Back in 2006, the documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? revealed how various industry players—including petroleum companies and car manufacturers themselves—conspired to sabotage the launch of the first electric vehicles. But shortly after the film was released, its director, Chris Paine, began to hear rumblings of an electric car comeback. “I started an email correspondence with GM,” recalls Paine. “I said, ‘we thought you had a great car and we were upset that you killed it. But if you’re going to do it right, I’m going to tell the story, since it’s not often that companies change their minds on big decisions like that.'” Sure enough, a few years later the next wave of electric cars have hit the market—and Paine’s sequel, Revenge of the Electric Car, tells the story of what happened. I spoke to Paine shortly after his film’s Earth Day premiere.
Mother Jones: What’s changed since Who Killed the Electric Car?
Chris Paine: There was a lot of blowback after the first programs were killed. Consumers were saying, ‘If we have to have cars, why are only bad cars available? Why do we have to rely on the Middle East?’ So the right and the left came around—afor security reasons and environmental reasons—and then the car industry itself, which realized no one was buying cars when gas hit $4 a gallon in 2008. And here we are in 2011, with gas prices going nowhere but up, and there is a serious international consensus that you have to have higher miles-per-gallon cars.
MJ: Are oil companies still trying to interfere with electric cars?
CP: I’m sure the gasoline companies would still love to keep their 100 percent monopoly on transportation fuel. But what’s changed since then is the fact that almost all the refineries in the US are at 100 percent production right now. They can’t even keep up with demands for gasoline. So the last thing they want is to be caught driving up prices while at the same time they are publicly coming down, like they did last time on electric cars. So I think they’re staying out of the way this time. I don’t know what’s happening behind the scenes, but they’re not running ads against electric cars or claiming they’re unsafe like they did last time.
MJ: Can electric cars save Detroit?
CP: I think electric cars can help save Detroit. They reflect good decision-making, and there has been bad decision making in the auto industry for so long, in my view. In the course of filming Revenge of the Electric Car I became a little more sympathetic to the car industry in terms the way it impacts the global economy. Not just in Detroit in the obvious ways, but the workers in this industry all around the world. Also, lots of things that progressives like, like the show The West Wing, were largely supported by car advertising. This stuff went away when Detroit started to go under.