Who Will Win the Race to Build a Great Electric Vehicle?

Posted by Nina Lincoff

Greg 'Gadget' Abbott

The Revenge of the Electric Car, the sequel to the 2006 film Who Killed the Electric Car?, is set to premiere in New York and Los Angeles on Oct. 21. The film, from director Chris Paine, follows its predecessor's question with a definitive, even menacing response, but it might be more aptly titled Who Will Win the Electric Car Race?

And it is most definitely a race. The battle is taking place between individual salesmen, international car manufacturers, and governments fighting to develop the right technology first, with the best electric vehicle the prize just across the finish line. According to Greg ‘Gadget’ Abbott, one of Paine’s main characters, the winner will be the person or people who develop the best battery technology.

“The EV is coming back with a vengeance because the public is demanding them ... It’s time for the EV,” Abbott says, adding that it’s going to take a combination of small-scale producers, old-guard car manufacturers, and lab geeks to clinch an EV victory The film follows multiple companies rolling out new models of EVs in a competition to win the over the market. And the film makes clear that consumers eagerly await the innovation that results.

Paine follows four main contenders in the race: Bob Lutz, former vice chairman of General Motors; Elon Musk, Pay Pal billionaire and dilettante entrepreneur of companies like Tesla Motors and SpaceX; Carlos Ghosn, CEO of Nissan and Renault; and Abbott, a smaller-scale car converter based in Los Angeles. Each of these men are at the forefront of the EV playing field, yet each faces the same problem: Their success or failure will be based on public whim, not their own ingenuity.

Lutz, the ultimate old boy competitor, approaches EVs and his place at GM with humorous cynicism. He, Ghosn, and Musk are businessmen first. About to face a panel of unhappy faces, Lutz describes his approach to facing a wary crowd, in a show of frighteningly accurate self-awareness. “This is another good thing ... given my age if I really say something that is unfortunate and has the potential of causing the company some embarrassment, they can always say ‘oh that’s Lutz; he’s a good guy but he is getting on a bit,’” he tells the camera.

Lutz ends the movie unhappily retired, having been edged out of the EV race.

The film is in some ways a nostalgic time capsule for EV fanatics, a glimpse at a time not more than a year ago, when GM, Tesla, and Nissan were all rolling out 2011 EV models. Although it may seem contradictory to date a study of the EV, the fact that one can do so only shows how dynamic the industry Paine has chosen to cover is.

In the past couple months, Tesla has ridden the success it grasps at the end of the film to expansion and plans for a four-door sedan to roll out next year. Chevrolet's Volt garnered rave reviews from the likes of The Washington Post and others. Nissan, the Japanese contender, was affected by March’s massive earthquake and tsunami, but has plans to come back to the market.

Abbott, the small-scale EV catalyst, suffers major setbacks in the film and now has two failed shops behind him and a newer, better version on the way. Today, he’s happy to say the demand for EVs is up since the 2008 market crash. He even has a waiting list for his services as a combustion-engine-to-EV converter.

And as for Abbott's goal of driving his little silver Porsche more than 100 miles from Los Angeles to Palm Springs? He’s done it multiple times, each on only one charge. Abbott now has his sights set on a more ambitious drive, from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. A car with a 300-mile range is markedly heavier than its combustion-engine equivalent, posing a major challenge. If EVs are going to truly dominate the market, he says, engineers will need a breakthrough in battery technology. “Invention takes a break through, and who can predict that? There have been a lot of incremental improvements … [but] what I’m pushing for is a car that has enough range that you don’t need to charge it,” Abbott says. “It’s just that kind of long-range, lightweight battery that will help the public fully transition from combustion engines to EVs.”

In one scene about halfway through the movie, Paine visits a Detroit church where three white vehicles have been parked on the monumental altar. The pastor asks the congregation to pray to the Big Three, and not the holy ones usually associated with church. He reminds viewers that those companies may not be the "Big Three" forever, so the future of America's roadways is very much up for grabs.

Photo courtesy of Area23A