Dude, Wheres My Electric Car!?!

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

As he hops behind the wheel of the two-seater, I man the passenger seat. We sit there for a couple of seconds before I break the silence.

"When are you going to start it?"

"I already did."

He backs up, guns it down his street and onto busy Pacific Coast Highway, heading toward Long Beach. The EV1 has faster pickup off stops than my Nissan, but not my Caddy.

Kinda like your crusty uncle the engineer, Korthof, 60, menacingly snickers —"Heh!"—whenever something strikes him funny, and that's how he punctuates his story about regularly driving his electric car to City Hall in Los Angeles, parking in the free space for ZEVs in the police department's underground lot, walking over to a public meeting to argue about some developer, going back to his car and driving home.

The limited-range argument is what the auto industry has most often cited while trying to weasel out of the CARB mandate over the years. But using Korthof's cars that travel 80 to 120 miles per day as examples, that's plenty of range for the typical Orange County commuter. According to the Southern California Area Governments' 1999 "State of the Commute Report," OC motorists travel an average of 16.1 miles each way to work. Most drivers would have enough power left over to drive to Blockbuster and Baskin-Robbins after the whistle blows.

You want range? The couple's electric cars have never left them stranded—even when they drove all the way to San Francisco. They scope out all the places—Edison plants, police stations, shopping centers—with free recharging stations, or they take along portable rechargers that'll totally juice up the cars in two hours, enough downtime to enjoy a long lunch or catch a movie.

When he first got the EV1, the lease allowed for unlimited mileage. But the car came with something else: a defective lead-acid Delco battery that took a couple of trips to the mechanic to get replaced. GM wound up replacing all the Delcos with Panasonic lead-acid batteries. But there was an unanticipated consequence: the Panasonics got such dramatically better range than the Delcos that GM took all its EV1s that had not been leased off the market and forced existing drivers into new leases that did limit mileage.

Korthof experienced even better mileage with a nickel-metal hydride battery that allowed his 1997 Honda EV-Plus to run for 140 miles without a recharge. Honda took the car back in 2002 and junked it. No subsequent electric cars had nickel batteries, and Chevron Texaco Corp. since acquired the worldwide patent to nickel-metal hydride batteries, which the company is partly using to satisfy the burgeoning hybrid-car market.

As we pass a gas station, Korthof lets out one of his signature snickers—"Heh!"—and points at the cars lined up past the pumps.

"Look at all those people waiting there," he said. "They are serfs to the gas pump. Once you no longer stop into gas stations, you realize what a chain those pumps had around your neck. The gas companies love that. That's why the hybrid is not a threat to them. We'd still have to stop in their stations to drive them."

Hybrids get all their motive power from the gas pump, so big oil—and its foreign entanglements—would reign free.

At a traffic light, he glances over and insists, "This isn't anti-social, like survivalists. This is socialist. We're helping the power grid. We're extracting ourselves from the oil industry, and that's a threat."

Of course, this wouldn't be the first time the oil and auto industries have conspired to kill a clean-transportation system in California. The consortium of General Motors, Standard Oil, Firestone Tire & Rubber, Phillips Petroleum, and Mack Truck Manufacturing joined forces and used their influence to dismantle the electric-trolley system that had served Southern California from 1901 to 1963. The conspiracy so irked the federal government that it successfully prosecuted the giant corporations, which were forced to cough up fines totaling a whopping . . . few thousand dollars.

* * *

As he weaves around gas-guzzlers, Korthof mentions that bumper-to-bumper traffic is no problem for his electric cars. While hitting the accelerator uses juice, hitting the brakes actually generates power that is fed into the battery. When he drives to Big Bear, for example, he uses nearly all his car's power going uphill—and completely regenerates it coming back downhill.

He has driven in snow and sand and enjoys excellent traction. The outer shell is made from a composite material, so any body damage requires a visit to a special shop in Santa Ana. Unlike the Anaheim experience, the insurance on his electric car costs the same as if it had a gas engine.

"Everyone who has taken a test drive with me says it is a viable option," Korthof says proudly, before pointing at minivan driven by a stereotypical soccer mom.

"There are 10,000 moving parts in that car, all going in different directions, meaning there's bound to be wear and tear. And they're saying that van is less expensive to make and own and operate than this car? Heh!"

He whips around a corner, and we're suddenly in Belmont Shores. I mention to him the auto-industry lobbyist I saw on a talk show amid the so-called energy "crisis" and how he maintained electric cars would further exacerbate the problem, requiring the construction of dozens of more polluting power plants.

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