Filmmaker Chris Paine, whose "Who Killed the Electric Car?" was a huge success in 2006 and arguably created a market for theatrically released documentaries, will be back next year with "Revenge of the Electric Car", which celebrates the electric vehicle's triumphant rise. Who would have thought that the industry would soon arise from the nadir that saw the last General Motors EV1s ignominiously crushed?
Excerpts of "Revenge" will be shown at the Driving Sustainability 2010 conference in Reykjavik, Iceland, this month. I'll be there, reporting on the country's efforts to have the world's first electric car-based transportation system. It's eminently doable in Iceland, which has slightly more than 300,000 people (75 percent of whom live within 37 miles of capital city Reykjavik). The whole country can be reached with a very small electric vehicle charging network. Add in the fact that 85 percent of the country's electricity is zero-emission geothermal, and you have an unbeatable recipe for plug-in transportation. Automakers just need to get hip and send cars there.
Paine sat down with us for a few questions and answers about the outlook for electric vehicles — so much brighter today than four years ago — and Iceland’s role as a vanguard country in the plug-in revolution. As we spoke, Paine had just come from filming at the Detroit-Hamtramck plant in Michigan, where he watched some of the first Chevrolet Volts roll down the assembly line. The interview has been edited for clarity. You can listen to an audio version of the entire interview here:
MNN: Are we on the verge of a revolution in transportation?
Chris Paine: Yes, this is it for the automobile. This is the culmination of a lot of work, the torch is being passed back to the consumer. Finally, these cars will be available everywhere. It’s too bad there’s a recession going on, because people don’t have a lot of money to buy a new car, but they certainly will have the option this coming year. And not all of them will be very expensive — there will be some really terrific cars anyone can afford.
The movie has been incredibly interesting over the last three years, and we’re just having to pick and choose which stories to tell in limited form.
You were in Detroit filming at the Detroit-Hamtramck Chevrolet Volt plant today.
Yes, we saw some of the first Chevrolet Volts come down the assembly line.
In a way, it’s like coming full circle, because "Who Killed the Electric Car?" is about GM short-circuiting its last EV program.
It’s really funny, but when we made that film, we were locked out of GM. We filmed outside the Hamtramck plant, unable to even get in and do an interview. And now here we are, six or seven years later, inside the plant and on the line as electric cars are being made. A lot has changed.
You have people in your first film like Chelsea Sexton, who started out as a GM employee outraged at the crushing of the EV1. And she’s now one of the key players in the unfolding EV revolution, as a consultant to many of the prominent companies. The auto companies have embraced the environmental movement they weren’t previously willing to do.
And they all went bankrupt, or at least the American companies did [with the exception of Ford], and they began to see when gas prices reached $4 a gallon the public was going to demand some options with gasoline. There was a perfect storm with gas prices. And there was growing environmental consciousness, as well as technological advances with batteries and other components.
Do you have a sense of the size of the early adopter market? Some say 200,000 early adopters and only 40,000 to 50,000 cars available.
I think that’s an excellent, reasonable estimate. Nissan’s Carlos Ghosn, one of the characters we’re following in the film, says publicly that EVs could become 10 percent of the auto market by 2020, and that the adoption rate could be very steep.
Do you think that there could be a big market in converting cars to EVs, as companies like Amp Electric Vehicles (which converts the Chevrolet Equinox, Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky) are doing? Could that become a big market?
I do. Converting cars is terrific from an environmental perspective because you’re not creating a whole new car every time.
You and I are both taking part in the Driving Sustainability 2010 conference in Reykjavik, Iceland, later this month, and you’re going to be showing some excerpts of the "Revenge" film. Do you concur that Iceland could be the first country to go electric? In a lot of ways, it’s easier there than almost anywhere else because of very cheap zero-emission geothermal and hydro-electric electricity, plus a very concentrated population of just 300,000. I’m optimistic that, despite its financial problems and delays in getting cars delivered, Iceland can be in the vanguard. There is a memorandum of understanding with Mitsubishi to sell the electric i-MiEV car in Iceland, but so far only a few have been delivered.
We really agree on that, Jim. We were actually going to open our entire film in Iceland. I was at the Driving Sustainability conference two years ago, and I stayed there an extra week and filmed around Iceland. We talked to the president and the geothermal people, and as you say the main problem is getting the cars. It’s proving really challenging for them.
We shot a story about one of the designers of the i-MiEV, who was the son of the man who designed some of the motors for the big geothermal plants in Iceland. Geothermal is such an environmental success story there. Iceland, of course, also had a very big experiment with fuel cells, of course, and there’s still a Shell hydrogen station there.
For those MNN readers who have yet to see the film that started it all, here's the preview of the original "Who Killed the Electric Car?"