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Arts and Entertainment Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2012 8 years ago

Revenge of the Electric Car: A Review and Then Some

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by: Jonathan Glancy

On Jan. 6, Burns Court Cinema premiered Chris Paine’s Revenge of the Electric Car, the sequel to the 2006 documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? The audience was filled with local electric vehicle (EV) enthusiasts and renewable energy advocates, a reminder that our quaint little city, though old at heart, prides itself on being progressive in spirit. The documentary recounts the “greening” of the automobile industry over the past five years, in which the electric car climbed back from extinction into the public limelight. Using Hollywood celebrities and high-profile businessmen to celebrate the electric car’s revival, Paine reminds the audience of who and what drive the American economy.

Among vengeful new EVs, the Chevy Volt and the Nissan Leaf are the major leaders, while the legendary Tesla Roadster---boasting 100 mph with a $100,000 price point---is a fun, sexy-looking toy, but not quite the real thing.  Thankfully, the movie isn’t so much about the hard facts of the EV market as it is about the market movers themselves.

My personal favorite, Brazilian-Lebanese-French businessman Carlos Ghosn, decided to spend €4 billion for Renault and Nissan to jointly develop the world's first line of electric cars, starting with the Leaf. He sounds and acts just like a Machiavellian industry tycoon should, except he’s selling a universally clean product! As it turns out, Ghosn may be the dark knight that will ultimately save us all from environmental peril, not that he really cares about trees or anything.

America’s favorite suit, GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz---the muscle-car magnate who originally killed the electric car in 2006---turns into the unlikely hero of the movie, pushing the Chevy Volt into production at a time when GM’s future and brand are at stake. Oddly, I felt sympathetic for Lutz to watch him surrender his American pride for a noiseless, battery-powered go-cart. It was like being at a retirement home watching a nurse take away an old man’s cheeseburger and replacing it with a tofu-filled lettuce wrap. Change isn’t easy, especially when you’re from ‘Merica.

Adding some blue-collar flavor to the cast’s mix was Greg “Gadget” Abbott, a junkyard rat who custom-converts existing vehicles to electric. As it would turn out, Sarasota’s own gadget man sat right in front of me: Pete Shaw, part-time bar manager, part-time wizard who engineered a 1969 Volkswagen Squareback with a state-of-the-art electric motor for Project Green Machine. Engineer hackers like Abbott and Shaw were born 20 years too soon. They teach us how easy it is to embrace green technology in the 21st century, but how hard it is to get a steady paycheck using such talents.

Revenge’s final character represents the innovative spirit in America. Rogue entrepreneur Elon Musk (dubbed a modern-day Tony Stark) opens the doors to his young start-up company Tesla Motors, revealing the growing pains of entering a brutal automobile industry at the cusp of the recession. While the world salivated over his sleek designs and high-performance engines, his march on Detroit comes to a halt as the geek-freak struggles to keep his company afloat, eventually running through the last of his PayPal fortune. With goals of converting every car in the U.S. to electric, Musk’s vision seems muddled by a combination of over-optimism and masochism for the sake of delivering. God bless you, Elon.

While the movie felt like a big commercial for electric cars, I realized that the diversity of the characters revealed not so much a revenge of the electric car, but rather a growing optimism in the world market. Big time players such as Ghosn who hinge an entire company’s financial future on a bet---that the electric car is the now and not just the future---do so because of supply and demand, not because of Kyoto Protocol and saving the environment. This is the bottom line: Rapidly growing populations of commuter car-lovers are emerging in markets such as China, Brazil and India. The most cost-effective product in the long term will be electric, and this transition toward commuter cars will ultimately swing the automobile industry away from gasoline.

In terms of our general transportation, we Sarasotans live a relatively easy life: we never drive more than 50 miles per day, rarely exceed 60 miles per hour on any given road and live in a region ideal for solar-powered EV stations. Buying an electric car would seem to be a smart financial decision. Imagine driving to work and plugging your car into a charging station fueled by a solar panel system atop a parking garage or your office building. Simple, right? Believing in innovation and, more importantly, believing in overly optimistic people like Elon Musk and politicians who push for renewable energy sources requires a 180-degree shift in consumer consciousness. And this necessitates more than watching a documentary and a taking a test drive. The good thing about the EV market is that it’s becoming more visible and flashier, and people are getting hungry. Electric cars may not taste like a hamburger yet, but they’re looking a hell of a lot better than a tofu-stuffed lettuce wrap.

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