CleanTechnica readers should be familiar with Chris Paine, the director of two films that chronicle the beginnings of the electric car revolution, Who Killed the Electric Car and Revenge of the Electric Car. He sat down recently with Forbes contributor Brooke Crothers to talk about what is happening with the EV movement today and what he foresees for the future of electric cars.
First, Crothers asked Paine what has happened to General Motors and its electric car plans. GM started things off in America with the iconic EV1, then brought us the Chevy Volt PHEV, and most recently the Chevy Bolt EV. The Volt is now out of production and the Bolt sells a few copies each month, but nothing like the Tesla Model 3. I have driven the Bolt and it’s a decent car but at least a generation or two behind the Model 3. Paine says,
I don’t think GM knew how to make money on the Volt. It’s sad that they dropped it. And I think it’s sort of an indicator that most of the car companies still aren’t on board all the way with electric cars. Give them credit for the Bolt but you don’t see them advertising very hard. GM makes money on trucks. Their trucks typically don’t have very strict emission controls on them. So they can make them with big margins.
Toyota was also an early leader in electric cars with the RAV4 EV, but that car was soon withdrawn from the market.
Toyota has completely lost their way. They had the best electric car on the market in the first round with the RAV4 EV. Then [after the Prius] they got completely distracted by hydrogen and the Mirai. They could never make money on the Mirai. And hydrogen… there’s no infrastructure in the U.S. [The Mirai] is a complete waste of time unless you’re looking 50 years down the road or if it’s trucking.
When it comes to what it will take to boost the sale of electric cars in America, Paine says many of the same things we here at CleanTechnica and our readers have been saying for years.
I think the core auto industry is completely ambivalent. They do concept cars but they don’t make it to dealerships. I think it’s collective ambivalence. You go to a car dealership anywhere in the country and finding an electric car can be pretty hard.
There’s no guarantee in the next five years. There are a lot of obstacles. [The auto industry] says, ‘We’re all about electric’ but as soon as they have a chance, they go after emission standards and just sell trucks. They all jump ship. [Note: Only Ford, VW, BMW, and Honda have supported California’s unique auto emissions policies.]
The core challenge for electric cars is, the gas car industry makes money in the aftermarket. The real money is in selling you parts and oil changes. And electric cars don’t have that advantage, which is one of the challenges for Tesla in a way. They have to sell other things.
Asked which automakers are likely to succeed in the future, Paine was pessimistic. “Very few of them will make it. They’re trained to make money on fossil fuels.” And that’s the bottom line, isn’t it? Tesla may be the exception, according to Paine.
And that’s why the pure companies, obviously Tesla, they’re going to be the ones [to succeed] because it’s a different business model. And the managers know how to do it. I’m just glad [Tesla is] being successful in getting people talking about electric cars, thinking about electric cars, and ultimately buying them.
When I talked to [Elon Musk] back in 2008 when we were making our film, it was like, “my goal is to get the car companies to take electric seriously.” I think that’s true. I don’t think that guy is motivated by money.
Paine, who drove a Chevy Volt for several years, also has good things to say about Rivian, which he says has assumed a leadership role in the electric car industry. Then he was asked about the Tesla Model 3:
I didn’t buy a Model S or Model X but I’m super happy with my Model 3. I drive a lot of cars. It’s just the best car I’ve ever driven, regardless of whether it’s an electric car or not.
And the Cybertruck:
I’m still trying to figure out what I feel about it. I’ve learned to trust that Tesla has dialed into something next-level. You’re not always going to get it out of the box. Since 2007, there’s been a cycle of “these guys just made the biggest mistake ever…they’re going bankrupt tomorrow’ [all the way] to ‘these guys are geniuses.”
Paine says he is planning a third movie about electric vehicles, one that will focus on electric bikes and scooters.
How do we live without oil? The fossil fuel villains are still out there trying to slow this down.
There are some heroes in the industry. Bob Lutz pushing the [Chevrolet] Volt through. And people at GM who have been working on the Bolt. Every car company has heroes that are trying to push this forward.
Americans would like to have the choice…..of electric cars that they can afford at their dealership. Not go [to dealerships] and fight for it. The heroes are consumers who are fighting for it.
Those are sentiments CleanTechnica readers can heartily agree with.
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