Review: 'Revenge Of The Electric Car' Optimistic, Accurate, Lacks A Villain

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'Revenge of the Electric Car' movie: Elon Musk and Bob Lutz

'Revenge of the Electric Car' movie: Elon Musk and Bob Lutz

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From Michael Moore's Roger And Me in 1989 to Chris Paine's 2006 Who Killed The Electric Car?, there's no shortage of documentaries that portray auto-industry executives as incompetent, bumbling, short-sighted, arrogant fools.

So it may be a surprise that merely five years later, two global automakers and one upstart new car company are the heroes of Paine's new documentary, Revenge Of The Electric Car, in the person of one executive at each.

Most startling of all, General Motors--the malevolent villain that heartlessly took back and crushed the EV1 electric cars it had leased to well-connected Californian owners--is a hero in this one.

Footage of visits to GM may be narrated with the phrase "behind enemy lines"--twice--but that's merely for color.

My, how times change.

Three execs...

The film's story line focuses on three industry executives and their struggles to develop and launch what will become the world's first three modern electric cars.

'Revenge of the Electric Car' movie: 2011 Chevrolet Volt production

'Revenge of the Electric Car' movie: 2011 Chevrolet Volt production

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One is Bob Lutz, the always-colorful, cigar-smoking "car guy" who returned to GM in 2001 to shake up its product development. He is the unlikely champion of the Chevrolet Volt, the 2007 concept that became the world's first modern range-extended electric car.

Then there's Carlos Ghosn, the flinty-eyed CEO who runs both Nissan and Renault, jetting around the world to oversee his empire. He is, as journalist Dan Neil says, the man who doesn't get up in the morning unless he knows how much money it will make him.

Finally, there's Elon Musk, who emerged as CEO of electric-car startup Tesla Motors and steered it through the perilous waters of launching its first vehicle, the 2009 Tesla Roadster.

Musk deals with production delays, quality problems, the economic meltdown, insufficient funding, layoffs, his own divorce, and the stresses of running not only Tesla, but also his rocket company, SpaceX. Gadget

A fourth character is director Paine's close friend and neighbor, Greg "Gadget" Abbott.

'Revenge of the Electric Car' movie

'Revenge of the Electric Car' movie

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He's an electric-car converter, but he's largely irrelevant to the main story and serves mostly to add zaniness to the otherwise stolid white-male auto industry world.

Gadget's triumphant New Year's Eve party in a new warehouse garage, with participants in French Empire garb, is an unexpected if cheerful diversion from the story line.

Many years, many billions

The movie covers ground that's familiar to auto journalists, but perhaps not so much to the public at large--and often not at all to electric-car advocates.

The main lesson: It takes several years and billions of dollars (or, for Musk, at least hundreds of millions) to develop modern cars, no matter what they're powered by.

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Comments (18)
  1. "It's rarely about being green, but all about the gas price." Quite a ridiculous statement given that Tesla costs $109,000. Perhaps there are other reason to buy electric. If no one has educated automotive journalist by now, let me try. Price is not everything in a car purchasing.

  2. @John: Tesla will only make 2,500 Roadsters over three model years. That's a tiny drop in a global annual vehicle production of 60 to 80 million vehicles a year. The Roadster is a fine technology demonstration, but electric cars have to get to hundreds of thousands or millions a year before the market at large will take much notice. And it's the mass market that has to adopt electric cars to acheive the green goals that many EV advocates cherish.

  3. Excellent review. As someone who hangs the edges of the auto industry and the EV community, I think this film does clearly look at both sides and does capture and challenges of bringing a real product to market. We are just on the edge of dipping our mass market toes into the EV water. Here is hoping the water isn't to cold.

  4. I'm curious. Are you stating that it lacks a villain because the first movie had one, or do you believe that good documentaries have villains?
    I've seen some awesome documentaries that don't have a villain... Come to think of it, very few documentaries have villains...

  5. Lets hope the auto industry guys don't just use this positive spin movie to placate activists and stall production (which is already frustratingly low)- we need more of these EV cars now! We all know there is more profit margin in making big cars, but there is more at stake here than bottom lines. The Auto Industry Track Record resiting CAFE standards is lamentable - check out my fresh blog rant on this topic - Hope to see this movie soon.

  6. The Tesla Model S 300 mile battery pack costs roughly $40,000. Electrics with 100 or fewer miles of range are virtually useless except as a neighborhood and short commute second car. How many times do EV enthusiasts have to be reminded that until battery prices come way down, there won't be enough electrics out there to make any difference. In anything. With a fleet of 260 million cars, at least 30 million would be needed to see any effect on gas prices. And the effects on carbon emissions would be of little value, even with 100 million
    electrics, unless you're comparing them to gas guzzlers, which is totally unrealstic. Revenge of the Electric Car completely avoids reality in its rush to pat itself on the back. Paine always screws up.

  7. CEOs and their companies, auto-industry, the challenge of developing a new product of the magnitude of a car..... what role does the EV play in the movie? :)

  8. @Chris: Oh, I don't think good documentaries have to have villains by any means. But in comparison to the first movie, this one was differently structured and paced. At a panel last night, director Paine said the filmmakers had deliberately chosen to focus on the characters this which I might add, per Norbert's comment, rather than the cars.

  9. how about the oil companies? they make good villans.

  10. To all the romantics: the installed ev production may be too much after the initial demand is satisfied. The "normal customer" expects the usual performance or better at the usual price. Before he gets that, he will continue to buy what he usually buys. What we are experiencing is a start of a very long evolution which will ultimately lead to less people able to afford individual transportation like the one we were spoiled with for the last decades. Still, everybody has to start, also forced by law and regulations in some regions of this world. Now, it's still a gamble and there will be some to find out that it was too much of a gamble. Curious to see that movie - have no idea how I will find it.

  11. @Pitt Moos, I'm a long-time EV advocate (I'm in Chris' first film) and I've recently begun selling the LEAF for a Santa Monica Nissan dealer. I'm pretty sure we're going to be sold out for the first two years easily, we're a good year away from cars being ordered now, and the production will be in the low tens of thousands the first couple years. However, several OEMs will be coming out with their respective EV within two years so volumes will increase to may be 50,000/year in 2012. In 2013, nissan will open its TN factory outside of Nashville, and they'll make 150,000 LEAFs per year there, all for domestic consumption.
    I'm pretty sure gas prices will be higher, possibly over $5, by then.

  12. Just so everyone knows, this "Kent Buechert" person is a paid troll for the oil companies. He's on most EV stories and blogs and makes mostly inflammatory and grossly misleading comments, much like the one here.

  13. @Paul, hate to kick the soapbox out from under you Paul, unless Nissan starts to fix their dead after cooling warning issue that leads to the leaf being as useless in the middle of a stop light then they are about to take a major step back. Not to mention the poor battery performance that is being reported.
    If the early adopters of owning the "Novelty" electric car start rejecting it because Nissan is making a unreliable product the EV community will suffer as a whole. Electric cars are a novelty till the cost drops significantly and the reliability and range dramatically increase. The Volt is a great start and I wish them luck in moving to the next level, this will take time.

  14. I wish this vid will be stolen and posted on some torrent website.
    Not because I support that - because I don't. It's all because there is no way (legal or not) to watch this vid in my area (Northamptonshire UK).
    Seriously - how somebody who is making documentare movie (their purpose is to give all not-involved people easy information/knowledge) want to be respected if he dosn't even allow the normal people to watch it.
    It's like your munny made a delicious cake and than told you: "It's for you, but only your older brother can eat it". It makes no sense at all.
    I really wanted to see it, but since all non-special(US?) people were ignored I will do my best to dont give a penny to the procucents.
    Cheers - keep making movies we cant watch

  15. "Any ink is good ink" It's all good. Public awareness is gold.

  16. @Bill What are you talking about? There was an issue with pre-cooling a small number of cars could lead them not to start AFTER turned off. They already have offered a software fix for that which most drivers haven't bothered with.
    Your stop light comment is pure FUD. And I like the majority of Leaf owners have been driving the car for months and never had a problem (2500 miles for me). Read the news and get up on the facts before your post.

  17. My 30 yr old EV Jet Electra, goes 20 mi at 20 mph.
    I love this car.
    No I don't have the $14,000 the Chinese want to get me LiPO4 batteries that would get me a 100 mi range at 45 mph.
    My buddy invested about $10 mil in a company that promised me a 400 mile battery 2 yrs ago, I'm waiting as fast as I can.
    His investment is worth perhaps 1/10 of a per cent today, Now That's American.
    Over the past 30 yrs there have been 5 or 6 EV cars that could go 300 mi on a single charge.
    Why can't we have one?

  18. The review of the film is fair and balanced. Having seen the screening and having had the ability to pose questions to 3 of the 4 executives, it's clear no-one wants to point out who the villain is in the film. The implied villain is really each of us. Consumers. Our choice is easily measured by our purchase and not solely by our lobbying efforts. Math alone is not the heart of this debate - the human toll: workers needing to retrain themselves, communities needing to lobby for reinvestment competitively and lives being restored to a proud, prosperous state is why "revenge" ultimately works - resoundingly.
    The film's forth car executive - gadget - is symbolic of American capitalism, rugged and ultimately successful.

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