The Electric Car Returns (and This Time It's Personal)

A Q&A with Chris Paine, director of the documentary film 'Who Killed the Electric Car?'

What happens to an electric car deferred? Ask Chris Paine, director of the documentary film Who Killed the Electric Car? (2006), and you’ll learn that those once-dead electric vehicles (EVs) are now exacting a shocking revenge.

Paine was one of the first to lease a General Motors EV1 in 1997 — only to get the car wrenched away from him five years later when he took it in simply to get a brake light fixed. In Who Killed the Electric Car?, Paine followed the plight of his EV1 to its (literally) crushing end. Today, EVs are making a comeback, and Paine’s chronicling the EV’s resurrection in his follow-up film, The Revenge of the Electric Car, set to jolt theaters in spring 2010.

After all, it takes someone who refers to his Prius as “the gas guzzler” and his Culver City, Calif., home as “the Plug-In Mecca” to tell this EV story right. For his sequel, Paine’s been gauging the mood at the now-much-gloomier GM headquarters, visiting geothermal-powered and EV-friendly Iceland, and test driving his brand new Tesla in Los Angeles.

I hear you didn’t even like cars — yet now you’re seen as a champion for the electric car. What got you interested in EVs?

Electric cars just totally changed the game! I never liked automobiles because I don’t like burning gasoline. I don’t like how it smells; I don’t like the smog. Obviously cars brought a lot to our society, but they’ve also had a tremendous cost. When I started driving electric cars, I got really excited because you had all the fun of a car, but without nearly as much of the damage.

How do you get around now?

For the last five years, after they took the GM EV1 away, I’ve been driving a Toyota RAV4 EV. And like the EV1, the RAV4’s been service-free. A lot of people feel that that’s the real reason car companies don’t like electric cars — because EVs kill the parts and service business. Electric cars don’t need any tune-ups.

And you just got a Tesla.

The Tesla is a beautiful car — I’ll give it that. It’s by far the most expensive car I’ve ever owned in my life. And I think it’ll probably hold its value because it’s such a collector’s item. But down the road, the idea of the Tesla is to use this car to kick the company off, and then to get a sedan under $50,000 that’ll appeal to a lot more people.

My primary car is the RAV4, which I was thinking of selling on eBay because one of these sold for $65,000 or so. I also have a gas-guzzler for when I want to go up to San Francisco or drive up to Colorado.

I just finished a house that I’m calling the “Plug-In Mecca.” The whole roof of the house is solar, so I can plug in all sorts of different kinds of cars. The RAV4, the Tesla and my electric bike all have different kinds of charging systems, so it’s kind of fun having them on hand.

My gas-guzzler, by the way, is a Prius, which I try not to drive. Until Toyota gives consumers a plug-in option, I consider myself officially at odds with that company — although I have to appreciate that the Prius is a pretty amazing car.

What about hydrogen? In California, Governor Schwarzenegger seems dead-set on developing the hydrogen highway.

Schwarzenegger got some very bad advice, and he pursued hydrogen because it seems like a good option at first. The problem is, the hydrogen car is not here until 2020 at the earliest, in terms of something that can be built in mass quantities. The second big problem with hydrogen is that it’s very expensive — energy-expensive — to make hydrogen fuel. It’s cheaper just to use a battery and electricity than to go and make this whole in-between step of making hydrogen. The reason hydrogen created a lot of vitriol is because it was used as a bait and switch to kill existing technology that was ready to go.

In the past, you’ve pointed out that big car companies keep delaying EV production for the consumer market. With the promise of GM’s Chevy Volt and other EVs, are you more hopeful now?

I’m much more hopeful today than I was in 2005, simply because the car companies have painted themselves into a corner. People are demanding electric cars and plug-in hybrids. Even the car companies are saying, “Well, no one’s trying to buy our SUVs, so for us to stay in business, we need to have other kinds of cars.”

When gas prices went up, people started driving less, and interest in EVs soared. But now, gas prices have fallen below $2 in some places. Is this discouraging?

Certainly, when oil prices are down, it makes it harder for the competition. However, I think in the medium and long term — and maybe even the short term — electric cars are going to come on, because there’s a huge national security push to get us off oil altogether.

And on the environmental side, people are saying, “I’d rather have something I can fuel myself or has less of a carbon footprint.” Oil price fluctuations are tough for small companies to deal with as consumer demand goes up and down, but I think the long run looks pretty bright.

GM, the main company featured in Who Killed the Electric Car?, is now in serious financial trouble and asking for a bailout. Could you have predicted this?

We absolutely did predict it. In the movie, Joe Romm [author of The Hype About Hydrogen: Fact and Fiction in the Race to Save the Climate] says, “This may be the most serious blunder in the history of the automotive industry.” And he was right. The problem is that car companies put everything in gasoline, the SUV, the truck. They had no alternate plan. It was just very bad decision-making.

What motivated you to make The Revenge of the Electric Car? Did you have a sequel in mind when you were making Who Killed the Electric Car?

We didn’t think about a sequel at all. What happened was the incredible reversal of everything we covered in the first movie. It’s fascinating what’s happened, from Tesla to the Volt to what hundreds and hundreds of garage mechanics are doing, converting cars. I think the theme in the last movie was “Change has stopped.” And for this movie, the theme would be “Change prevails.”

When do you expect the EV to exact revenge?

I know that Mitsubishi, Nissan and a lot of smaller companies all will have cars available to buy in 2009. For the big car companies, it’s probably going to be 2010, 2011. When the EVs are in showrooms for sale, and people are buying them, and the SUVs are sitting unsold everywhere.

I think we’re halfway there. Certainly, we’re there with SUVs being on the sidelines. We’re maybe not there yet in terms of EVs being available.

When GM forcibly took back your EV1, your CD collection and gym bag were still in the car. Did you ever get those back?

I got them back, but they never told me where the car was! I said, “I’ll go pick up the stuff,” and they said, “We can’t tell you where the car is now, but we’ll arrange for you to get your stuff back.” Then they sent the stuff back to me.

The joke of the time was that the electric car became like an X-Files episode. When I started working on Who Killed, I thought the film was more a parody, like, “Only in LA would celebrities hold a funeral for a car.” The incident with my car made us start to think that maybe the story was more of a murder mystery.

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