Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Who Killed The Electric Car Opening

The opening weekend of Who Killed the Electric Car was our opportunity to send EV owners to theatres all over the Bay Area to show off the cars and ask people to join us in the campaign to plug in America. I used to work at the Aquarius Theatre and my friend Tim works there now, so he directed me to the right person to help us spread the word about our EV rally. It was quite an event. We had four or five RAV 4 EVs the first night. There are more of them than any other EV, so when they show up I always feel like the reinformcement troops have arrived. Kind of like Stormtroopers if they were the good guys. The EV 1, the star of the movie, is definately our Princess Lea. Here you can see Brandy in his utilikilt, which I covet. It's part of his EV demo outfit. People remember him because of it. He wore the black one on Friday. Three of us showing our EVs here all have solar panels on our homes, so we were able to promote totally clean cars. Many EV owners do invest in solar because the savings in gas money pays for the system much sooner. Brandy said he paid for his in two and a half years.

The timing of this movie coming on the heels of An Inconvenient Truth, couldn't have been better. It's not a great movie, as Tim critically pointed out, really more of a home movie given the inexperience of the filmaker, himself a former EV1 driver, but it does tell all the details of the plot to roll back California's zero emissions mandate and get rid of production electric cars. So in that sense it is a good documentary and it gets people riled up.

I had a jolly time hanging out in the street showing off the Sparrow. Friends showed up to play. We put our "Not Dead Yet" postcards on each car. I ran into more friends coming to see Wordplay. This must be the year of the documentary.

The Raging Grannies sent word out that they would be attending the movie on Saturday, so I asked them if they could sing something and they were only too happy to oblige. They even wrote a song especially for us to the tune of Where oh Where Has My Little Dog Gone. Their other songs were about gas guzzlers sending us to war for oil. They had written these for the Jumpstart Ford campaign when we picketed local Ford dealerships.

The following weekend of Who Killed The Electric Car they decided to go to Santana Row theatres. When I told Granny Ruth that EV owners had been asked to leave the premises because they were handing out literature about the electric car, she organized a rally to protest the censorship. And dang if they didn't get themselves on the 10 o'clock news. It was sweet. The theatre didn't know what hit them and decided not to have the Grannies arrested. Technically they could have, since it was private property the Grannies were occupying. Santana Row is a mall that's made to look like a street with sidewalks, but it is not public property as legitimate streets and sidewalks are where citizens are allowed freedom of speech. Faux street, faux sidewalk, faux rights, I say.

The point the news story was making was that it was private property which was being violated by the Grannies. At the same time it was terrific coverage for the Grannies to tell the whole story and show our brochures about the electric cars. "Electric cars are available, plug-in hybrids exist," said Granny Ruth, as if the mall was trying to suppress the information. I did notice that they were not showing the movie soon after that.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Make Faire Plug-in Prius Demo

The CalCars demo at the Make Faire in San Mateo, over Earth day weekend, allowed the public to watch, a team of twelve EV enthusiasts, install an extra battery pack and plug into a 2005 Prius. Only a few asked if we would void the warranty. For the computer and electronics maybe, but not for the rest of it, we told them. What the owner would sacrifice was access to the spare tire as the new batteries would sit on top of the spare tire wheel well, but the cargo space would still be the same.

What people did ask was "why wasn't Toyota doing this?" Our makeshift set-up was so obviously inferior to the resources and brains of a modern automotive factory. And with no access code, we were having to "spoof" the computer, fool it into accepting the new battery pack without shutting off the electric mode and turning on the gas engine. When I told people that Toyota didn't think the public would understand the concept or accept a plug-in option, they rolled their eyes. This was a crowd eager to jump on every new innovation.

The auto industry has many excuses, but we believe that what they fear most is that the electric motor technology would suddenly switch the entire industry over to this superior technology just as digital cameras had rendered film cameras obsolete. The combustion engine, with all its after market servicing needs, would be gone and oil profits with it. Toyota claims that battery technology is not here yet even for a plug-in hybrid, but we know that they made the RAV4 EV with a range of 100 miles using the nickel metal hydride battery (NiMh).

The battery pack being installed into our project were small lead acid batteries used in motorcycles and electric bicycles. They were cheap and available, but would only have a range of 20 miles and would add 300lbs in weight. (I spent a good part of the weekend hammering lengths of copper tubing flat and shaping them into connectors to bolt to the battery terminals, thus forming an electrical path between them.)

The lighter and better performing NiMh batteries are only sold in large lots suitable for mass production. Since an oil interest (Chevron) has a controlling stake in the company that makes them, we suspect that this is an effort to keep home mechanics from building viable electric vehicles. The new hope was in lithium ion batteries. Though expensive, these batteries, in an electric car, would boost performance beyond the combustion engine altogether. The car companies have no excuse.

What we were trying to do was show the public that the technology was here and create a demand for it. Many visitors to the booth thought we were in the business of installing the option ourselves and were annoyed when I told them this was just a demonstration and the only U.S. company able to give them the plug-in option would take 6 months to install it. For about $3,000 in parts they could do it themselves, but what we wanted them to do was go to their dealer and ask for the plug-in option, thus letting Toyota know that we had let the cat out of the bag and consumers were demanding it. Such are the visions of the grass roots activist. The team did not complete the conversion in the two days of the fair. The car was driven to another location where the core group worked on the project all day and evening Monday before it was done and the owner was able to drive his car back to Seattle.

More about the Make Faire demo here

Friday, April 21, 2006

Not Dead Yet

Our EV chapter and others who had come down for the Make Faire demo convened at the screening of the documentary "Who Killed The Electric Car" which was showing at the San Francisco Film Festival. This tale, of GMs much loved EV1 being sent to the crusher despite the popularity of the car and the horrified cries of those who wanted to keep it, was a neat summary of how corporate power, in collusion with government and oil interests, squelched any innovation threatening to their hegemony. The plucky, democratic, American can-do spirit, that we are counting on to solve our planetary problems, was clearly being trampled. Audiences come away outraged and wanting to do something. The film, distributed by Sony Classics, will open on June 28th in a handful of major cities. With a bit of luck it will build on the buzz it is already getting.

We passed out the "Not Dead Yet" postcard and a book mark for Sherry Boschert's book, Plug-in Hybrids: The Cars that will Recharge America coming out near the end of the year. We also offered rides, after the movie, in the RAV 4s and Danny's Solectria and Cal Cars offered rides in their Prius Plug-Ins. We drove people to the party for the film where I got to meet Chelsea Sexton, the GM representative for the EV1 and one of the stars of the film.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Sparrow Returns

The Sparrow has returned and there is much joy in our household for now we can be part of the solution again. Catherine got the first ride, since I had a client out of range that day. Then we drove it that weekend to a workshop of environmentalists and were much admired. The Sparrow really does put us on the right side of the bed as it were. Getting up in the morning, we feel much less hopless about the state of the planet when we can drive our sun-powered electric car. When it was gone so long it was as though we took a step backward, way backward. It had been nine months gone, by the time we had her back home again.

The new DCP controller puts out 900 units of power instead of the 500 that the original Kilovac controller did. So it's peppier and it also uses the battery pack more efficiently. Ed said that the Kilovac was set to put resistance on the motor for safety considerations, so without the added resistance the motor doesn't have to use up juice to keep itself in check. What took so long was that he couldn't figure out how the DCP was supposed to be wired.

Originally Ed opted to put in another Kilovac controller that had become available, but when he got it in, it wouldn't work either. It wasn't new (they don't make that model anymore) so that was a risk he took and he didn't charge me for installing it. (It took the wind out of his sails a bit, especially since he was between jobs when he took it on and then he landed a job that had him working overtime). To fit the DCP controller into my Sparrow he had to cut the steel box shorter and weld it together again. Then he was missing a bracket which he didn't find until he took a trip to another state to an EV rally and asked around. Then when the bracket was in, he couldn't get it to go into reverse or what, so there was more troubleshooting to do and the other local mechanic was booked up. Finally he got the mysterious Claire Bell to come out and wire it. She used to work for the original Corbin factory.

I was just thankful that the car can still be made to run with what parts there are out there and with what Sparrow support mechanics there are. This is not a complex technology thankfully. In fact any high school auto shop classes can take up the EV challenge and teach kids to convert old cars and trucks to EVs as 30 schools are doing now. And with the battery technology getting up to speed and all this talk about the plug-in hybrid, the return of the EV feels like it's right over the next hill there.

Just as hidden in our geography are sustainably built, solar powered buildings waiting to reveal their secrets to a willing public, so, too, will EVs become a sought after solution once our "oil addiction" is accepted for what it is: an unsustainable, planet killing, dead dinosaour technology. We took a tour of such a building on Stanford land last week. I e-mailed ahead to ask if I could plug in the Sparrow. They had golf-cart type vehicles on the site, so they knew exactly what I was talking about and we got the royal treatment when we arrived. Plus I got to give a test drive to one of my classmates and exemplify the Be The Change message of our program. Just having the Sparrow at hand in its physical reality imbues optimism everywhere we go.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Cycling Sojourn

One thing the long absence of the Sparrow did for me was to get me back on my bicycle. I had been a cycling enthusiast as a teen, back when ten speeds were all the rage and gas was expensive. And I didn't ever give it up entirely, making a rule to ride on errands in town. Then I just pushed my range to the 6 miles it took to get to clients two towns over, thus discovering some of the most beautiful and quiet residential streets of Atherton, one of the priciest neighborhoods in the country. It was a mini-vacation just to ride to work.

Then a new client in the city told me there was no parking at her house, but she was near the train station, so I decided to take my Xootr scooter on the train and ride the four blocks to her townhouse. Having had a taste of being car free in the city, I wanted to try the bike there too. I had already broken the ice by leading a solar homes tour by bike for our San Francisco EV chapter fundraiser and I got a bike map out of the bargain.

For my trip into downtown during business hours I picked only the designated bike routes. What an exhilarating experience it was to be in all that downtown pedestrian and jammed up auto, tram, bus traffic. The bicycle was by far the nimblest and fastest mode of transport and there were surprising moments of quiet empty streets. I didn't feel trapped by tall buildings as I did in a car; I was liberated from seat belts, traffic jams, blind spots and I could see much more. It did feel more dangerous out of the immediate downtown, with cars being so impatient, so I read up on urban cycling survival tips and watched other city cyclists.

Few women ride the city streets. I saw just one commuter on the train, more on weekends in cycling gear. Cycling is chiefly the transport of the poor, judging from those mostly Latino men, I passed on the street. A few determined and well-outfitted guys were my peers. I discovered a whole world of them online. There are more cycling blogs than possibly any other subject after cooking and gardening. The cycling subculture was an articulate and intelligent one, full of imaginative attempts to do everything by bike including moving households. Soon, I too, was an avid cycling advocate.

Usually I would put the bike away with the shorter days, but having gone emission free all summer, I decided to break the night time barrier and just get more lights, flashers, reflective stickers and a high visibility jacket. I rode to my karate class twice a week, which gave me a warm-up before class, so why give up that edge? Riding at night turned out to be easier than I thought. Motorists did see me and give me room. After rush hour, I had the street to myself.

The last barrier was to ride in the rain. For this I had my rain suit -matching royal blue pants and a hooded jacket, contrasting with my bright red gloves. I had to laugh at the reaction of motorists when they saw me. They stopped dead in the street and waved me across even though they had no stop sign. The bigger the SUV, the more they wanted to stop. Finally I just had to cross, so they wouldn't hold up traffic. I felt like they wanted to rescue me from drowning. "Oh my god, look she's out in the rain." It wasn't even a downpour. And there's nothing like rain to heighten the experience of being outside. And that was the best part of cycling. Just being outside. And the whole body, human powered, speedy, gyroscopic rush of it all.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

The eGo Cycle

With the Sparrow out of commission I felt I had to have another EV type transport. With peak oil looming on the horizon, it seemed prudent rather than frivolous to have another EV in the house. Even when the Sparrow returned, I knew there would still be a place for the eGo cycle on the days when Catherine took the Sparrow to work.

After researching the various bike/motor hybrids, I decided to dispense with pedals and settle for just the electric motor, since it was half the price. Other EV members of my chapter had recommended the eGo cycle for its potential for modification to increase speed and range, so I ordered one from the Real Goods/Gaim catalog on sale for $999. The company is in Rhode Island, but, now, the scooter is made in Taiwan.

It came delivered by air frieght in about four weeks and I assembled it that afternoon which meant slipping the fully assembled fork into the body, with the locknuts in the right order and making sure all the brake cables were untangled. My biggest concern was that it make it up the various hills around my house without burning out the motor. The manual warned about going up hills that took longer than 30 seconds to climb. Hills were why I wanted the eGo Cycle because I'm not a big hill climber on my bicycle. The eGo cycle's primary purpose would be to get me to my mother's house.

(It is interesting to note that new housing developments have unreasonably steep streets simply because modern vehicles can climb those hills easily whereas in the pre-50's neighborhood, more care was taken to grade streets up hills so that other types of traffic could make it. This means that these hills are basically off limits to bicycle traffic. What about San Francisco one might well ask? Same thing, but they had cable cars in the older parts of town and then developed the rest later. Also the steep streets are shorter in San Francisco except in the Twin Peaks area.)

Luckily I have yet to climb a hill the eGo cycle couldn't make and I've been up ones that took much longer than 30 seconds to climb. There was a break-in period of four hours when I took care to stay mostly on the flats, but after that it was good to go. Soon it became my grocery runner. I put a good size deep basket on the front and had my bicycle bag on the rack in back, but then I found a really big basket I could zip tie to the rack. I've been able to carry a full size bush in it (for transplanting to my mother's garden) and I can also fit things in front of my feet right on the deck, securing it with a long bungee cord around the control post, flowers for instance or another plant.

The scooter charges up in about four hours and takes less than a kilowatt of juice, about a fifth of what the Sparrow needs. It has a range of 20 miles, but I can't imagine sitting on it for that long. The range is considerably shortened by hills, so I have used the "go far" mode to get home. In the "go far" mode, it's slower than riding a bicycle, so I nearly always have it in the "go fast" mode which gets it up to 23 mph, unless going up a hill, then it's more like 13-14 mph. Though not a head turner like the Sparrow, it gets some attention when people see it close up and realize it is electric.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Ed's Sparrow

Since the Sparrow was so long out of commission sitting in Ed's garage all summer, he decided to loan me his bird shortly after Thanksgiving. This gave me a chance to see what his Zilla controller was like. The Zilla is air-cooled and quieter than what I was used to. It's also a good bit more powerful, overkill really and I did not try to put it through its paces at high speeds. I was already nervous driving someone else's vehicle, but I could feel its power just on acceleration. The Zilla was Ed's upgrade. His original controller was a DCP.

The first Sparrows were smaller, what are referred to as the Jelly Bean model and have a window in the back. There's a platform behind the seat and a pocket for the cord. One Sparrow owner could fit her dog in that space, but it had to have been no bigger than a terrier. Ed added brackets to suspend a briefcase above the platform. He also installed a four-point harness, which means that if you put anything on the back platform it will hang up the harness. His door didn't open from the inside, anymore, due to the warping of the fiberglass parts. I think the tight shape of the Jelly Bean allowed less leeway for the door fitting. To get out you have to roll the window down. Then one night I couldn't get the door open from the outside and had to climb through the little hatch in the rear to reach for the door handle. Ed told me the trick later, which is to press on the door as I was opening it.

In a way it was more frustrating to have his Sparrow than not to have mine back, particularly because I couldn't fit much more than my lunch, but I did get to drive emission free for a number of my trips.

Ed's Sparrow does have some sophisticated battery reading instruments in it. He has a meter on the dash with a graphic reading of each battery as it uses up its charge. This was his own modification along with the box we all got installed that allows you to test each battery without actually having to touch them.

Interestingly enough, his bird didn't get nearly the reaction from people as my yellow friend does, though they were still intrigued and the "powered by American electrons" bumper stickers delivered more of a message. The Jelly Bean model looks like a more serious car, while mine just looks plain ridiculous - an oversize kids toy, a giant banana, a clown car. Domino's Pizza is responsible for the shape of my car. They asked Corbin to make them a model they could use for delivering pizzas, thus the pizza butt was born and I am forever grateful for that relatively voluminous trunk space. I also missed the clown car aspect of driving around my yella friend. I'm just a clown at heart, I guess.