Dude, Wheres My Electric Car!?!

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

Faced with intense political pressure, bought and paid for by the oil and auto industries, CARB in March 1996 repealed much of the ZEV mandate, including a 1998 deadline for GM alone to get 6,500 electric cars on California's roads. Instead of imposing strict quotas, CARB left it up to the automakers to decide how many electric cars would roll out. Honda decided the 300 ZEVs it had already built were about right, and then got out—quickly reclaiming and junking the cars it had leased to buyers including Korthof.

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CARB argues that its decision to pursue hybrid technology rests on simple science and business. Electric technology is still in the prototype stage; hybrid technology relies in part, at least, on older internal combustion engine technology. That makes hybrids cheaper to produce, and that means it's conceivable hybrids could hit California's roads in such numbers that smog would disappear, the sun would shine, and lions would lay with lambs.

That's what auto makers told CARB: release us from the shackles of complicated, expensive and unproven electric technology, and we'll produce hybrids in abundance. CARB bought the sales pitch—and was immediately hit with an industrial-sized sucker punch. In October, Bush's Justice Department joined GM and Daimler-Chrysler in a lawsuit to overturn CARB's new mandate. The suit argues that since CARB includes hybrids with electric vehicles in reducing emissions, and since hybrids run on gas, all the regulations should be tossed out. Why? CARB is a state agency, and regulating fossil fuels is a job for Washington. And right now Washington is owned by the Republicans.

A judge has already sided with the plaintiffs; state Attorney General Bill Lockyer has appealed. The AG will likely be kept busy; the Bushies are expected to join automakers in using the same argument to challenge the landmark law the governor signed last year to limit greenhouse gases emitted from tailpipes.

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Korthof invites me behind the wheel of his EV1. I'd been struck by the quick pickup from the passenger seat, but it's even more dramatic behind the wheel as we head up the ramp leaving Seal Beach pier. On city streets, the ride is smoother than I'm used to in my gas-powered cars. There's a constant feeling of power in the electric, as opposed to the more choppy feeling of my gas hog. Or maybe the Caddy just needs a tune-up.

On the long stretch of PCH before Golden West Street, I got the EV1 up over 55 mph in no time. When I slowed for traffic lights, there was none of that down-shifting you're used to in gas cars—more of a winding-down feeling. Truly Space Age.

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Foreign and domestic automakers may have their differences when it comes to import quotas, but they manage to find a common voice to trash ZEVs:

•They say consumers don't want "small" cars; they want ever-more-gargantuan SUVs. Sale receipts tell no lies, they argue. But as those empty diamond lanes during rush hours prove, what those mostly lone drivers want is one thing; what would be better for them, for traffic patterns and the air everyone breathes is another thing entirely. In fact, the SoCal driving lifestyle is much more conducive to electric cars. The automakers say they are only giving their customers what they want, but in the past 13 years, can you remember one television commercial that made it seem cool and muy macho to drive a ZEV? Hell, any TV spot even mentioning an electric car? A print ad? A radio jingle?

•Automakers say electric cars cost more to make than "regular" cars, with Toyota in particular complaining the company dumped $250 million into rolling out 1,000 RAV4-EVs. That's true, but only because Toyota chose voluntarily to stop production at 1,000—surrendering what the Harvard Business School will tell you are the "economies of scale." Any car designed, manufactured and marketed from scratch costs hundreds of millions upfront. Automakers are betting they'll be able to spread out those upfront costs over hundreds of thousands of cars.

•Our auto overlords say drivers want bigger engines and don't give a lick about fuel efficiency. You grayhairs will recall this argument shortly before the oil crisis in the 1970s, when U.S. automakers overstocked with big ol' honking cars and trucks were brought to their knees by Japanese automakers hawking little gas-saving sedans. Incidentally, the Japanese make the best electric cars and hybrids and are already at the forefront of fuel-cell technology.

•No one wants electric cars? No one—except just about everyone who has given one a test drive (including a certain guilty Caddy driver) and got on a waiting list for one or is about to have one taken away from them. "No ones" like Doug Korthof, who sees spending his spare time and money on saving the electric car as a no-brainer.

"No gas, no oil, no belts, no hoses, no smog checks, no brake-pad lining, no oil leaks, no urban runoff spoiling our beaches, no Iraq war."

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