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12 minute read
Margot Hornblower/Los Angeles

How does it go, you ask yourself: and then you will ask how could we have possibly gone so long without it? –General Motors ad for EV1

The first hint cropped up late last year: billboards displaying a giant photograph of lightning bolts across a dark sky and the enigmatic message YOU CAN’T HEAR IT COMING, BUT IT IS. Within weeks, it came. In a blaze of publicity, General Motors launched the nation’s first mass-market electric car in modern times–a whisper-quiet, aerodynamic techno-marvel christened EV1. Thousands signed up to test-drive the spiffy two-seater, engineered with the help of rocket scientists to the tune of some half a billion dollars. So far, it is available only in California and Arizona, but New York, Massachusetts and other states are clamoring for electric vehicles too. Japanese and European automakers are launching their own futuristic prototypes. Can it be that a revolution in global transportation is finally at hand? Clean eco-cars that will save smoggy cities–indeed, the greenhouse-gassed planet–from the Malthusian explosion of internal-combustion engines?

The issue is very much on the agenda this week as representatives of more than 150 nations gathered in Kyoto, Japan, wrangle over how to cut emissions of man-made carbon dioxide, a culprit in the ominous warming of the global climate. In the U.S., the vehicle population has grown six times as fast as the human population, reaching 176 million cars and trucks. American autos are 90% cleaner than they were three decades ago, but they still account for over a third of urban-area ozone. More than 125 million Americans breathe unhealthy air, and an estimated 15,000 die from it each year–a fact that led the Clinton Administration to tighten clean-air standards last summer.

California, with the nation’s filthiest air, was the first to adopt a radical strategy–ordering automakers to produce zero-emission vehicles. And, as the country’s largest auto market–with 1 of every 7 cars sold in the U.S.–it has the clout. Six years from now, under California rules, 10% of new cars offered for sale–about 100,000 a year–must be exhaust-free. But even with the deadline so close, only GM and Honda Motor Co., have been bold enough to target consumers with their electric cars. Other automakers have focused on government and commercial fleets.

Brett Dewey, a Los Angeles television writer, recalls the moment he decided to go electric. “I see the mountains from my office window for a third of the year,” he says. “The other two-thirds of the year, they vanish behind the smog.” Last June he thought of the $75 a month in gas he could save by trading his 15-m.p.g. Toyota 4Runner for an EV1. “While I was debating,” he recalls, “I looked out my window and the mountains were gone.” Likewise, actors Mary Steenburgen and Ted Danson, president of the American Oceans Campaign, replaced their Ford Explorer out of concern for coastal oil pollution. Now, after six months of driving an EV1, Danson says, “It’s sweet to be environmentally correct–violins and all that! What sends me over the edge is how fast and smart this car is.”

GM got raves from auto writers and customers alike for the EV1’s elegant engineering, its spaceship smoothness, and its intoxicating acceleration–0 to 60 m.p.h. in 8.5 sec. “My customers are fascinated,” says Michael Monti, who parks his car in front of his Tempe, Ariz., restaurant. Beverly Hills realtor Constance Chestnut drives clients around in her EV1 because “it’s hot and sexy.” Hawthorne Savings Bank attracted $1.5 million in deposits from customers after it advertised its newly installed electric-car chargers. EV1 drivers have even founded a club and a Website. “This is no martyr mobile for environmentalists,” says club vice president Marvin Rush. “This car outperforms most gas cars.”

Business wise, however, the EV1 is idling. Only 288 cars have been leased in the five cities where GM has made them available–Los Angeles, San Diego, Sacramento, Phoenix and Tucson. Battery life and price are nagging issues. EVs can typically run 50 to 80 miles before recharging, which takes about two hours. Although manufacturers receive a federal tax credit and a subsidy of $5,000 a car from Southern California’s air-quality agency, GM charges $399 a month for a lease and Honda $455–luxury-car prices. GM had projected sales nearly 10 times as high. ICE-agers, as electric fans call backers of internal-combustion engines (ICEs, in tech-talk), have pounced on the slow sales as evidence that electric vehicles are far from market-ready. “They gave a party, and nobody came,” says Richard de Neufville, professor of transportation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. De Neufville reflects the orthodox view that markets, not mandates, should determine what is made and sold. That may be true, but it does nothing to solve the nation’s pollution problems. Says Sheila Lynch, head of the Northeast Alternative Vehicle Consortium: “The government has to make the EV market happen, the same way it mandated air bags and catalytic converters.”

In the seven years since California set a 1998 deadline for carmakers to begin marketing zero-emission vehicles, oil companies and auto manufacturers have lobbied to kill any mandate. They succeeded only in postponing it, to 2003. Similarly, carmakers took New York and Massachusetts to court. In recent months federal judges have handed down contradictory decisions: one barring Massachusetts from duplicating California’s mandate, and the other allowing the Empire State to force manufacturers to offer some 8,000 electric cars for sale next year.

But even as they battle quotas, the world’s automakers are scrambling to best one another in electric-drive technology. They clearly see a market developing. In May, five months after the debut of GM’s EV1, Honda’s EV PLUS was introduced with nickel-metal-hydride batteries, which have nearly twice the range of conventional lead-acid batteries. Toyota’s $800 million-a-year research-and-development effort is producing results: in the U.S., an electric version of its RAV4 sport-utility vehicle; and in Japan, the world’s first mass-marketed “hybrid,” which runs alternately on gasoline and battery power, cutting CO2 emissions in half. Meanwhile, Daimler-Benz has formed a $325 million alliance with Ballard Power Systems, a Canadian firm that designs fuel cells that combine hydrogen and oxygen to make electricity. Goal: to build 100,000 Mercedes-Benz fuel-cell vehicles a year by 2004, as much as 10% of the automaker’s future car sales. Predicting a “paradigm shift” to greener autos, Toyota president Hiroshi Okuda declared in a recent ad campaign, “Customers are looking for cars they can feel good about owning. And they won’t wait.”

Then again, they may have to. In Southern California, oil companies, electric utilities, air-quality officials, car dealers, businesses, city councils and EV1 owners are engaged in trench warfare over the electric car’s very survival. Although EVs are mostly powered overnight in their owners’ garages, a public-charging system is essential to overcoming consumer fears of running out of juice. “We face a chicken or egg dilemma,” says EV1 marketing chief Joseph Kennedy. “To expand our infrastructure quickly, we have to get more cars on the road faster, but to do that we have to have more infrastructure in place.”

As city and state agencies join hotels, airports and malls in building public chargers, and GM doles out $500,000 in matching funds, former g.o.p. activist Anita Mangels, head of Californians Against Hidden Taxes, has mounted a roadblock. “Consumers want a cheap, reliable car that goes far on a tank of gas,” says Mangels, whose group is funded by the Western States Petroleum Association. “They don’t want to save the planet.”

On a recent offensive in Orange County, Mangels persuaded three cities to turn down matching funds for chargers. “No environmental benefits will be derived,” she told Anaheim city councilors a few weeks ago, as they debated whether to spend $400,000 on 41 chargers. After utility officials rallied EV owners to lobby, Anaheim approved the money. Southern California’s 150 charging sites hardly challenge the area’s 5,000 gas stations. But the oil companies’ strategy–mounting a “taxpayers” front to block the competition–shows the extent to which they view electric cars as a threat.

Meanwhile EV1’s slow sales seem to have dampened GM’s enthusiasm. After launching the car with a spectacular Super Bowl commercial in which animated toasters and irons rushed to greet the newest electric “appliance,” GM has not run a TV spot in nine months, and a low-key print campaign has been so esoteric as to be nearly incomprehensible. ELECTROHYDRAULIC POWER STEERING, DIGITAL CLOCK, EV1, reads a Sunset Boulevard billboard, showing nothing but a lone headlight beaming out of darkness.

Moreover, after assigning the sales job to its Saturn division, famous for customer satisfaction, GM offered such a stingy profit margin to dealers that they lose money on the business. The lackluster marketing has prompted dark mutterings about GM’s motives. Is the company discouraging consumers so as to convince regulators that quotas should be abandoned? Why isn’t the EV1 available in more states? Why is the car offered only for lease, with no purchase option? GM executives protest that if they’d set out to prove electric cars a failure, they would never have spent six years and half a billion dollars building a revolutionary car from the ground up. They could have settled for a “conversion,” taking the frame of an existing model and stuffing it with electric components, much as Ford has done with its Ranger EV and Chrysler with its EPIC minivan.

Honda is trying no harder with its electric hatchback, declaring from the outset that it would limit leases to 300, in California only, over two years. Ina Schlez, an environmental consultant, went to test-drive a Honda EV PLUS in San Francisco last month, but the dealer was unable to find the keys. “The sales guy had nothing but negative things to say about it,” she says.

Despite the obstacles, GM officials claim to be satisfied with their racy roadster’s first year. Even gasoline-powered sports cars have a narrow market, they point out, and the EV1 is only the first in a line of GM electrics that will presumably include more practical four-seaters. GM also notes that the VCR took 34 years from introduction to significant market penetration; the microwave oven, 30 years; the PC, 15 years.

Sluggish sales aside, GM is recovering much of its investment by using the EV1, which alone spawned 23 patents, as a rolling research lab. The car has one-third less aerodynamic drag than any other car on the road. Features such as magnesium frame seats and highly inflated lightweight tires are being adopted in conventional GM cars. “The payback is not going to come through sales of EV1s in the short run,” says marketing director Kennedy. “GM is laying the foundation for leadership on advanced-technology vehicles 10 or 20 years from now. That surprises people. They don’t expect it from General Motors.”

GM will unveil a prototype gas-electric hybrid in January. For automakers wary of as radical a break from the ICE-age as all-electric cars, hybrids offer a compromise. They don’t need an extensive public-charger network to overcome a limited range because the batteries are supplemented by a small gasoline engine. Toyota has thrown down the gauntlet by pricing its hybrid, the Prius, at $16,500 in Japan–about a quarter below production cost. The car, which gets 66 m.p.g., could be available in the U.S. within a year. Global warming will force “a slow phase-off of the internal-combustion engine,” GM chairman Jack Smith predicted last month. “We see the hybrid as probably the near term solution.”

The long-term solution may lie in more exotic engineering: fuel cells, the electro-chemical devices used in spacecraft. In the cells, hydrogen combines with oxygen and releases electrons that drive an electric motor. The only emission, water, is so clean that it can be drunk from a glass–as Chicago Mayor Richard Daley was pleased to demonstrate for photographers in celebrating the city’s recent purchase of the nation’s first commercial fuel-cell bus.

Toyota and Mercedes-Benz have unveiled prototype fuel-cell cars and other major automakers are feverishly working to catch up. Mercedes has boasted it will have thousands of fuel-cell engines on the road by 2003, when the California mandate for 10% zero-emission cars kicks in. Although they remain 10 times as expensive as internal-combustion engines, the price and weight of fuel cells have been dropping precipitously.

For now the spotlight rests on battery-powered electrics. Fifty-six cities, from Santa Barbara, Calif., to Chattanooga, Tenn., are experimenting with electric buses. Ninety police departments in 12 states are using electric bicycles, and even so legendary an ICE-ager as Lee Iacocca has formed a company, EV Global Motors, to get into the business. Factories are being built to mass produce longer-range batteries. As they come on line in the next two years, automakers will have a stronger incentive to ramp up EV production.

The average American commute is 22 miles daily, well within the range of current battery models. “As commuter cars–nimble, clean, quiet and inexpensive to operate–battery electrics could occupy a niche as large as 30% of the market,” says Daniel Sperling, head of the Transportation Institute at the University of California at Davis. How quickly Americans find themselves saying, “Unplug the car, and let’s go,” depends on a number of imponderables. Will the courts allow New York and Massachusetts to jump-start electrics in the Northeast? Will the California 10% mandate hold, setting the trend for the rest of the nation? And the biggest question of all: Given the billions of dollars already invested in ICE-engines, how hard will automakers try to produce–and sell–electric cars so competitive in price and performance that we’d all be crazy to drive anything else?

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