Doug Korthof's 
Loneman Protest

By Josh Landess

Doug Korthof: Somewhat Dissatisfied Toyota Customer

Doug Korthof has been conducting a sometimes one-man 8 AM daily protest outside of Toyota's Headquarters in Torrance, CA, at 190th and Western. There is a small fleet of RAV4 EVs parked a couple of blocks away that Toyota owns itself. 

Those thinking of joining him should probably contact him directly beforehand. Folks should visit his web pages for scheduling and other contact info: 

Doug mentioned some possible future celebrity involvement, but gave no specifics. 

Toyota has a slogan of Customer Satisfaction being their Number One Priority (mentioned in the RAV4 EV program-ending announcements). So, that is why I think the caption of "Somewhat Dissatisfied Customer" is appropriate here. Toyota's corporate culture does have some meaning, and so perhaps top management in Japan will take note if we ask a few questions as to why this customer and a few others are Somewhat Dissatisfied

The RAV4 EV itself is clearly a point of great Satisfaction to Doug and others. In fact, one could call the Electric battery and drivetrain a $16,000 (after subsidies) super-extreme-high-mileage apparently-very-reliable "engine option" that is wildly popular amongst some of the few hundred consumers able to get their hands on them. It is the ending of the RAV4 EV program that has causes the "Dissatisfaction" and the protest. 

Why single out Toyota for protest, particularly when they've arguably been *better* than other companies? They have offered EVs for sale instead of just leasing them, for example, and they have made really good batteries available rather than carrying on for years about the difficulty of getting them (such as Ford has done). 

Doug spoke with me of his goal of trying to balance out his protesting so that Toyota was given credit where due, and so that it was clear that they were not the only manufacturer refusing to produce good highway capable affordable EVs. He will be expanding his protest to GM dealerships. 

He has owned or leased EVs made by GM, Toyota, Ford and Honda. His EVs are powered in part by solar panels on the roof of his house. I verified that he did vote for someone other than the Bush-Cheney ticket (as urged by VP Cheney who said that those with solar panels or EVs should probably vote for someone else). 

Some have made the case that the marketing and business-planning for some EVs was not good. I have to disagree somewhat with the "bad marketing ruined everything" argument, and to some extent Doug might as well. He mentioned to me several times that he thinks that Toyota was surprised at the popularity of the vehicle.... at the pace with which the vehicles did sell out. Of the few hundred allotted for public consumption, Toyota is apparently months behind delivering all of them. In fact, I can't think of any ZEV-mandated highway-capable EVs which did not sell or lease out of their modest runs. 

No matter what flaws the California EV programs may have had in their marketing, the bottom line seems to be that folks who wanted to buy or lease those cars were dissuaded or eventually put off entirely by lack of availability. There are waiting lists. Perhaps those lists are not as large as the manufacturers need to justify serious mass-production. But who has heard of manufacturers in any field trying so hard to find reasons not to make a product for which there is a waiting list? Who has heard of manufacturers in any field trying so hard to avoid all consideration or discussion of further production of products which seem to be extremely popular amongst the few able to obtain them? How long can a company stay in business (or its Union workers retain their jobs) if it misses its guess as to the popularity of a new product? 

Toyota has apparently told Doug and others that the vehicle cannot be made at present costs and that even a price of something like $150,000 might not allow them to produce the vehicle. Doug tells me that he can't make the cost equations add up. Can a battery and electric drivetrain really cost $100,000 or more to put into a vehicle, as so many of the manufacturers seem to be claiming? The RAV4 itself is already a production vehicle, selling at about $17,000, so much of the vehicle is "off the shelf". Why does it cost so much to build and install the electric-specific components? 

As I talked with Doug, a few vehicles honked in sympathy as they drove by. The vehicles that honked seemed to be disproportionately trucks. Perhaps they are Union-oriented and a fan of a customer expressing demand for an auto product, or perhaps they honk for other reasons. Doug tells me that motorcyclists tend to honk as well, responding, in his view, to the underdog anti-establishment nature of his efforts. We walked in front of Toyota without incident once the security guard verified that I was not entering the property but merely taking pictures from the public sidewalk. 


I have to say, with regret, that while I admired the heck out of Toyota managers for attempting to meet with Doug a week or so ago and put their case to him of their commitment to better vehicles, Toyota's claim that they made when ending the program that "sales were low" is intensely insulting because it assumes the reader is incapable of understanding that the low sales were caused by low production and not necessarily by low demand. 

When a major company says that "sales were low", one is left with the impression that they tried their darndest to sell as many vehicles as possible and were unable to do so. That did not happen in this case. In this case they tried and succeeded in selling all of the few hundred vehicles that were made, from only twenty-five dealerships, and the response was enthusiastic. Sales seemed to be well ahead of pace. So why not continue the program for the EV option on the RAV4? Why not make it available to more than seven percent or so of the American Consumer Car-buying public? Is the car too expensive to make, as Toyota seems to be claiming? 

Doug and I talked at length about whether Toyota could be under pressure from Chevron-Texaco to incorporate NiMH batteries into their hybrids but not into EVs. C-T owns part of Energy Conversion Devices and their subsidiary Ovonic, which controls many of the NiMH battery patents, and which is suing Toyota and Matsushita (makers of RAV4 EV batteries and batteries for Hybrids) for patent infringement . 

As it happens, I originally met Doug on the investment discussion board for Energy Conversion Devices, which owns Ovonic, and he eventually gave me my first ride in an EV. My view on inventive people like those at ECD has not changed. It has always been that inventors of today have it somewhat different than inventors of the Edison-Ford era, that their patent rights are not protected very well, and that rights advocates don't seem to be talking about the importance of bringing stronger protection to the patent rights of the little guy. Why should anyone anywhere bother to invent a better energy device or battery for an EV if his patent rights will likely be trampled-upon and-or if economic and legal conditions make it too difficult to see his way clear to making a profitable business deal to see his device built and produced? 

I've been waiting a long time for a magazine like Electrifying Times or to be a forum for some ivory-tower history-of-technology types to do something relevant (rather than just sitting around writing deliberately irrelevant articles) and publish some articles to help us understand why we are having such difficulty getting a few EVs built each year for those first-adopters who wish to pay a good price for them just like customers spending $10.000 for plasma TV screens today.

Further discussion of RAV4 EVs, by Doug and other knowledgeable owners and activists, can be followed on this discussion list: 

According to the EPA numbers the RAV4 EV gets better mileage per unit energy ("miles per kWh") than almost any gasoline or diesel car on the road. Unless the power plant to make the electricity is burning oil, it uses precisely zero petroleum as fuel. 


Josh Landess
ET Staff Correspondent

Official RAV4 EV Discussion List