Honda's electric car putt-putts its last

Automaker ends experiment with alternative-fuel vehicles. Who's to blame?

Topics: Environment, California, Electric Cars,

Blink and you might have missed the existence of the Honda EV Plus. Although
critically acclaimed by cheerleaders for the href="http://www.salon.com/21st/feature/1998/06/17feature.html">electric
car, who hope to solve the world’s environmental problems with
alternative fuel vehicles, the 3-year-old, battery-powered EV Plus was
discontinued by Honda on Thursday after a mere 330 had been produced.

Honda, it seems, has fulfilled its obligations to the state of California — which in the early 1990s mandated that Honda produce 300 electric cars by 1998 — and
nothing more. Honda blames the failure on lack of interest from the gas-guzzling
community. Of the cars produced, says company spokesman Art Garner, only
half were leased to consumers; the other half went to government agencies
(which are obligated to use alternative vehicles).

“We were disappointed in consumer demand. There’s not an extensive market
for [battery powered cars], given today’s current technology,” says Garner.
“We made the best effort of any manufacturer out there — we feel we went the
extra mile for this.”

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But critics have accused the auto industry of putting only half-hearted
efforts into electric vehicles, and point out that EVs won’t take off with
consumers unless the manufacturers put major publicity into them.
Although the vast majority of the population was probably utterly unaware
that the EV Plus existed, Garner insists that Honda did “extensive”
marketing in California newspapers and magazines. He blames the lack of
interest in the limitations of the batteries (which could juice only 75
miles before running dry) rather than lack of promotion for the car or its
steep $355-a-month cost.

But the government is not necessarily buying
Honda’s excuses. “We’re highly disappointed in Honda,” California Air
Resources Board chief deputy director Tom Cackette told the Associated
Press. “We are concerned that this violates their agreement with the board
to continue to produce battery-electric vehicles if customer demand warrants
it.”

It also doesn’t mean that Honda can just give up on alternative transport
altogether; the government requires that the company continue to research
low-emission vehicles. Garner says that Honda is instead hoping to release a
hybrid vehicle in December, which runs on both gas and battery power and has
a range of 700 miles.

Honda isn’t the only electric vehicle company to recently give up on the EV
business: EdisonEV, a pioneering manufacturer of electric vehicle chargers,
also closed its doors this week. But other battery-powered cars, such as GM’s sporty EV1 — featured in major ad campaigns and with more leases in
its first year than the Honda had in four — continue to plug on.

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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