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Interview with makers of "Who Killed the Electric Car?"

Hoping to share a little bit of the spotlight with that other eco-themed documentary -- alongside which it debuted at the Sundance film festival -- Who Killed the Electric Car? will drive (without emissions!) into theaters next month (or tomorrow, if you're in NYC or L.A.).

On June 9, I sat down for a wide-ranging discussion with Chris Paine, the director, Chelsea Sexton, an activist prominently featured in the film, and Wally Rippel, an engineer who played a role in developing the power system for the late, lamented GM EV-1.
For still more electric-car interview fun, go here.

DR: So I started watching this movie, about this one peculiar car, and then about halfway through all the sudden I'm watching a movie about fuel economy and global warming and energy security. Did you use the former as a hook for the latter, or did the former just carry you into the latter?

CP: That's an excellent question. When I started filming I wasn't thinking [about the bigger issues], but by the time we were editing it's like, this is such a great microcosm.

It's more than a car story, you know. I mean, much more than a car story.

DR: How did you hear about the EV? I'm sure I'm not the only who had no idea it even existed before the movie came out.

CP: Well, it's funny you say that. Car companies just didn't talk about it. The only reason they built them was that California made them. And to their shock, they built, thanks to engineers like Wally, probably the most advanced car Detroit ever built, and the most maintenance-free car. And when all the car companies were forced to do it, they realized that it threatened their business model. It also threatened the oil industry. So they wanted to dismantle it.

WR: The sad thing is, the technology has gotten so much better since then, and other people are doing it, so as a country we're missing a lot of opportunity here.

DR: It seems so dunderheaded to think that building a better car would hurt an automaker's business model. Did you talk to people inside the car companies? Did you get a sense of their deliberations?

CP: Tom Everhart, the board member from GM -- one of our amazing interviews -- said they debated internally and basically GM and most carmakers decided to put all their money on a gas car and ditch this. Except Toyota didn't. Toyota said, you know what, we're going to keep this hybrid thing running. And Honda did too. But American carmakers threw the whole thing out the window, because they were making so much money off their high-margin gasoline cars.

WR: But Toyota's making money and GM's losing money. So they lost the bet.

DR: You don't touch on this too much in the movie, but there's also a growing concern that oil supply is peaking while demand is growing; gas is inevitably going to rise in price, which makes the life of the gas car ... who knows, five, 10, 20, 30 years. But limited. Inevitably declining. Is no one in GM anticipating that, or is it just a focus on short-term profits?

WR: I'll bend over backwards and try to be as fair as I can to the car companies. First of all, a lot of things have happened since they got rid of the EV-1 that they might not have expected. The price of oil's gone up a lot. Remember in the year 2000, oil was $12 a barrel or something. And now it's been hovering around $70, with the possibility of going up a lot if anything happens unexpectedly.

The technology has moved a lot more. For many, many years people put a lot of money into batteries and they didn't see much come out. Thanks in part to the consumer electronics industry, a lot of progress has taken place in batteries. So we have better batteries, we have higher oil prices, and those things, you could argue, might not have been anticipated. They should have been -- you didn't have to be a rocket scientist.

CP: You would think that friggin' GM would have one guy from Andersen or Price Waterhouse that would say, hey, there's a chance gas could go to $5 a gallon.

CS: I think that they're aware of it, they're just choosing to address it differently. I mean, their whole ethanol campaign is their statement that on some level they're aware of this. It doesn't mean they're addressing it in the best way.

DR: That was my next question, actually. You discuss hydrogen quite a bit in the movie -- the illusion of hydrogen, perpetually 10 years out -- but it seems to me that ethanol is the bigger gesture on the part of American carmakers toward this issue. Why didn't you get into that more? Do you have any thoughts on it?

CP: Well, the way industry went after the electric car in California was to say, hey, we have another zero-emission vehicle, that's hydrogen fuel-cell. And it's the next car. So it it fit into the [film's murder-suspect] structure. The thing with ethanol and other alternative fuels is: these are very big topics. So the movie would go from 90 minutes to 2.5 hours very quickly. Both Wally and Chelsea will tell you that in our view, electricity is the right way to power your car the first 50 miles of every drive. After that, with a plug-in hybrid you have a fuel. And the right fuel is either ...

CS: ... is renewable diesel or cellulosic ethanol. But in any case, made in a better energy-equation way, and also made from waste instead of food crops.

WR: People have pointed to Brazil and said, look at what Brazil has done, they don't have this dependency on foreign oil. But they've also cut down rainforests in order to do this.

DR: They also use way less energy per capita than we do.

WR: One of the best answers for providing energy right now is wind. You put a wind generator on agricultural land, and you use less than one-tenth of one percent of the land in doing that. You grow the crops still, but you've got a second crop, which is electrical energy. And the amount of energy you get per square mile is quite a bit higher than with any of the biofuels, ethanol included. So as far as utilization of land or utilization of capital, electricity has a lot going for it. The weak link in the equation has always been the battery. When you have an electric car, the cost of energy is the equivalent of 60 cents a gallon, but the battery depreciation cost may be twice that.

DR: The movie seems to start out in support of all-electric cars and end up in support of electric-gas hybrids, which seems a little bit of a step back. Why not all electric cars now?

WR: Ten years ago, I don't know that we could have been talking about plug-in hybrids the way we do now, because the batteries, in order to get adequate power for acceleration, had to be large enough that it was really looking like an electric car. You didn't have space left over for an internal combustion engine. So there's been technical progress that allows us to put two power trends together. And this is not a step back: I mean, these vehicles are pure electric if you're driving 30 miles a day. But they also, by virtue of the engine, allow you to have a much larger market share. It potentially can become not just a niche thing but mainstream, and really do some good.

CS: I think we remain very much in support of [battery-only] electrics, but I am also realistic about what the car companies are willing to do next. And this is a nice technological middle ground that has probably an initial larger market than pure battery-electrics, that appeals to more segments of society and more of the folks who are coming to the table: the neo-conservatives and evangelicals, pretty much everyone comes at it from a different angle, but they all arrive at the same solution. And also it's a way to take advantage of all of the different types of renewable energies, biodiesel and any of the others. If there's one car that can do it, [plug-in hybrid] will be it.

DR: You say the weak link is batteries. But one of the other weak links, or one of the other big questions, is the fact that most electricity nowadays comes from coal.

WR: Fifty-one percent.

DR: That's touched on in the movie briefly, but could one of you say more about how to address the criticism that shifting your emissions [from oil] to coal isn't all that great?

WR: This is a key point. First of all, the total amount of electricity we generate in terms of energy units is about five times the energy required to power all the ground vehicles, all the cars and small trucks. Often people don't realize that. You tell them if every vehicle were electric, you don't triple the size of the utilities. The amount of generation that you have to have in terms of power plants increases only a few percent.

CP: Right now you could charge, overnight, 20 to 30 million cars a night without building any additional utilities, just using off-peak power.

WR: So the argument there is dealing with capital resource. And that's important, especially compared to hydrogen. You don't have to build a new infrastructure. It's already there, it's paid for.

The other issue, which is very important, is CO2. Electric utilities produce more CO2 than cars and small trucks. So that issue has to be dealt with. That is not optional. And the options for dealing with that are [things like] photovoltaic, wind, geothermal. So the point is that after you deal with CO2, it doesn't mean you have to double the size of the utility. It's a 20 percent effect.

CP: There's a huge misinformation campaign about this. Even if you have coal, or the current national mix, if you use an electric car, because of the basic efficiency, because you can clean up the stacks, it's 60 percent cleaner to run an electric car than it is to run a CO2 car. If you're in California -- this is what the movie mentions -- it's one-tenth of the CO2, because we have so many non-coal sources.

DR: Same for Washington -- there's so much hydropower.

WR: Yes. You have to ask, when I plug something in, where is that extra load being picked up? And it's picked up not by a mix but by one particular thing, and in some cases it is picked up by a coal-generating plant. But even in that most extreme case, you're better off. The big picture is, when you look at where we've got to be 20 years from now, we've got to replace those coal plants as well.

CP: Well, we need sequestering.

DR: Sequestering is hydrogen-esque in its perpetually-10-years-out status.

CS: Absolutely. But it's important to understand that electric cars will get cleaner over time as the grid gets cleaner. Gasoline cars can only get dirtier.

And while the grid can support millions of plug-in cars without having to increase generating capacity, it's going to take some time to get those millions of cars on the road, and in that time sequestration will either prove itself or not.

WR: Only 2 percent of our electricity comes from oil at this point; that 2 percent will probably disappear in the next few years. So we've got to do something with utilities around the CO2 issue, and we're going to be forced to do it. And this makes plug-in hybrids 20 years from now look wonderful. It's not going to be an issue -- people won't be asking that question.

DR: I'm sure there are some hardcore environmentalists out there who say a movie like this, and the hype around hybrids and electric cars, is all part of fetishizing personal transportation, when what we really should be doing is enhancing public transportation, building denser cities, trying to break this illusion that everyone needs that 20-ton machine to carry them around to the grocery store. Did you think about that at all?

CP: We certainly did. But we're also dealing with American realities, and the American personality is so tied up in the car. So right now electricity drives a lot of public transportation, which is a good thing, but in the meantime ... it's not going to be an instant shift.

CS: Certainly public transportation is one of the solutions, and some cities are already very conducive to it, and others -- L.A. in particular -- are not. If you talk to urban planners, they describe shifting to public transportation as the 50-year plan. We could get electric cars or plug-in hybrids back on the road in the next year, while also working in terms of public transportation for the future.

DR: Did you expect the film to get picked up [by a studio]?

CP: You know, you start a project and you just [focus on] your own values and what you want to do. Obviously, when gas started hitting $3 a gallon, it made studios more interested. And it sort of reached a tipping point. People were paying attention. And the studio says, OK, we might not lose money on this project. It's really all about timing. So in a way we're lucky.

You can't underestimate how fun it is to drive an electric car. I never really loved cars, and I drove that electric car and it just took my breath away. So fast! The best thing is you pull up next to a Porsche and you take it off the line. And they think you're driving some prissy golf cart. And you're like, oh by the way, this car is pretty green, and ... anyway.

WR: That was my vision in doing this, in the engineering, was to make a statement that electric propulsion can be more than environmentally friendly -- it can be a lot of fun. And I think that, by the way, fits into the previous question of mass transit. Cars are more exciting than transit, let's face it.

CS: We're not trying to position electric cars as the car for everybody, or even plug-in hybrids; it is much more about giving people a choice. Ultimately we need to go toward a diversity of fuels, but so many people don't realize what an amazing choice they were denied, and what a viable choice.

DR: Is there an extant, working EV-1 on the road?

CS: GM gutted and donated about 40 of them, split roughly between colleges and museums. A few of the universities have rebuilt theirs, so there are a few that are running that way, but there are not any originally intact, legally obtained working EV-1s.

CP: In private hands -- I think GM probably has a few. We saw two in Detroit under these shrouds, and we're like, oh my god, I'd give anything for that -- but if I steal a car we'd have a whole 'nother problem.

WR: That's a good movie.

DR: A heist movie.

CP: Who stole the electric car?

DR: The movie was very even-handed, distributing blame among the many various bad actors involved, but I'm curious: did any one of the many suspects you identified really irk you more than the others?

CP: Well, we didn't include a lot. We didn't nail the media. The media wouldn't report this story; they're still not.

I think the one that makes me most upset sometimes are these PR agencies that get hired by the auto and oil industry to manipulate public opinion. The Automobile Manufacturers' Association and the Western States Petroleum Association are both in the business of influencing society by manipulating media. And that to me is the most unconscionable thing.

WR: It puts us on par with the Soviet Union, I think.

DR: Sort of puts the lie to the free-market arguments -- what people do and don't want -- when all the available information is basically sponsored or manipulated by the interests involved.

WR: You know, we have a unique situation here and that is that 97 percent of ground transportation is oil-based. For the electric utilities, you don't have that monopoly, you have all different sources of energy, ranging from hydro to geothermal. And if you look at advertising, you see that the automotive sector is a very large sector in many different media. So you have a kind of locking of arms where people say, we're going to control this. And it makes it difficult for a story to come out; it makes it difficult for people to make a choice.

DR: Now that the movie's out, do you feel like there's resistance to letting it get publicity?

CP: Look on IMDB: our rating is 4.3 out of 10 stars. Now, my ego aside about whether I made a good movie or not, I know it's not a 4.3. The worst I'd say is it's a 6, and I happen to think it's a lot more than that. We showed that screening two times at Sundance and every time got a standing ovation, blah blah blah, and then here come 300 entries giving the movie a 2. And some of the entries came from India and the Midwest.

DR: Outsourced?

CP: John Q Public goes to the site, they go oh, electric car, I'm kind of interested -- but I don't know if I want to see a 4 movie, you know? So that's dirty baseball.

DR: Do you want to guess final box office?

CP: [laughs] I hope we're the 1-2 punch with Inconvenient Truth.

DR: Do you feel like you're competing for viewers with that movie, or do you feel like it's synergy?

CP: That's the big picture, and [ours is] a specific example. That movie's a little bit more of a lecture, ours is more of a movie.

CS: They're pretty different thematically. His is a very smart but very academically presented film, and ours is a little more rebellious in spots. They complement each other nicely that way.

DR: I asked Al Gore why [his movie spent] so much time on the problem and not on solutions, and he said it's because Americans are in denial about the problem. But I guess one way of looking at it is, your movie is one answer to the question: what can people do?

CS: Well, I think we have learned, if nothing else, you absolutely have to ask for what you want. The longer you accept the status quo, the longer we're going to have it. And it's definitely been a lesson that we as a global community have to start asking more questions and paying more attention and making ourselves aware, but also have more faith in our ability to create change. Because there's been this [sense that] "I can't make a difference," kind of that same thing with voting, and it's just not the case anymore.

CP: Yeah, car companies are so used to [saying], here's what's for sale: you choose from our line. But right now, you can bark back up the tree and say, I'm not buying a damn Prius until you plug it in. And then that goes back to the manager and corporate, and they sit there and go, uhhh...

CS: A nationwide media outlet came to us last year during our little vigil, and while they were setting up the cameras, they said, we want to tell you a story: we just came from Toyota, and we were talking to them and asked them why they didn't build a plug-in hybrid, and their distilled, non-sugarcoated answer was: because we don't have to. So many people are buying the gas-burning version, we simply don't need to.

It's the perfect encapsulation of auto-industry attitude -- and probably not just the auto industry. The longer you buy what they make, the longer they'll keep making that and nothing else.

Editorial Notes: Another interview with the makers of the movie appears on Grist. -BA

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