Personnel Profile: Chris Paine

Filmmaker Chris Paine is best-known for his popular 2006 documentary, Who Killed the Electric Car? Turns out it’s not dead – as shown in the sequel, Revenge of the Electric Car.

It seemed like the first film ended on a hopeful note.

You’re one of a very few people who remember the hopeful stuff. We even had a shot of the Tesla at the end. I knew the technology wasn’t going away. I just didn’t think it would be back as fast as it was.

The biggest factor was probably 2008 when gas prices hit $4 a gallon and most car companies didn’t have anything to sell people except Toyota with the Prius. As the industry began to really look at the peak oil charts and the impact of international economy standards and global warming, they thought, “We’d better have something that is cleaner.” I’d also say there was a lot of public pressure.

We were part of that. I was so impressed by the EV-1, and I wasn’t really a car guy. The fact that they didn’t just cancel the program but went after them all, I thought, we have to at least make a record that this is possible.

I interviewed a Ford executive and mentioned your film with people begging to buy these cars. Her response was very dismissive, saying, “Of course they want to keep the cars, they were getting something we were heavily subsidizing and losing money on.”
If these car companies hadn’t killed them and gone so aggressively at the state of California to gut the emissions programs, they would have had something to sell in 2008 instead of going near bankrupt. Their dismissal of the hybrid and electric programs hurt them more than anyone. The guys who won the board room votes in 2000, 2001 were the truck guys who were making money. When oil prices went up, they knew they’d made a mistake. Ford did better than the rest of them.

I love the point in the film that $9 billion in subsidies to U.S. car makers to build hybrids worked because they got Toyota scared.

Toyota could have given up. The leadership said, “We’re losing money, but this is going to be good for a number of reasons: greening the brand up, having a plan B as oil prices went up.” It still astonishes me GM, Ford and Chrysler didn’t have guys from McKinsey advising them there’s a chance that we’re going to hit some oil peak spikes and you might not want to leave all your money on one color. We can dismiss them right back. Now look at them. They’ve got the Ford Focus EV which is supposed to be a pretty good car.

It’s always been strange to me that peak oil is such a hard idea for people to wrap their minds around.

If you go to WikiLeaks, there’s even Saudi cables about overstating oil supplies by 40 percent. The oil companies will tell you that the sweet crude is no longer so sweet. There’s a lot more carbon in it, it takes a lot more electricity to refine it that it used to. We might begin to refine gasoline out of coal sands, but it’s all going to drive the price up. We don’t have all the cheap oil we used to have. I think the car companies now are demonstrating that they’re not just short-termers.

There’s also pressure from the military saying peak oil is real. We’ll need the oil for our navy and will not be providing it for your Escalade any longer. We shouldn’t be blowing it on ground transportation. Buckminster Fuller used to say the real value of gasoline is $1 million a gallon and we’re going to deplete this amazing resource in such stupid ways.
On the flip side, horses were creating a lot of problems 100 years ago – pollution problems, dead horses and manure. Gas-powered cars were a godsend for a while. You’ll hear people say in an electric car, “I’m going to step on the gas now.” Human beings hate to change. Everybody was so resistant to cars when they first came out they had to use all these horse terms – “horseless carriage,” “horsepower.” People want you to tell them they’re exactly like their gas-powered car.

Plug-in cars have all of these advantages. The drive mechanism is way smoother, there’s more torque. There’s no service and maintenance because there’s no engine to fix, there’s no tune-ups, you almost never have a break job because of regen breaking. There are enough advantages that a lot of delivery companies are thinking of taking their short-haul delivery fleets electric. Fuel prices for electricity are at most $1 a gallon equivalent. Gas cars have had 100 years to pay off the development costs. With electric cars, there’s still a premium on the new technology.

What about people who say the real problem is cars themselves, and that moving from gas to electric is just delaying the real changes we need to make?
I largely agree with that statement. I love bicycles, public transportation, telecommuting. But the reality is much of the world, especially the United States, is set up around the automobile. Millions of cars have been sold, roads have been built, trillions of dollars have been put in. None of this is going away soon. If we’re going to keep making cars, we might as well make them plug-ins, because you can start curbing this crazy oil fiesta we’re running.

The oil industry is one of the largest users of electricity. They need so much to refine crude oil into gasoline. The DOE (Dept. of Energy) says there’s between four and six kilowatt hours of electricity in every gallon of gasoline. If you just put that directly into an automobile, you could go 20 miles. Why not just use the energy directly. Take out the middle man!

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