Dude, Wheres My Electric Car!?!

Can one activist fight off Detroit, Japan, Big Oil and the Bush administration to keep EVs alive?

Breathe a sigh of relief, ARCO. A worldwide transportation system built around an internal combustion engine fueled by dead dinosaurs is safe once again. And with the Bush boys securing more Mideast oil while simultaneously pushing for more domestic drilling, we will, as Korthof put it, "choke to death on the gas fumes before we run out of oil."

Not counting the handful of electrics produced by small, independent companies, about 5,000 electrics have made it onto California roads since 1990. Automakers almost universally insisted on leases and ultimately sold just 1,000 EVs. The other 4,000 EVs cars are destined for dismantling. Don't be surprised if the oil industry then has the remains incinerated in top-secret locations and the ashes sprinkled from black-op helicopters on future Earth Day festivities.

Yep, the electric car is deader than a leaky old Delco battery. But Korthof vows to continue shaming politicians, the public and the auto industry into further developing a technology that relies on a cleaner, cheaper and abundantly abundant source of power. He just fired off a letter to Governor Gray Davis noting that "CARB members serve at the pleasure of the governor" and asking him to "please use this power."

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Korthof knows electric cars can work because they have worked for drivers like him who gave them a try. They can work because they have worked for businesses that quietly traded in their delivery trucks and maintenance vehicles for their all-electric counterparts. They can work because they worked during a three-year pilot program in the city of Anaheim. Diana Kotler, Anaheim's transportation planner, has only good things to say about her city's three-year-old program to provide a fleet of eight RAV4-EVs to local businesses that needed to connect employees with the city's public transportation station. A year later, the city acquired 18 neighborhood electric vehicles (NEVs) from Chrysler to loan to companies with large campus-style establishments and residents in low-income neighborhoods. The pilot project, funded by the state energy commission, was intended to demonstrate how electric vehicles could be used in everyday life.

Businesses loved the program right off. Residents were more skeptical. It took time and about $25,000 in city marketing money to convince residents to use the cars. The idea was to help people who could not afford a car or who owned polluting clunkers to check out NEVs—which look something like glorified golf carts—the way you'd check out Ping-Pong equipment at the local community center. Drivers had to be using the vehicles for at least one of 10 designated purposes, including getting to work, job training and shopping.

"At first, people were very apprehensive," Kotler said. The NEVs "did not look like typical cars. For two or three months, there was a lot of hand holding, a lot of education, almost nightly meetings."

Besides residents, the city had to convince the police department that the vehicles could run safely on city streets. The cops were eventually appeased, but to get residents aboard, the city finally resorted to handing out $10 Albertson's gift certificates to anyone willing to drive the things.

"That did the trick," Kotler said.

Eventually, a core group of Anaheimers used the NEVs religiously. In 10 months, there was never an accident, users took care of the vehicles, no one vandalized them, and none broke down because—other than batteries and brakes—nothing needs replacing on electric cars. And unlike the models sold on car lots, these vehicles could plug into standard electrical outlets.

In the end, terrorism killed the program, Kotler said: "After Sept. 11, insurance companies became very cautious about what they would insure." Electric vehicles like Korthof's have separate combination locks to open the doors and start the cars. But the NEVs had no locks, and the insurance companies feared "unauthorized riders" would take them for spins, steal them or get into accidents. Insurers proposed premiums 500 percent higher than the original quotes. All NEV demonstration projects in California ended immediately—except, and this is noteworthy, in the private sector. Businesses in the program accepted the higher insurance rates and scooped up all but two of Anaheim's electric cars.

In case you're interested, there are independent companies that make and sell street-legal NEVs, including a Northern California company that recently rolled out a model that looks like a car instead of a golf cart. It plugs into standard outlets and costs between $6,000 and $14,000.

Were it not for the insurance issue, could Kotler envision widespread use of electric cars?

"Widespread? I would not say," she answered. "Particular niche applications? Absolutely. There is a niche market, and we did find it here. Lots of people used them and got comfortable with them on a day-to-day basis. Particularly in the low-income neighborhoods, they provided additional freedom to people who did not have it before. There were no complaints and no opposition."

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On the morning I hook up with Korthof, his wife, Lisa Rosen, is currently off with their RAV4-EV. Her job as a probation officer has her driving electric all over Southern California. Before retiring as a computer programmer and now as a full-time environmental activist (who operates more than 60 websites out of his home), Korthof does the same with his EV1.

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