A few decades down the road, a woman who remembers being excited about getting her driver’s license way back in 2010 will be watching her granddaughter disconnect a battery-powered car from its electric tether and will reminisce about filling her own first car with gasoline.

“What is gasoline, Grandma?” the granddaughter will ask, reversing the title of What is the Electric Car?, a movie that premiered at Hollywood’s Egyptian Theater Tuesday night.

After modern battery-powered personal transport was almost eradicated from popular consciousness in the 1990s, a quirky documentary film revived it. Who Killed the Electric Car? was a little snide (insinuating that oil and auto companies were complicit in the electric car’s disappearance) and a little silly (celebrating a Forest Lawn funeral for the EV1), but it reminded its audience about battery power.

It spawned books like Sherry Boschert’s Plug-In Hybrids: The Cars That Will Recharge America, cars like the Tesla and the Coda, car companies like Better Place, and, with GM’s Chevrolet Volt and Nissan’s Leaf going on sale this month, it has now spawned a whole new auto sector.

What is the Electric Car? is a different kind of movie, neither edgy nor innovative. As writer Andrew Reilly acknowledged, “You could call it a 75-minute infomercial” for a powerful idea -- battery-powered personal transport -- whose time has come. It is a movie that will not appeal to high-brow cinephiles or the documentary-film crowd, but will look familiar to conventional car buyers and could very likely sell them on EVs.

Larry Hagman, who played TV’s evil oil baron J.R. Ewing but is in real life a solar energy and electric vehicle enthusiast, pointed out at the movie’s premiere that EVs grow more appealing as gas prices rise. “Say it goes up to twenty dollars a gallon,” he said. “Electricity is going to be looking pretty good.” People around him giggled. “You laugh,” he said, sounding like J.R., “but they’re paying ten [dollars a gallon] in Europe.”

That much of the high price of European gas is a self-imposed tax, Hagman said, “pisses off a lot of people. ‘Why should I pay for a guy who has an electric car?’” he mimicked the complaint. “Well, get an electric car,” he answered.

What is the Electric Car? teeters on the brink of tedious but repeatedly saves itself with moments of cleverness or insight. It has a simple plot: as a young female college student writes a research paper about EVs, electric car authority interviews expand on what she is learning. Conversations between the girl and her father follow and she uses her newfound knowledge to convince him to buy an EV.

The father-daughter interactions are Family Channel-charming, the kind of thing to make the target audience feel cozy enough to sit still as engineers and EV enthusiasts offer answers to the crucial questions facing the fledgling EV sector, such as: 

- EVs are sexy and fast (the Tesla is shown doing zero to 60 in 3.7 seconds) and there is no real range problem because EVs are mainly for commuters’ daily drives, 70 percent to 80 percent of which are less than the 40 miles most battery-powered vehicles can do on a single charge.

- EVs are virtually maintenance-free (because their power trains have virtually no moving parts), their batteries will provide ten years of use and can readily be recycled, and electric transport is not science fiction but as proven as the internal combustion engine.

- EVs are good for anybody who doesn’t like giving money to oil companies or funding oil wars. Electric “fuel” costs two-thirds less than gas because electricity is cheaper than oil and, even when the electricity comes from coal-supplied grids, EVs emit fewer greenhouse gases than oil-burning cars because electric engines are four times as efficient. But EVs can also be charged from rooftop solar panels and provide virtually emissions-free driving. 

Kevin Czinger, the Senior Strategic Advisor at Coda Automotive and in attendance at the premiere because the Coda is featured in the film, explained the need for What is the Electric Car? like this: “[t]he number of gas-combustion engine cars in the world is proliferating,” while “the amount of cheap oil that can be produced is diminishing. That’s called a train wreck.”

You can’t, Czinger went on, “wait for somebody else to do something.” Companies with vested interests, he said, will not lead the way to meaningful change. “If you want to do something, you have to do it in a small-team, revolutionary way. And if you feel passionately enough about it, then you get up and you start from zero and build something.”

The EV sector has begun “an innovation cycle” and Czinger is looking forward a decade or so, to when batteries will go 400 miles on a charge and EVs will cost $10,000 to $15,000. “Then you can have a 50 percent penetration of the market.”  But somebody, he added, “has to show demand. Once you show demand, in this world, you get human capital and financial capital and you create a revolution.”

The EV activists who starred in Who Killed the Electric Car? have been replaced by an onslaught of EV marketplace leaders like Coda. They don’t need an edgy documentary; they need an infomercial in a familiar format that answers EV opponents who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo -- one that explains to the larger car-buying public why the EV is the best car choice. That’s what What is the Electric Car? admirably attempts to do.


What is the Electric Car? credits include:

Producers: Scott DuPont and Cam MacGregor; Director: Ken Grant; Writer: Andrew Reilly; Starring: Alexandra Paul, Barack Obama, Ed Begley, Jr., Jimmy Carter, Fabio, Kay Wilson, Ken Grant, Sky McDougall, Forbes Black, Paul Scott, Zan Dubin Scott, Kevin Czinger and a cast of dozens; Premiere sponsored by Chevrolet, Nissan and Zap