Mirrored from: http://www.dailybreeze.com/content/bln/nmev118.html
Monday, February 24, 2003
GM yanks the plug on electric car

TECHNOLOGY: Manufacturer calls the EV1 unprofitable, but some who loved and lost the vehicle blame its demise on the company.

By Nick Green

It’s head-snapping, yet whisper-quiet power could take it from zero to 60 mph in 9 seconds, a performance that left most gasoline-powered cars an ever-diminishing sight in the sleek vehicle’s rearview mirror.

It never needed oil, gas or even a key to start it, heralding a vehicle so maintenance-free many drivers found their worst problem was remembering to add windshield washer fluid.

And there were no smog-causing emissions belching from its tail pipe, because it didn’t have one.

It was the EV1, the first electric car built by an American manufacturer.

And by this summer, there likely won’t be a single one left on American roads.

After introducing the EV1 with much fanfare in 1996, General Motors has literally pulled the plug, announcing last year it would require customers to turn in their cars at the expiration of their three-year lease (the car was never available for purchase).

“The bottom line is there was just not a mass market that evolved in California or frankly anywhere else where we were offering EV1s that made the EV1 profitable for General Motors,” said GM spokesman Dave Barthmuss, who manages California environment and energy issues. “We were able to only lease 700 EV1s in a four-year time frame and that’s after spending well in excess of $1 billion developing and building them.

Gradually, EV1 drivers — a collection of environmentalists, technology geeks, government officials and people who simply loved head-turning cars — are reluctantly turning them back in.

The city of Carson, which leased a pair of vehicles to illustrate its commitment to environmental leadership and installed two recharging stations, lost its first EV1 about two weeks ago and will send the other back in May.

The city of El Segundo will soon lose its EV1 as well.

EV Rental cars, based at the Budget Rent a Car lot at Los Angeles International Airport, which once had eight EV1s, has lost two and will see the rest go this summer.

Steve Soboroff, former Los Angeles mayoral candidate and the environmentally minded president of Playa Vista, remembers without hesitation the day he was forced to turn in his beloved EV1 — Dec. 6.

“I had it for six years, I asked them to extend (the lease), but they wouldn’t,” he said. “To me it was like losing a dog. I loved that car. I swear to you I got teary-eyed.”

The reaction was much the same from other EV1 drivers smitten by their sporty-looking, environmentally conscious mode of transportation.

Some started petitions hoping to persuade GM they should be allowed to retain their cars. Others offered cold hard cash.

It was to no avail.

Citing liability concerns, GM insisted the cars must be returned.

Essentially, the company portrays the EV1 as a noble experiment that technological advances have made obsolete.

Hybrids — cars that use a conventional gasoline-powered engine supplemented with an electric battery — are increasing in popularity.

Smaller electric cars, like the Daimler-Chrysler GEM now in use at Playa Vista, are also being built, although what are essentially souped-up golf carts cannot be used on freeways.

And GM believes vehicles that use hydrogen fuel cells are the wave of the future — although it won’t have them on the road until 2010.

That doesn’t placate most people who drove the EV1.

They note that not only are there no other comparable electric vehicles readily available — Torrance-based Toyota recently stopped selling the electric version of its RAV4 — but GM doesn’t build hybrids yet. (GM said it will have hybrid trucks available by year’s end with a dozen hybrid versions of its most popular models on sale by 2007).

Moreover, GM has sued the state to weaken further its already diluted mandates that manufacturers must build a certain number of zero-emission vehicles. Rules like that were the driving force behind the creation of the EV1 in the first place.

And finally, critics contend, GM deliberately killed the EV1, making it hard to get one by rigorously screening customers, turning off potential purchasers by refusing to actually sell them outright and doing a lousy job of advertising the vehicle.

“We had to scream and beg to get on a waiting list for this vehicle,” said Barry Waite, the Carson official responsible for the city receiving its two EV1s.

“Every step of the way they made it hard to get these cars, made it hard to keep these cars,” he added. “We have a large cadre of people here who love these cars — we hate to see it go.”

Mark Looper, 38, of Redondo Beach, a space scientist who runs the Web site www.altfuels.org and rented an EV1 on occasion — he wanted to buy one, but regarded a lease as a waste of money — is a scathing critic of GM.

He sees the company’s supposed backing of hydrogen-powered cars as a method of promising the future to avoid dealing with the present.

“Let’s not let the best be the enemy of the good,” he said. “(The EV1) has really been a Harry Potter — an unwanted nephew living with them. It’s been nearly killed a number of times. A lot of people think they never really gave it a fair chance in the marketplace — they will tell you they did and it failed. But it’s a different kind of car, they really needed to do some actual public education.”

Barthmuss said the car’s inherent drawbacks — such as its limited range of 140-150 miles — proved a barrier to mass market acceptance.

“What we want to do is put our hybrid technology into vehicles that do not force commuters to make a trade-off,” he said. “We really want to demonstrate that General Motors is very serious about reinventing the automobile and has a viable business plan to do so.

“The EV1 was a really good experience in some regards because it really taught us to move to the next level.”

Still, the timing of the EV1s’ withdrawal has some shaking their heads over what they perceive as a short-sighted business decision.

Gas is heading toward $2 a gallon. War in the Middle East looms. And the Bush administration appears to be belatedly acknowledging that global warming is an issue.

General Motors said its EV1s are being donated to universities and museums, while the remainder will be recycled.

But Louis Weiss, president of the Electric Vehicle Association of Los Angeles is incensed at the treatment of what he believes is one of the best electric cars ever built.

“They’re taking all these nice, beautiful cars and crushing them . . . meaning they’re going to take all the metal and build SUVs,” he said. “I think they have their head up their corporate fannies.”

Publish Date:February 18, 2003