5 Minutes With… ‘Revenge of the Electric Car’ director Chris Paine (exclusive)

Director Chris Paine talks exclusively to TheChargingPoint.com about his new film 'Revenge of the Electric Car'

By Gavin Conway on May 4, 2011 5:24 AM

In 2006, the documentary film ‘Who Killed The Electric Car?’ rocked the auto industry as it sought to uncover the truth behind the destruction of 5,000 electric cars by the very corporations that created them.

Described by director Chris Paine as a ‘murder mystery’, the uncompromising film focused on the EV1 – General Motors’ effort that suffered the same fate – and demanded to know why such forward-thinking cars, much loved by their owners, were suddenly erased from existence.

Five years on and the electric car landscape is an entirely different place. Paine’s follow-up, ‘Revenge of the Electric Car’, which had its world premiere on Earth Day at the New York Tribeca film festival, celebrates the fact that giant corporations such as Nissan and General Motors are now joining start-up pioneers such as Tesla and embracing electric vehicles.

Fresh from the new movie’s red carpet event, TheChargingPoint.com grabbed Chris for a chat…

TCP: Were you pleased by the reception of ‘Revenge of the Electric Car’ at the Tribeca premiere?

CP: Yes, we were very pleased. This was the first time we were really in front of an audience and there’s that moment where you’re sitting there before the film begins and its like, ‘OK, we can’t make any changes to the edit now!’

It was good to be there in New York City for Earth Day and it just seemed like everything came together in terms of that project, so I was very pleased. A lot of people reviewed the film so we got a lot of different opinions but generally we got a very nice reception. In Vanity Fair, in their write up of the whole festival they mentioned us in the first paragraph, so that was auspicious.

TCP: Looking back, why did you decide to make ‘Who Killed the Electric Car?’

CP: A lot of it came out of the emotion I felt when they killed the electric car programmes in California in 2003 and we just didn’t think the press was doing a good job in covering the story. Our initial effort was to try to get some of the bigger journalism shows like ‘60 Minutes’ and so forth to do a comprehensive story. Outside of the people who drove the cars in California, people didn’t even know it happened. When we got more involved in the story, more things came out so we ended up with a ‘murder mystery’ about this whole issue.

And the issue of the electric car being killed at the end of the 1990s was an allegory for all the great ideas out there that sometimes don’t make it to the market because they tread on too many interests.

TCP: What did you conclude about the fate of GM’s EV1?

CP: EV1 was great idea whose time came a little bit early. But if it hadn’t come when it did, I don’t think it would have prepared the ground quite as well for what’s happening now. It really broke a lot of ice that needed to be broken. If they hadn’t killed those programmes and then crushed all those cars, which seemed so over the top, I don’t think the car companies would have had quite the blow back on this issue that they had. And that got them back to the table fast.

TCP: Do you think there was a specific turning point that meant companies like GM began getting serious about electric cars?

CP: I think for Lutz [Bob Lutz, then chief exec of GM] that happened around 2006 when ‘Who Killed The Electric Car?’ came out. I think for the rest of the car companies, it came when gas hit $4 a gallon in 2008 and people were saying, ‘Why is the only option in the U.S. that car companies can come up with a gasoline car’ and they began to hustle.

TCP: What do you think the U.S. government should be doing to foster electric cars and get us out of our gas-guzzlers? Do you, for example, think that gasoline should be much more expensive as it is in Europe?

CP: Absolutely, gas needs to be more expensive in the U.S., and not just to promote the move to electric vehicles but also to create a whole new tiered structure around fuel costs. I think there should be higher gasoline costs with rebates and tax credits for people who depend on their cars, but with money flowing back into the system for EVs and to help the environment.

I think Europe has set a great model for this – you know, even Bob Lutz, of all people, believes in a fuel tax. But it’s almost politically impossible to do this. Maybe it is politically impossible, and so we’re almost in a situation of having to wait for market prices to push the cost that way and we all lose because of that.

I think that the electric car will take off with $4 a gallon gasoline and it will have even greater significance at $5 a gallon because the equivalent cost for electricity is about one dollar.

TCP: You have driven a Tesla Roadster – how important is it to have ‘sexy’ electric cars like that on the road?

CP: Cars like the Tesla are very important, very important. Because it appeals to the person that might not care about the electric car by itself. It says something to the high-end car buyer that the electric car is real, It lets the technology trickle down instead of up and these are all very important elements.

TCP: In your long experience of electric cars, have you ever been stranded? Do you experience ‘range anxiety’ often?

CP: In 12 years of driving electric cars I think twice in that time I’ve had this so called ‘range anxiety’ where I’ve thought ‘oh shoot, we’ve made a mistake about how much range our car has’ but I’ve never been stranded.

A plug-in hybrid like the Chevrolet Volt does address this in an effective way and I think that’s going to help a lot of people transition that are thinking about range.

TCP: Do you think the Volt [which is a ‘range extended’ electric vehicle and so still has a petrol engine on board] is an interim measure for people on the way to full electric cars?

CP: I definitely do, I do so more now even after having bought a Volt and I’m living with it. In the movie, one of the characters says ‘hey, it’s a stepping-stone. And when people find that they never have to fill the Volt with gas, they’ll say ‘why did I pay for the engine?’

TCP: Imagine a sequel to ‘The Revenge of the Electric Car’ in, say, ten years time. What would its title be?

CP: I think the readers of TheChargingPoint.com might have the best ideas! You know, at this point it’s hard to say. Carlos Ghosn [Nissan chief exec] joked that it might be like ‘The Domination of the Electric Car’ or something like that.

I’m sure there will always be gasoline cars and trucks around. We have a long way to go but in five years with the arrival of the ultra capacitor, or maybe they’ll get the fast charger technology really down, so there’s so much to look forward to.

TCP: Do you think hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are destined to be killed, or eventually have their day as has happened with pure electrics?

CP: Great ideas are always going to survive, I think the electric car people proved that pretty well – they can crush some cars but they can’t kill the technology.

But for hydrogen fuel cell it’s far too early because of the cost of making hydrogen. I predict there will be a place for hydrogen fuel cell cars but it’s not the best choice for the short term, its still a little ways out there.

‘Revenge of the Electric Car’ will be distributed according to demand, so if you want to see the film
click here to request it in your area.