Batteries included

Are electric cars like GM's EV1 high-tech toys -- or saviors of the planet?

Published June 17, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

The folks at General Motors have a hokey name for their particular form of fahrvergn|gen: They call it the "EV1 smile." It's difficult to drive the EV1 -- GM's first commercial electric car -- for the first time without getting a silly grin on your face: Not only does the pinched, shiny car look like a spaceship, but it drives like one, too. It's eerily silent, except for a high-pitched whirring sound; it starts by push buttons; it's surprisingly fast.

In its current iteration, the EV1 is essentially a high-tech gadget -- a cool but useful device that a technology-lover might want in his toy collection. But the EV1 is also the prototype of a kind of car that both industry and government groups want motorists to be driving eventually: The battery-powered and emission-free electric vehicle (or "EV") is supposedly the answer to part of our world's pollution problem.

The EV1 is a version 1.0 car with limited marketing, and only 400 or so early adopters are currently driving it: high-tech executives, wealthy environmentalists, even several celebrities. But although they make up a small group, EV1 drivers are also vocal, passionate, happy to spread the word about the joys of their electric cars and to share that EV1 smile.

They have a lot of proselytizing to do: The auto industry is currently producing seven versions of the electric car, but most Americans haven't even glimpsed one of them. Though several state governments are pushing for electric automobiles, the industry still faces numerous hurdles before drivers start dumping their gas-guzzling status symbols in favor of a new technology.

"What happens if people don't buy any electric cars? They'll go away," says Ed Riddell, transportation manager at the Electric Power Research Institute and an EV1 owner. "We've got our chance to make EVs happen right now; if they don't happen in the next five to seven years, you'll see them go away for a long time ... But there is demand for these vehicles -- making the cars available is what's important."

Years in development, the EV1 was originally introduced in 1996 in Southern California and Arizona, and launched in the San Francisco Bay Area in March of this year. But despite its green appeal and that EV1 smile, the car has its drawbacks. For one thing, it can drive just 80 miles before its lead-acid battery pack runs out of juice -- enough power for a work commute, but not enough to take it out of town. It seats only two people, and it costs the same as a small luxury car: $33,995. Also, it takes about two hours to fully recharge the car, and though a home recharger is included in the car lease, the infrastructure for area-wide recharge stations is in its infancy.

At its current cost and size, the EV1 is essentially a cool commuter car that's competing with sports cars to be the second or third automobile in a family garage. It's not surprising that only a small number have been sold. But Frank Pereira, brand manager of advanced technology at GM, isn't apologizing for that: The EV1 is only the very first version, he says, of the future of the automotive industry.

"Does it do everything? Absolutely not. It's a two-seat automobile that needs more range. But if you think about it as the first electric car, I look at it as a fantastic first shot," says Pereira. "When the microwave oven was introduced, they only sold 50 the first year. New technology takes longer than most people remember to come about."

The conundrum of the electric car industry is that electric vehicles won't be cheap or utilitarian enough to be mainstream until manufacturers can mass-produce the parts -- an economy of scale, as it were.

"This whole thing is a Catch-22," says Bill Moore, editor of EVWorld magazine. "From the point of view of the car manufacturer, they have to build this car, but they know it's a limited market at this point. And from the consumer point of view, why buy an electric car? They're there, but they're horribly expensive. And they're expensive because their batteries are made by hand. But the car manufacturers don't have mass production because it's a limited market."

Moore launched EVWorld, a trade publication for the electric-vehicle industry, in January; he wanted to produce a consumer magazine but the market was too small. Ironically, Moore himself can't buy an EV: Because his home state of Nebraska has no zero-emission laws, the car manufacturers aren't interested in even trying to sell their cars there.

Moore is not alone in his frustration; although there are seven electric-powered cars on the market, the EV1 is one of only two being sold to individuals. Honda has also developed a four-person family car called the EV Plus, but it is producing only 100 a year and has kept the car's existence quiet. The other electric cars on the market are being sold only as "fleet cars" to the government and large corporations, who are under government pressure to purchase electric cars. The manufacturers not only fill their development requirements by selling fleet cars, but they can keep a closer eye on the EVs in case they malfunction. And, as Moore discovered, electric vehicles are only available in the states where clean-air laws dictate their existence.

Even in states where EV1s are being sold, GM has done little promotion -- it ran television ads briefly, well over a year ago, and is relying instead on limited print and billboard ads. In Silicon Valley, most marketing has taken place in one-on-one demos at industry meetings, at lunchtime in the parking lots of companies like Sun and Hewlett-Packard and at exclusive invitation-only demo events. (High-tech types are a critical market for the EV1. Says Pereira, "If we didn't do well with them, we'd have to rethink what we're doing.")

But those drivers who have been able to get access to EV1s adore them despite their limitations. "Everyone that I have talked to, virtually without exception, is ecstatic about their cars," says Moore. "There is a love for an electric vehicle that borders on the bizarre. They have almost bonded with these vehicles."

It's hard not to be proud of a car that proves your commitment to making the world a better place and that looks cool, too. "The key to this is not to ever try to hit anyone on the head -- the point is you can be helping the planet and having more fun driving," says Rick Ostrov, "team leader" of the Bay Area EV1 distributors, who has taken 5,000 people on EV1 test drives (everyone, he says, got the EV1 smile).

Comments from EV1 drivers are often along the lines of the ravings of Los Angeles resident Marvin Rush, the cinematographer of "Star Trek Voyager": "It'll outrun almost every car on the road -- I've beat a Jaguar, I've beat a Mustang, I've toasted so many Mazda Miatas it's not even funny ... It's good for the environment, sure, but it's not a martyrmobile." He's replacing his third car, a truck, with GM's prototype S-10 electric truck, and is a vocal member of the 100-person-strong Southern California EV1 drivers club.

Already a high-profile group -- including celebrities such as Ed Begley Jr., Danny DeVito, Barry Manilow, Suzanne Somers and Ted Danson; as well as Steven Kirsh, founder of Infoseek; Sony Music Corporation president Jordan Harris; Danny Hillis, founder of Thinking Machines; and former Secretary of State George Shultz -- the EV1 owners serve as its best publicists. On the streets, most take the time to talk to the innumerable people who are curious about the strange machine. As one EV1 owner laughed recently while talking to a cluster of curious passersby who stared while her car recharged at an L.A. mall, "Part of owning an EV1 is promoting it."

And there are plenty of EV1 owners willing to do more than just talk about their cars. Emmy award-winning film editor Kris Trexler, for example, last month drove his EV1 across country in hopes of showing "America and the world that long trips in electric cars are not only possible, but fun and rewarding."

Marvin Rush so firmly believes in the EV1 that he recently spent $20,000 of his own money to make local radio commercials advertising the car, after he and the other members of the EV1 owners club decided that GM wasn't promoting the car sufficiently. The commercials, produced with several
actors from "Star Trek Voyager," effused about the world-saving potential of the car (as well as its snazzy features) and ran on a Los Angeles station last month. Impressed by Rush's gumption, GM purchased the ads and plans to promote the car more in the area.

Says Rush, "These things define you, and if you have a conviction and talk about something a lot, you've got to put your money where your mouth is."

But there's only so much promotion that 400 or so elite EV1 owners can do. The future of the electric car lies more in the hands of the government, which has taken an even more visible interest in electric vehicles. Several states have given the manufacturers deadlines for developing electric-vehicle technology that will work for a mass market.

Developing a new automotive technology is incredibly expensive (GM has spent hundreds of millions on the EV1), and until the early 1990s, the automotive industry fought the development of electric cars. But in 1990, California passed the Clean Air Act Amendment, which put in place laws that are spurring the auto industry to action. By 1998, 2 percent of the 1.3 million cars sold in California annually were supposed to be zero-emission vehicles (ZEVs), rising to 10 percent by 2003. Maine, Massachusetts, New York and several other states followed the California mandate with their own legislation.

But the government is already having a hard time making that mandate stick, and state regulators rolled back the 2 percent requirement last year in favor of a "memorandum of understanding" that only forced car manufacturers to keep developing the electric cars. According to California Air Resources Board spokesman Jerry Martin, the manufacturers could not have achieved that figure.

"Manufacturers felt that they could not sell 2 percent of all motor vehicles as electric with the technology that existed in 1996," says Martin. There was little consumer demand, he continues, partly because "the manufacturers had poisoned the well in the public eye with comments like 'Every time you see an electric car, wave, because you paid $2,000 of it' or 'This is going to explode on impact.' There were a bunch of things they were saying which were designed to mislead the public -- the availability of the technology and the opportunity to derive pleasure from it."

Industry researchers, like Dan Sperling of the University of California Institute of Transportation Studies, anticipate that the 10 percent rule will also be relaxed to allow a more flexible definition of a ZEV, which he hopes will keep encouraging new innovations in clean technologies. Instead of strictly enforcing battery-powered cars, the new law may allow that 10 percent to be made up of hybrid cars (which use both a battery and a gas engine) or fuel cells -- both of which seem to offer longer driving range and utility, and therefore more consumer appeal, than the current fleet of electric
vehicles. (The first hybrid vehicle, the Toyota Prius, is currently flying off lots in Japan.)

GM, too, is looking into hybrid vehicles. It's also already planning to improve upon the EV1: Next year's model will have a more environmentally sound battery (using nickel-metal hydride instead of lead acid) and a range of 150 miles.

Martin predicts that the electric car, or its zero-emission equivalent, is inevitable. "People are beginning to see that these vehicles are not clunkers, are not the types of electric cars people built in their garages in the 1970s," he says. "American manufacturers have begun to put on a positive face to sell these vehicles, realizing that if they don't, European and Japanese companies are going to do it first."

Despite its satisfied owners, the EV1 may not be everyone's perfect car of the future: Some critics, for instance, have raised questions about the long-term environmental benefits of electric vehicles. But its advocates believe it's a great blueprint for a more breathable tomorrow.

Or, as GM's Pereira puts it, "When you think about the way the world is changing -- and the way it must change to sustain our world -- it's obvious that the electric car is here and it's staying here."

By Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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