Sunday, March 27, 2005

Why Automakers Don't Want Electric Cars

They giveth and they taketh Away

Electric cars have been around since the automobile was first invented. Women especially preferred the electric automobile because the engine didn't need to be cranked over to start it and it was quiet, thus allowing one to engage in polite conversation and have tea. Yes, tea parties on board open carriages while cruising leisurely around town.

The combustion engine, meanwhile, was considered dangerous, noisy and generally unpleasant. Two technologies advanced the appeal of the combustion engine. The electric starter that was borrowed from the EV and installed in the internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles did away with the need to stand in front of the car and hand crank the engine to start it. Then the invention of the radiator eliminated the need for the driver to stop at a horse trough every few miles and douse the overheated engine with water. Meanwhile the electric car was too heavy to be supported by unpaved roads. And while gasoline could be more easily transported, stored and provided for the ICE car, electricity was not yet available in rural areas.

But what really gave the ICE technology its biggest boost was cheap fossil fuels. The oil fields of Texas and their oil barons, who were buying political power with their wealth, naturally supported every government subsidy that would further the popularity of the combustion engine, while fighting all those that would cut into their profits, particularly attempts to raise mileage standards, implement safety measures and improve tailpipe emissions. What was good for Detroit turned out to be a socialized health care system for automobiles while, ironically, creating a substantial health problem for humans. Insurance companies helped with the battle for safety belts and airbags, but the states were left to battle for clean air.

In 1998 every major carmaker had come out with an electric car to meet the requirements of three states that had passed zero emissions vehicle standards. They were well designed efficient vehicles especially the GM EV1, but the car makers did very little to interest the public in EVs setting up disincentives to keep people from driving the cars. Nobody was allowed to buy one, only lease the few hundred that were made. And those who were willing to lease had to install specialized equipment to charge the car. Automakers, backed by a sympathetic White House were able to argue that even though they could make them, the public was not interested and would not buy electric vehicles. For the states to force ZEV standards on automakers would be a severe and unnecessary hardship for the industry. GM recalled every single one of the GM EV1s at the end of the lease to be sent to the crusher. Their drivers staged public funerals for their cars. Some said it was the best car they had ever owned. Toyota did allow drivers to buy the RAV 4 EV and then stopped making them.

So why wouldn't a car company like Ford, GM or Toyota want to sell an electric car? It reminds me of the Dyson vacuum cleaner story. James Dyson, a British inventor, originally tried to sell his superior bagless vacuum cleaner technology to Hoover. They said no, nothing would replace vacuum bags. So he spent the next five years setting up his own vacuum factory. Once Dyson had won awards in Japan and became the best selling vacuum cleaner in England, Hoover regretted the decision not because they could have enjoyed sales of his vacuum, but because they could have prevented the vacuum from selling at all. Vacuum bag sales, you see, were a $500 million dollar a year industry. Just try to find a vacuum today that has a bag. The Dyson changed the industry in a year.

Oil and auto lobbyists successfully gutted the California zero emissions vehicle mandate, which would have required that 2% of the new cars sold in 2003 be EVs, then going up to 12% in 2010. Ford was happy to make electric mail vans for the post office, but when the battery company decided to discontinue the battery engineers had specified for this vehicle, Ford would not step up to the plate and order enough batteries to keep the mailvans running (or re-engineer the battery specs). Thus the vans and some 80 charging stations, all paid for by taxpayer money, were mothballed after only a year. Ford also withdrew its electric Ranger pick-up from the public. Recently Ford was going to destroy 400 Norwegian made Think cars. (Ford had bought the Norwegian company in anticipation of the California ZEV mandate before it was safely rolled back.) Because of international grassroots protests and a nation of outraged Norwegians, for whom this, the only Norwegian car produced was a national treasure, Ford decided to send the cars back to Norway with a note saying that though Europeans had embraced the electric car, Americans were not ready for EVs.

The most common EVs for sale in the U.S. today are the golf cart kind called NEVs, Neighborhood Electric Vehicles. They are not allowed by law to go over 25 mph, thus they serve to continue the myth that EVs are not capable of more than that. With the advent of the lithium battery, these fabled limitations are no longer true. The Monaco based automaker, Venturi, has come out with the first production electric sports car. It is capable of an impressive 300 mile/ per charge range and 245 horsepower, but at half a million dollars the very sexy Fetish would safely keep the car out of most people's reach.

Meanwhile EV-angelists continued to put pressure on automakers. A vigil at a Ford dealership in Sacramento in January '05 for two owners of a Ford Ranger EV pick-up garnered lots of support from fellow EV drivers and the press. Ford finally caved, allowing those who had leased the pick-up to be able to buy their leased cars for a dollar. Meanwhile GM EV1 advocates hope to do the same in Burbank for the 78 EV1s not yet crushed offering full price for every one of the now 6 year old cars.

And still automakers dig in their heels. With the Kyoto Protocol having been rejected by our oil friendly administration, states and municipalities have taken steps to cut back on green house gases. California has again set a mandate for cleaner cars by requiring that automakers curb tailpipe emissions of green house gases. This time it isn't just Ford and GM that are suing the state, but nearly every major automaker has banned together for the fight. If there is one battle at this time that will further the cause of those concerned with global warming this would be it.

UPDATE: 5/7/05 Activists were not able to save the GM EV1 as the cars were moved to another GM property where they were presumably crushed. Efforts are now being directed at Toyota to keep them from crushing the RAV 4. Marc Geller, a member of the San Francisco chapter of the Electric Vehicle Association put up a website for the Don't Crush Campaign. Don't Crush bumber stickers were handed out at the June meeting.


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