'Revenge of the Electric Car'

In five years, how did we go from General Motors gathering up and crushing its fledgling electric cars, to the company winning the 2011 Motor Trend Car of the Year award with its mass-produced Chevrolet Volt gas-electric hybrid?

The new documentary "Revenge of the Electric Car" answers that question.

The film, which debuted this month on Earth Day at New York's Tribeca Film Festival, was directed by Chris Paine, the same man who made "Who Killed the Electric Car?" That earlier film, released in 2006, showed how car manufacturers like GM, oil companies and others helped kill the electric car.

Car manufacturers produced test electric vehicles in the 1990s to meet new California air-quality standards. Although the selected consumers who got to lease the vehicles were enthusiastic, the car companies gathered up thousands of the electric vehicles and crushed them in the mid-2000s.

Big mistake, according to Paine.

Gas prices shot well above $3 a gallon in most states in 2008, and Americans had to pay more than $4 a gallon in some places. Prolonged wars in Afghanistan and Iraq made many people yearn for disentanglement from the oil-rich Middle East. Gas-guzzling SUVs and GM's Hummer, which had provided car makers with hefty profit margins, lost their appeal. Introduced in the United States in 2001, the Toyota Prius gas-battery hybrid and its growing popularity proved there was an American market for innovative cars.

Car manufacturers went from crushing electric cars to competing in a mad scramble against their competitors to design and produce all-electric and electric-gas hybrids that would appeal to the average driver.

"Revenge of the Electric Car" takes viewers behind the scenes at GM, Nissan and the Silicon Valley startup Tesla Motors to find out how the car companies have created electric vehicles. It also profiles a man who converts people's cars to electric battery systems.

"Who Killed the Electric Car?" was presented as a who-dunnit, analyzing the roles of various "villains" — from oil companies to lackadaisical consumers content to snap up SUVs — and labeling them as guilty or not guilty.

Some reviewers have faulted "Revenge of the Electric Car" because it has no villains. What's a movie without a bad guy to hate, or better yet, a vast network of greedy corporate evildoers conspiring against us?

But "Revenge of the Electric Car" creates tension by showing that launching an electric car is no cakewalk.

Tesla Motors, in particular, has traveled a rough road. Founded in 2003 with no expectation of making a profit for a decade, the California company has raised hundreds of millions of dollars in stock offerings and accepted $465 million in low-interest loans from the U.S. Department of Energy. It's high-end electric Tesla Roadster sports car sells for $100,000, and its sedan, expected in 2012, will cost $50,000. In 2010, it had lost $290.2 million since its founding, The New York Times reported.

This month, Telsa reported sales are up and it expects to pay back its federal loans ahead of schedule.

Meanwhile, the major car companies that were sabotaging electric cars five years ago are now releasing vehicles such as the Nissan Leaf and the Chevrolet Volt in the $30,000 to $40,000 range, with a $7,500 federal tax credit trimming the cost further.

The new cars are already popping up in the Rogue Valley, but it's too soon to say when "Revenge of the Electric Car" will hit local theaters. Paine is encouraging people to visit the film's Web site at www.revengeoftheelectriccar.com to submit a request for the documentary to come to their cities.

Reach reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.

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