEV, and the Coda.
Near the end of 'Revenge', New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman states that it is his belief that it will be engineers and entrepreneurs, not politicians, who will ultimately push electric vehicles into mainstream acceptance. Given the events detailed in Paine's first film this seems like a bold statement. For his part the director sees appropriate government legislation as the vital final piece in the puzzle.
"I think maybe he is being a little bit emphatic but I wanted to make the point that this is going to be a story about entrepreneurs and innovators and not a story about bureaucrats and do-gooders," Paine elaborates. "I think it's clear that you need to have government involvement because the internal combustion engine is fully amortised and the margins on it for the corporations that make them are very large compared to any new technology, especially technology that is just getting underway.
"Governments have to provide incentives to level the playing field. You need to have regulations saying, 'hey you can't just pollute the air for free', which is what many tailpipes do. There's got to be regulation for higher emissions control for internal combustion engines, which is going to cost you money, and there's got to be incentives for if you make cars that are cleaner."
As a recent exhibition at London's Science Museum showcasing the 1897 Bersey Taxi shows, electric vehicles have been losing out to their combustion-engined cousins for more than a century. Paine, however, remains optimistic. "The future is very good in the long view. There are a lot of forces that don't want change. They want to keep making money the way they have been. There are a lot of business interests that are threatened because electric cars don't need a lot of repairs because there are very few parts. So it impacts the brake industry and the spare parts business and everything else. I think this is where the automobile is going and when you have people like Bob Lutz, who is sort of a dinosaur of American automobiles, saying it's more than just wishful thinking."
Perhaps Paine's next film will form the final instalment in a trilogy, the closing chapter that draws a line under this whole period in motoring history. If things go the way he's hoping maybe he'll be able to call it 'The Triumph of the Electric Car'. *
'Revenge of the Electric Car' is screening at selected UK cinemas.
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