EcoMall

TRYING TO STOP GM
FROM PULLING THE PLUG ON EV1

Most Benicia, California, residents have probably seen Beverly Sanders zooming around town in her little blue-silver electric car over the past five years.

Since first leasing her EV1, Bev has actively raised public awareness of the EV (electric vehicle) by driving it in Benicia's parades, taking time to answer questions of curious passersby, and by giving folks rides at community events.

Looking like a futuristic hovercraft, the EV1 operates with a zippy-hum similar to The Jetson's family transport. When Bev cruises down First Street, kids and adults alike can't help but take a second look.

Unfortunately, Bev and the other EV1 lessees (the car was never offered for purchase) are being forced to surrender their cars to the manufacturer, General Motors, at the end of the non-renewable lease. GM is ending its EV program because it thinks the general public does not want the electric car; that only a few technology and environment enthusiasts really want them. GM spokesman Dave Barthmuss is quoted in the San Diego Union-Tribune as saying, "There is just not enough interest out there for a mass-market company like General Motors."

EV drivers disagree, saying that GM did not really give the program a chance. Because only 800 EV1s were made, the wait was always several months long and every one got leased immediately. They simply did not make enough cars. The official reason given to leaseholders for ending the program was "the costs of maintaining the EV1 fleet substantially outweigh the benefits¿" Considering that Bev's car rarely needed servicing and not one visit to a mechanic in the last three years, this is an absurd claim on the face of it.

Although a few cars will end up in museums, most will be dismantled, stripped for parts or disposed of like the Frankenstein-cyborg in the movie Terminator; crushed and melted. What did this little car do to deserve that treatment? What did the public not do? Many people never even knew that the electric car ever existed. I'm sure oil companies are not happy about alternative-fuel vehicles being mass-produced, and many EV owners blame the partnerships between oil companies and automakers.

You would hope that American auto manufacturers would look to the future, get ready for the day when we run out of oil, and want to stay ahead of the Japanese. So why would GM end the EV program? To give a little background, in 1990 the California Clean Air Mandate required that 10 percent of cars sold must have zero-emissions (by 2003). In response, GM complied by introducing the EV1 electric car in December 1996. The assignment of designing and manufacturing an all-electric car from scratch was given to the visionary engineers in a top-secret division of GM. Even industry suppliers were excited and eager to test new technologies. The executives at GM never expected the electric car to be a success, but failed to tell that to the team working on the project. Oops!

What was born were two generations of an all-electric car that could go from zero to 60 in about eight seconds, could reach speeds in excess of 180 mph, never needed gas, oil changes or smog checks, could be recharged at the owner's home, charging stations (or any 110 volt outlet with the portable charger), could drive an average of 120 miles on a single charge, and all for as little as $8 a month in electricity. Bev could easily make the round trip to San Francisco on one charge, and this technology only improves as time rolls on.

"This car is fast, clean, futuristic, turns heads, and I haven't been to a gas station in five years!" said Bev, who couldn't be happier with her car. "After driving this car for five years, I'm here to report that it works. So why would I give up the most important thing that's happened to driving in the last century? Only because I have to."

Satisfied EV1 "owners" even started the EV1 Club.

Since being notified about GM's plan to end the EV program in February 2002, Bev has been actively campaigning to save it. She has contacted the automakers, the government and the press. After sending press releases to 1,500 news sources, only a couple showed any interest. Bev recently took her car and her campaign to the Earth Day Celebration in San Francisco, where the car drew plenty of attention. "Driving the EV1 has allowed me to discover two of the most remarkable things -- the power of innovation, and the power of those who oppose it. As a proud resident of Benicia, I see business as usual ... refinery expansions take place with little regard for the quality of our air, water or future. Returning this car is a signal we're going the wrong way."

Breath deeply while you can. Energy officials have apparently decided half a loaf is better than none and are intent on keeping us tethered to refineries. Thanks to resistance from the automakers and their deep-pocketed allies the energy industry, state regulators seem to think a little more pollution is OK and thus relaxed rules so electric cars are no longer required. Toyota has already discontinued its electric RAV4 mini SUV.

Automakers are now focusing on HEV's (hybrid electric vehicles) -- in fact many have abandoned the electric car idea in lieu of the HEV's potential. GM promises that 12 of its models will be offered as HEV's by 2007. The only problem is the hybrid is still dependent on gasoline: It's just more fuel-efficient.

Honda and Toyota currently offer HEV models.

As far as gas-free vehicles go, automakers are now promising even better hydrogen-fuel-cell vehicles. GM has partnered with Shell Hydrogen (Royal Dutch/Shell Group) to build such a vehicle, but mass production won't start for another decade. EV owner Phil Karn isn't convinced though. "Pardon me, but I think the whole fuel-cell hype is smoke and mirrors the auto industry is using to get out of making battery cars," Karn told the San Diego Union-Tribune. "By promising something greater in the future, they get out of using something that has been proven to work now."

Bev is not alone in her efforts, as other EV drivers across the country are speaking out about automakers pulling the plug on electric vehicles. EV owner Doug Korthof has also been fighting a very public battle to save his EVs. PBS station KQED is producing a special about Bev and her electric car, but it may be too little too late. Although nearly every EV1 lessee has contacted GM, they have not been able to convince the auto giant to reconsider the value of their electric car programs.

Emissions-free vehicles have stalled for now. Last week, when the U.S. Senate passed the $350 billion tax bill, it increased the tax break for business owners buying SUVs, the least fuel-efficient vehicles. This "Auto Sales Profit Act" gives a deduction of up to $100,000 (four times the previous limit) to subsidize the full purchase price for 28 different models of the biggest SUVs (over 6,000 pounds), including the ridiculously huge Hummer civilian assault vehicle. And yes, there is also a HEV tax incentive, but it's minimal compared to the SUV incentive.

From an environmental perspective, this tax break only encourages the use of the least fuel-efficient and most polluting vehicles made today. Our dependence on Middle East oil is already far too great. Shouldn't our government be promoting alternative fuels like electricity and hydrogen fuel cells so we can free ourselves from needing oil? Whose interest is served by keeping an expensive army stationed in the Mid-East oil fields?

There's also the NEV (Neighborhood Electric Vehicles), basically a fancy golf cart, and the tiny 3-wheel Sparrow by Corbin Motors, which is classified as a motorcycle. They are all electric, but neither are practical for families or commuting. I hope more consumers will consider the alternatives to gas-fueled vehicles when shopping for their next car.

Even though I've greatly limited my own gas consumption by working from home, I can't wait to trade in my 12-year-old gas-powered car for a gas-free one, but it looks like I'll have to wait. I am personally hoping for a moderately priced EMUV (Electric Mini Utility Vehicle) with a sports rack, baby car seat, room for a stroller in the back and a fair tax incentive. I know it's a tall order, but why not aim high? Hopefully, when the next generation of gas-free vehicles is in mass production, the economy will have recovered and the prices will be affordable so the average family can afford one.

In the eight years I've known Bev Sanders, I've been constantly inspired by her diligent environmental efforts in the community, be it fighting for cleaner air, saving trees or electric cars. As EVs get added to the endangered and extinct lists, I am lucky to have had a personal experience with one, and I am sorry to see it go. I will save photographs of my son with Bev's EV1 to remind him of his own connection, for later on when he sees an EV1 in the Smithsonian.

Even though Bev has lost this battle, she is celebrating her five years with her trusty electric car, with a farewell party on Memorial Day, where she will give car-rides for the last time until the EV1 runs out of power. The car will then be un-ceremoniously towed to the GM dealership.

"I'm here to celebrate with my friends and neighbors," said Bev. "I want to inform people that the experiment worked and a cleaner future can be ours. This get-together is a tribute to the little car that could. And did. And may again someday!"

Written by: Judi Morales-Gibson


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