Friday, November 11, 2011

Film happily looks at back from the dead technology

It was strange to watch this movie the same day I learned of a Consumer Reports’ writer who rather freaked driving the Nissan Leaf, the all-electric car with an approximate range on one charge of 100 miles. She suffered from what is known as “range anxiety,” fretting about whether she would make her destinations before the battery conked-out, and saving mileage by taking short cuts resulting in hefty bridge tolls, not to mention the fact the little car lost range with the heater turned on! I never could understand the concept of the Leaf because once you expend your 100 miles you have no charge, none whatsoever. And yet, Nissan has invested billions in this automobile, looking to produce 150,000 annually. By contrast, General Motors’ extended-range Volt is different. After the car has consumed its electric charge a gas-powered generator kicks-in, so you’re never threatened by the prospect of your car rolling to a stop on some forlorn highway. The only problem is the price tag. It’s approximately $40,000 with less than a $10,000 government rebate. Chris Paine’s Revenge of the Electric Car (opening today at Landmark's Main in Royal Oak) deals with these issues head on in this update of his 2006 Who Killed the Electric Car? That was about how General Motors built a remarkable electric car in the 1990s, the EV1. But it was something of a test vehicle and GM decided, for a variety of nefarious reasons such as pressure on environmental regulators from other auto manufacturers and the oil industry, to end its production. Whoever thought, this new movie (narrated by Tim Robbins) says at the outset, that the electric car would be “back from the dead.” Whereas the EV1 was a pilot now we are into mass production with the Leaf and the Volt and other vehicles just around the corner. Revenge of the Electric Car follows four entrepreneurs – from the largest to the smallest – who have revolutionized electric car technology. They range from GM’s cigar-chomping Bob Lutz, who shepherded the Volt from design to production, to Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn, who has pretty much  leveraged his company on the Leaf, to Silicon Valley upstart Tesla Motors and its billionaire head Elon Musk, to a one-man electric car converter, Greg “Gadget” Abbott, working out of an LA garage. Paine made the film over the past few years, taking the viewer through the emotional ups and downs as each of the company’s signature models was introduced, with executives betting consumers would flock to the products. The film and Paine, obvious advocates of electric vehicles, honestly acknowledge the teething pains of bringing such revolutionary technology to market, including the financial risks, consumer pricing, and the driving experience such as “range anxiety.” The film is as much about personal vision and New Age entrepreneurism as anything. Lutz, a “car guy” in the old mould, has seen the light and wants to leave a “legacy” with the Volt. Musk, the former PayPal owner who also runs the SpaceX private outer space company, basically drains his fortune developing Tesla and the tension, as he tries to raise financing, is there for all to see. Even Abbott suffers a blow when his garage, where he was preparing several cars for conversion, is torched by an arsonist and he has to start over. But the movie doesn’t whitewash the individuals or the infallibility of the products. Musk is accused of baiting and switching prices before buyers can pick up their cars. Ghosn has to admit to probing journalists, “I can’t give you an answer” on profitability and “obviously there are no guarantees” on whether consumers will like the products. The movie has that sprightly quality which marked Paine’s earlier film, a combination light-hearted look at an important social issue, with an alt rock soundtrack. But whereas the earlier one had a j’accuse tone, this is more straightforward. And remarkably, despite the travails of all these car-builders, the movie has happy endings, suggesting the revolution to electric power has just begun. However, with Leaf’s “range anxiety” and GM only having sold just over 5000 Volts in barely a year, there’s a long way to go. Paine therefore may be a tad too optimistic in his final glowing scenes. But he would probably defer to one commentator in the film, auto writer Dan Neil of the Wall Street Journal, who says, “What’s needed for the real revenge of the electric car? Time.”

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