Monday, May 5, 2014

Revenge of the Electric Car (Papercut Films, WestMidWest Productions, 2011)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I ran Revenge of the Electric Car, a 2011 follow-up to Chris Paine’s 2006 documentary Who Killed the Electric Car?, which I’d just recorded from PBS in the mistaken belief that it was Who Killed the Electric Car? The first film was about General Motors’ decision in the 1990’s first to get into the electric-car business with a model called the EV1, then to get out of it again and demand that all the people who’d acquired EV1’s return them (they could do that legally since they had offered the EV1 in the first place only for lease, not outright sale), whereupon GM gathered them together and destroyed them. Revenge was a tale much more friendly to the current Zeitgeist of Ayn Randian celebration of buccaneer entrepreneurs than the anti-corporate message of Who Killed … (which I’ve never seen in toto but which I remember seeing excerpts from on one of Bill Moyers’ TV programs, on which he interviewed Chris Paine).

The five central characters of Revenge are Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors and also founder of the SpaceX private rocket company (an enterprise beloved of a lot of Libertarian sci-fi fans who believe only the private sector will have the vision and the resources — intellectual as well as financial — to get humans back into space), who comes off as an arrogant bastard who calmly consigns both his first business partner (Martin Eberhard, the actual founder of Tesla and designer of its first car) and his first wife to oblivion (Martin has been written out of Tesla’s official history and Musk has installed his second wife, British actress Talulah Riley, as the de facto mother of his and his first wife’s five kids); Bob Lutz, GM vice-president who was apparently the man responsible for consigning the EV1 to oblivion but who does a late-in-life turnaround and introduces the Volt (a GM hybrid that, unlike the Toyota Prius that’s its obvious model, also has a plug so it can be charged from the electric grid and doesn’t depend on its gas-powered engine to charge its batteries); Carlos Ghosn, vice-president of Nissan and aggressive developer of the all-electric Nissan Leaf (an obvious response to the Prius — a vehicle that oddly goes unmentioned through this entire movie even though it’s obvious the success of Toyota’s pioneering hybrid encouraged the development of electric cars in general); and the film’s most interesting characters, backyard tinkerers Greg “Gadget” Abbott and his wife, Charlotte Jackson, who seek to develop their own electric cars by converting classic models to run on electricity.

Abbott and Jackson have an infuriating streak of bad luck; their first home/work space is burned down, ostensibly by vandals (though given how the major car companies once conspired to put the electric trolley systems in major cities out of business and then how GM literally crushed its own EV1, one could forgive a streak of paranoia about that!) and their second space turns out to be so contaminated with toxic waste that if the government still gave a damn about protecting the environment it would probably qualify for Superfund designation. Revenge of the Electric Car centers mainly around the 2008 economic collapse and what it did to the various electric start-ups, both the ones within existing major companies like GM and Nissan (Lutz ended up being forced to retire when GM went into bankruptcy, though the new management continued developing the Volt and ultimately put it on the streets) and the ones like Tesla — it turns out Musk burned through all but $3 million of the fortune he’d made by selling PayPal (of which he was co-founder) to eBay, and the film draws an interesting parallel to Preston Tucker, the late-1940’s entrepreneur who also thought he could beat the major car companies at their own game by producing a technologically superior product, and also got creamed in the marketplace — though Musk gets bailed out by a loan from the U.S. Department of Energy (an odd place for someone who bills himself as a Libertarian entrepreneur to be looking for capital, though in the real world entrepreneurial capitalists are just as eager to suck off the government tit as anyone else) as well as an unexpectedly successful IPO.

The film takes a much more optimistic attitude towards the future of the electric car than the facts warrant — since 2011 Tesla has been plagued by the same problems (slow production and poor quality control) that it had in the period depicted in this film, and their attempts to get an affordable electric sedan on the road have gone almost nowhere, while the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf have settled into niche markets but haven’t had a major impact on the industry or the way people actually move themselves around — and it also posits electric cars as the only alternative to gasoline. There are others, including steam engines (which still rely on combustion but are far more efficient at converting heat to kinetic energy than internal-combustion engines; the only reason steam-powered cars lost out in the early 20th century was it took 30 minutes, later cut to 15, to build enough boiler pressure for the car to move, though as early as 1958 a California inventor had cut that to two minutes), hydrogen-powered fuel cells (a technology a lot of alternative energy advocates and environmentalists leaped on, at least as a theory, because the hydrogen could be derived from using solar power to split water molecules and the emissions would be, you guessed it, water vapor) and even one Charles suggested: a car running on compressed air and built with enough lightweight modern materials to make it practical. There’s certainly a chicken-and-the-egg problem with electric cars; few people will buy them as long as it’s difficult to find charging stations with which to “refuel” them, and few people will build charging stations as long as there aren’t enough electric cars on the market to demand them. But it’s interesting as a Rorschach on the Zeitgeist that the discussion about this movie on centers mainly around people’s overall idea of how much of a role government should play in the economy, with a lot of the contributors being ardent Libertarians who say the electric car should and will exist only if the “free market” decides it should — blithely ignoring all the huge government subsidies that still go to the fossil-fuel industry!