Thursday, November 3, 2011

Chris Paine - Revenge Of The Electric Car

“It takes a lot of electricity to turn black crude oil into gasoline.”
- Chris Paine

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, General Motors’ EV1s were the Apple Macs of cars. Ahead of their time, they were only driven by an enlightened “different” thinking few, but those that did felt passionately about their high tech machines.

A fully electric plug-in vehicle with a range of between 70 and 140 miles depending on model, the EV1 was first introduced into the marketplace in 1996. Available in limited test markets on a closed lease-only basis (whereby no actual purchase was allowed), it was developed by General Motors partly in response to the California Air Resources Board’s requirement that the seven major auto companies in the US had to make at least 2% of their output zero-emission vehicles (ZEV) by 1998 in order to sell any cars within the state (with further graduated steps stipulated up to 10% in 2003).

Though grudgingly produced by General Motors, the vehicle was beloved by the few consumers lucky enough to rise to the top of the company’s reportedly vast waiting list. But it was likely a car that was never intended to succeed. General Motors seemingly put more effort into fighting the CARB mandate in court than meeting existing demand for vehicles or marketing the EV1 to create even more. It was therefore not uncoincidental that the demise of the EV1 occurred in tandem with the gutting of CARB’s ZEV rules. The EV1 program was officially cancelled in 2003, and a total recall was put in motion, with repossessed cars being not only compacted but shredded for good measure too.

A 2006 documentary, Who Killed The Electric Car, chronicled the crushing demise of this groundbreaking car. In it filmmaker Chris Paine highlighted the collusion of the auto industry, oil companies, and politicians, who all had a vested interest in seeing the electric vehicle die an untimely death alongside CARB’s environmentally prudent directives. Catching the zeitgeist, Who Killed The Electric was the third highest grossing documentary that year (Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth being the first).

However, a decade after General Motors presided over the funeral of the EV1, the killing of the vehicle has proven to be a costly mistake. With gas prices rising, Toyota filled the rapidly increasing fuel-efficient void with their hybrid Prius, which went on sale in Japan in 1997. Following its worldwide debut in 2001, Toyota have sold over a million Prius cars in the US alone, and the rest of the auto industry has been scrabbling to catch up.

With revenge being served on a platter less than a decade on, Paine and his documentary team were compelled to reexamine the fortunes of the electric vehicle in a follow up film. The first had centered on activists working from outside the industry, with this film Paine chose to follow a diverse group of instigators working from within. Revenge Of The Electric Car therefore features four EV evangelists (some of whom were more recently converted than others) who are attempting to drive the future of the automobile into the present: Bob Lutz (General Motors’ Vice Chairman up until May 2010), Elon Musk (Tesla Motors’s CEO), Carlos Ghosn (Nissan’s President and CEO), and Greg “Gadget” Abbot (a DIY electric engine retro-fitter).

SuicideGirls recently visited Paine at his ultra green home to talk about his cinematic “I told you so” and the electric awakening of a sluggish car industry that was in need of a shock. After checking out the 2008 Tesla Roadster parked in Paine’s garage, the irony was not lost that we were conversing about, and anticipating the dominance of, the gas-free vehicle in the heart of LA’s oil country amidst the pumpjack nodding donkeys of Baldwin Hills.

Read my exclusive interview with Chris Paine on