Electric Car Gets Its 'Revenge'

The 2006 film Who Killed the Electric Car? implicated oil companies, car companies, government and consumers alike in the failure of electric vehicles to reach mass market. Director Chris Paine returns to talk about his follow-up film, Revenge of the Electric Car, which celebrates the ultimate success of "EV's."

Copyright © 2011 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

IRA FLATOW, host:

I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Just - oh, just about five years ago, it seemed like the dream of the electric car was literally dead. Thousands of electric cars had been produced and leased by GM. They were taken back and literally put through that giant car crusher. It makes little cubes out of cars, thousands of them.

A film called "Who Killed the Electric Car?" chronicled the death of the EV1, but that was not the end of the story. Since then, new plug-ins have hit the streets.

You've got the Nissan Leaf, the Chevy Volt, the Tesla. The electric car is coming back, and so is the movie sequel: "Revenge of the Electric Car." And it asks the question: Would you buy and drive an electric car now? Is it the right time?

What do you think? Do you want a plug-in of your own? That's what we're going to be talking about if you'd like to give us a call. Our number is 1-800-989-8255. You can tweet us, @scifri, thats @-S-C-I-F-R-I.

Chris Paine is the director of the films "Who Killed the Electric Car?" and "The Revenge of the Electric Car." The new film premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival here in New York this week. He's in our New York studios. Welcome.

Mr. CHRIS PAINE (Director, "Who Killed the Electric Car?"): Thank you.

FLATOW: Good to see you. You know, one thing about watching both films, I watched both of them, we talked about them both before, is there was a tremendous shift in your emphasis. You were really angry in that first movie, and it showed, you know, who killed it? This one, you seem a lot more hopeful and accommodating in this one.

Mr. PAINE: It's not often that things turn around, and as some who cares about, you know, where we're all headed, it was very nice to see, of all people, the car company switching their tune on this issue.

So we weren't going to go out there and club them with giant clubs this time if they were doing actually something that I thought was a good thing.

FLATOW: And you focus on some of the very big personalities who made this possible in the film, right? Bob Lutz of General Motors, for example.

Mr. PAINE: Yes, probably the most unlikely person ever to embrace an electric car. But there he was. I think that they saw that the Prius had really done a lot for Toyota's brand and so forth and that they were taking a pummeling from everybody who felt they were making lots of bad decisions about SUVs and trucks.

And he thought: One more decision I'm going to make is going to be about something in the other direction. So he took on the Volt as his legacy project.

FLATOW: But not before he saw what Elon Musk and Tesla were doing, right?

Mr. PAINE: Yeah, that was a eureka moment. I think when they saw that Silicon Valley was taking on electric cars and saying forget Detroit, we're just going to do this on our own. You guys can't do it, we're going to use all the know-how we have in engineering, and we can do it, and we'll turn this around.

So when they saw that in Detroit, not just GM but a lot of companies said: Well, we've got to get in the game.

FLATOW: And why can't Tesla and Silicon Valley remain as - take over from Detroit and become the car producers?

Mr. PAINE: Why not? You know, it's funny that none of the train companies of the 19th century became the car companies of the 20th. So maybe the electric car companies truly will be this whole new generation of car companies.

FLATOW: And you also visit Japan and Nissan making the Leaf over there.

Mr. PAINE: Yeah.

FLATOW: And again, as in Lutz at GM, it's the strong personality of one big executive who believes this and pushes it forward.

Mr. PAINE: Well, I think we wanted to show in this film that it takes very strong insiders inside these big corporations to create change. It's not just, you know, some bureaucratic decision. You've got to have an entrepreneur at heart driving something.

And in the case of Nissan, Carlos Ghosn fit the bill. He said: I'm going to put $6 billion on, you know, jumping over Toyota's non-plug-in cars with a pure electric car. And that's a big risk for even someone like that.

FLATOW: Another interesting part of the film is looking at the small entrepreneur, the car mechanics who are now in the business of switching over people's cars to electric, right?

Mr. PAINE: Yeah, yeah. Well, some people say electric cars, you dont have to fix them because there's no engine in them. So what are all these people going to do without so many engine jobs and tune-ups and stuff. So, well, why not convert existing cars rather than building new ones?

So thousands of converters around the world are starting to do these conversions, and we decided to profile one of them, who happened to be my neighbor, in the film.

FLATOW: Is that right?

Mr. PAINE: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: How did you get the access, especially at General Motors? They let you in places that - or, you know, must have 500 guards with M-16s.

Mr. PAINE: Well, they do have a few guards. We found that out in the first film.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: So after making such an enemy out of them in the first film, how did you turn them around?

Mr. PAINE: Well, I think they began to turn themselves around. You know, they saw that their brand was going nowhere, and they saw maybe an opportunity in this.

And we made a deal with them. We said: We won't release any footage for the next three or four years, until 2011. And if you actually do this project you're considering, then we'll be able to see the footage. So that was the deal we made.

FLATOW: And it seems - and when you hear the Nissan people talking, and I'm sure it's true of the other car companies, it's the battery technology that has come further during the years that is making these things possible.

Mr. PAINE: Well, I think on the technology side, the battery prices coming down and then being able to do a little bit more thanks to laptop computers and cell phones has helped a lot.

But on the other side, the car companies saw the writing on the wall with gas prices. And in 2008, they jacked - this was a couple years after our movie. And in the boardrooms, when these entrepreneurs went in there, they said: Hey, gas prices are going up, and we'd better have something finally to offer people that's an option to gasoline. So I think that was a big driver.

FLATOW: Can they make - I think there's great demand for electric cars now, especially...

Mr. PAINE: I do, too.

FLATOW: Can they make enough of them?

Mr. PAINE: That's a good question. The first year, they're already sort of sold out here. And, you know, Nissan, Carlos Ghosn came in from Japan and said to our panel the other night that they are at full capacity, and they're going to try to ramp up.

But it's really tough to replace a multiple-hundred-million dollar - hundred-million-car-a-year market with a new technology. So this is going to take a while.

FLATOW: Here's a tweet that comes in from Noah Tally(ph), who says: I'd love to drive an electric car, but they don't have the range to handle my 100 miles per day or the toughness for my dirt roads.

Mr. PAINE: Yeah, well, that's great. He can wait, then, because there's lots of people that can use a car that only has a 100-mile range in the short term.

GM actually bet on customers like him with this Volt, that also has a gasoline engine. But for most people, the electric car is definitely a commuter vehicle right now, and what I found in my 12 years of driving is is that you actually drive a lot less than you think.

FLATOW: Yeah, and you said that you were pleasantly - you were surprised that you liked the Volt. You didn't go in thinking: Well, it's got a little - you know, it's not a real electric car because it's got a gas engine in it.

Mr. PAINE: Right, because you're still using a fossil fuel sometimes. Well, I've had that Volt, I bought one at full retail price, I'd like to just say here on your show.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PAINE: I've driven it for the last three weeks, I've got 500 miles on it and only a gallon of gasoline burned. So I can see for a lot of people, not maybe true believers like myself, who really believe in pure electric, that this is really a great technology for a certain kind of driver.

FLATOW: And you also have a Tesla, do you?

Mr. PAINE: I do. I do. After the first film, the only electric car you could even order, after we made "Who Killed the Electric Car?," was the Tesla. So my producer and I said: Let's put our money where our mouth is and get one of these cars. And I've had it for two years.

FLATOW: That was 100 grand.

Mr. PAINE: I know. We could buy the whole studio here for that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Certainly our staff.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: I see on their website that they're building - they have a prototype where they're trying to build a cheaper version of it.

Mr. PAINE: Yeah. They have a $50,000 or less Model S, which is actually a lot more practical than that sports car. It seats four or five or six or something, they even say. It's a really beautiful car. But that's 2012.

FLATOW: Let's go to phones, 1-800-989-8255. I have Professor Robert Darnstone(ph) from Pullman, Washington. Hi, welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

ROBERT (Caller): Hello, how are you?

FLATOW: Hi there.

Mr. PAINE: Hello.

ROBERT: My students have taken a look at this problem, and it came from the -Washington state is make an electric highway, which goes from Canada to Mexico, with California and Oregon joining in.

And I was doing a research grant, which we developed a series of charging stations. We took that to the next stage and thought: What would happen if we looked at Highway 90 and 80 and the large highways and created a series of power-charging stations across the United States and made more of a trolley system, in which you would clip on and charge so all your commuter travel is done through a trolley line. And so you're actually charging your batteries as you approach a city, and then you have battery power from there.

And we created a website with 100 projects, which showed all of these things, from wave technology to geothermal. Each student took on a different aspect of the project, and we did that for most of the highways within the United States.

The website is The Electric Highway, Washington State University.

FLATOW: All right, thank you, professor. Any reaction?

Mr. PAINE: Well, you know, one of the great things about the electric car, and I think why we got so upset when the first ones were destroyed is they're really a great symbol of innovation, the future, the next generation.

And the fact that they're coming back, and charging stations are now being standardized, they have fast charging, even talking about switching stations, incredible room for innovation and people to get involved. So it's great they're doing it.

FLATOW: You know, the country of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Edison.

Mr. PAINE: Right.

FLATOW: You know, the electrical guys. You'd think we could come up with something.

Mr. PAINE: Yeah, I think we are now, finally.

FLATOW: Do you? Do you think we have turned the corner?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PAINE: I do.

FLATOW: You do.

Mr. PAINE: Uh-huh. I think it's sort of a disillusionment with gasoline really what happened. On the pollution side, on the - where we buy all our gas from and people said, why can't we do it here? We have the smarts. Let's do it.

FLATOW: Why not create? Then I thought when I was watching the film and I think talking to other people, why not create a standard sort of electric car body with an electric engine in it, you know, but then you have the choice of maybe putting a hydrogen fuel cell to drive your electric motor or your batteries to drive your electric motor?

Mr. PAINE: Yeah. You know, that was the original design for the Volt, and I think they'll actually go back to that if they figure out the efficiency issues around hydrogen because that solves sort of the refueling process.

Now, if you talk to Tesla, they'll say no. The trick will be ultra capacitors and a high-speed type three charger, where you can do like a whole charge in five or 10 or half an hour.

FLATOW: Weren't the Israelis talking about switching out batteries in their electric cars?

Mr. PAINE: Indeed, they were. Shai Agassi at Better Place has the whole system. I think they're rolling out a prototype in Israel right about now.

FLATOW: So instead of charging-up, you go to the service station. You pull out your dead battery, and they give you - you leave it there, and they give you -you switch it basically.

Mr. PAINE: Yeah. You don't own the battery pack. You just lease it. So you go to the service station. They switch out your battery pack for another one. And they say they'll sell you the power which is inside the battery.

FLATOW: Let's see if we can get a phone call from Mike in Philly.

Hi, Mike.

MIKE (Caller): Yes. Hi.

FLATOW: Hi there.

MIKE: Thanks for taking my call.

FLATOW: Um-huh. Go ahead.

MIKE: I live in suburban Philadelphia, and I would love to get an electric car, except that I heard that the battery life is diminished if you don't park it in a garage. I don't know if it's the heat or the cold that diminishes it, but I don't have a garage. So I'd be leaving it outside. How much of an issue is that?

Mr. PAINE: Well, that's a great question, and you - in California, what they did, and I think even on a federal standard, I'm not sure about that technically, but they said let's take the battery risk out of the hands of the customer and force the car companies to have eight- or 10-year warranties on these battery packs.

So I've had my RAV4-EV now for 10 years. The battery pack has just been fine. I park it everywhere. And they say that the lithium battery packs they're selling in these new cars are really top. So there you go.

FLATOW: Good luck, Mike.

MIKE: Great. Thank you.

FLATOW: I - you know, I've no - I've made it no secret, but I have a Prius, but I keep thinking about how can I transform that into an all-electric car. And there are people who were doing that as you show in your, you know, not just Priuses but Porsches and all kinds of cars.

Mr. PAINE: That's right. Yeah. By making them into plug-in vehicles.

FLATOW: Making them into plug-in vehicles.

Mr. PAINE: Yeah. It's a great, great idea.

FLATOW: How much does it costs to convert a car?

Mr. PAINE: Well, I think they were doing Prius conversions for about 10 grand, and that would, again, instead of giving you one mile of all-electric ranges which the Prius can do in theory. It would give you like a 40-mile range. So that's for a certain kind of hobby - a person who wants to do that.

FLATOW: We're talking about electric cars this hour in SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow here with Chris Paine, author of - author - he's director of the new movie at Tribeca called "Revenge Of The Electric Car."

How's the reception been to the film?

Mr. PAINE: You never know. You edit these things for - it seems like forever, but certainly for three years, I've been working on it. And you come in, and the reception has been really - has been very nice. We - it's a good place for us to do this. New Yorkers are - care a lot about it, and we had, you know, Elon Musk come in from Tesla and Carlos come in from Sierra. So it's been a very nice reception. Even from cynics, because I think you read, it's like, oh, electric cars, it's not going to do what I want it to do. And I think they begin to see that, maybe this is part of a momentum that's bigger than any objection.

FLATOW: Well, you'd have to change the infrastructure like you're talking about and the professor was, that - I remember Governor Schwarzenegger was talking about the hydrogen highway and other things.

Mr. PAINE: Right.

FLATOW: You really have to think about not just gassing up someplace, but I can charge up someplace...

Mr. PAINE: Right.

FLATOW: ...and create that structure to do that.

Mr. PAINE: Yeah. Well, I mean, one of the advantages the electric car has is that in garages or anywhere you can plug in, there are plugs already existing, and the Volt, for example, the GM one, wants to plug in just to the wall. That's enough power for it. So you don't have to build a million-dollar hydrogen station.

But the - I think Coulomb Technology has a thousand charging stations in public places they've already installed, and that is coming because it's - a lot of people want to see the infrastructure go in as fast as the cars.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. Quick call from Nick in Wenatchee, Washington.

Hi, Nick.

NICK (Caller): Hey. How are you?

FLATOW: Hi there.

NICK: Hey. So I have a question just about the actual environmental impact of the electricity that we're using. I live in Wenatchee, Washington, which is renewable energy powerhouse between its dams and solar energy. And we have a lot of plug-in stations set up with no plug-in vehicles, and we're actually looking to have the first fully electric city trolley.

So one question that I have is if we actually get this momentum going to where the electric cars are becoming something that is more mainstream, what's the environmental impact going to be of if we don't also go with changing to renewable energy sources. The energy that - the additional energy that we're using to recharge the batteries. And then, the second part of the question that I have...

FLATOW: Well, let me just stay with that because we have to go a break, but it's a good point because half the electricity now is made from coal in this country. So what you're really doing is charging your batteries with coal.

Mr. PAINE: That's right. And we're on a 50 percent grid right now.

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. PAINE: Well, they've done study after study, and they go even on a 50 percent grid, the electric cars on a whole are cleaner than a gasoline-powered car. The Department of Energy, the Argonne study group, SIPRI(ph), a lot of these groups have done that study.

But the point that electric car advocates make, and I think it's a good one, which is, it's the only kind of car on the road which can get cleaner the longer you drive it as it we clean up the grid.

And certainly, you in Washington State there are in a great position with such a clean grid. And on the first electric car, you know, environmental groups didn't support the car. This time, they're all coming to the support of it. They're saying this is it. Sierra Club has sponsored some of our screenings. So I think...

FLATOW: Where can we get to see the film? Is it - if you want to see the film?

Mr. PAINE: I...

FLATOW: Is it around? Is it coming out in a theater near you, or do you have to find a special places?

Mr. PAINE: They're - we're taking requests on our website, which is revengeoftheelectriccar.com, and then cities that make the most requests, we're going to have our premieres there. I think that's the current plan. Or just write to Sierra Club

FLATOW: They'll bring the film...

Mr. PAINE: I don't know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PAINE: I'm just making - I'll probably just found myself in trouble.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Yeah. Never mind. But it is - it did open this week at the Tribeca Film Festival here in New York.

Mr. PAINE: Yeah. And we'll have festivals screenings this summer.

FLATOW: And I've seen it already, and it's really - it's a terrific film because it's almost like a documentary style, and it comes across very well that way.

Mr. PAINE: Thank you.

FLATOW: Good luck to you, Chris.

Mr. PAINE: Thanks, Ira.

FLATOW: And you'll come back soon to talk about the acceptance of the electric car.

Mr. PAINE: I hope that's really soon.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Chris Paine is director of the films, both films "Who Killed the Electric Car?" and now the current, the "Revenge of the Electric Car."

And if you want to see the film, you can go to revengeoftheelectriccar.com and request it for a screening in your city.

We're going to take a short break and come back, and we're going to be really annoying. What makes some of you annoyed? Ooh. Scratching yourself. Talk about who to get really annoyed. Ooh. Can't even think about it. Stay with us. We'll be right back.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: