Released five years ago, the documentary Who Killed the Electric Car is a standard issue-driven documentary about General Motors’ EV1, a vehicle the company recalled despite a devoted fan base. The primary talking heads were outsiders: consumer advocates and environmentalists who were outraged by GM’s disdain for innovation. Fast forward to 2011 and director Chris Paine’s sequel, Revenge of the Electric Car, is another animal entirely. Instead of focusing on the politics and environmental impact of the cars, Paine creates a personality-driven documentary, one where business leaders strive to dominate the a share of the car market with increasingly feverish demand.
The key rival is between Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla motors, and Carlos Ghosn, CEO of Nissan/Renault. The Tesla roadster is sexy but expensive (he has plans to introduce an affordable sedan in a few years); Ghosn pet project, the relatively cheap Nissan Lef, is already the recipient of multiple awards from the automotive industry. Rounding out the heavyweights is Bob Lutz, former vice chairman of GM, who was instrumental in the development of the Chevy Volt. Through interviews and unprecedented access to high-level meetings, Paine shows us how the electric car is no longer some lofty goal of the future.
After the screening, David Duchovny led a discussion about with panelists Paine, Musk, Ghosn, and Wall Street Journal columnist Dan Neil. Duchovny struck me as an add choice to lead the talk; he has few qualifications (he prefaced the talk by saying he once owned an electric car), yet he proved to be solid moderator. He was an attentive listener and consistently framed disagreements in a way that could be understood by a layperson. Sure, some of his jokes were lame – Duchovny said he rarely begins sentences with, “We were talking in green room,” even though he’s made dozens of talk show appearances – but his calming demeanor helped balance the spirited debate.
Musk and Ghosn were adversarial and defensive. Neil was quick to point out practical shortcomings in their respective business models (I never thought I’d be so enthralled by the practicalities of a car’s chassis), and the CEOs responded with engineering-savvy and well-informed ambition. Of all the panelists, Ghosn was the most impressive; he has no environmental agenda whatsoever, and his unrepentant profit motive leads me to believe electric cars actually do have a future. Musk had more promises to make. Excitement for his company couldn’t be higher, but there are still some production milestones the CEO must hit. He was eager to answer everyone’s questions – he even stuck around to discuss his company with gear-head audience members. Ghosn may have the most business acumen, but Musk comes off as the real star of the film. A hyper-intelligent outsider whose drive silences naysayers, Musk seems like the paragon of a 21st century CEO.
Revenge of the Electric Car hasn’t been picked up yet, but I’d expect it to hit theaters soon. As someone who hasn’t owned a car in years, trust me when I say the strength of the personalities help facilitate interest in the nuts and bolts of these gasless vehicles.