Dude, Wheres My Electric Car!?!

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

Photo by James BunoanI had arranged to meet Doug Korthof on a Tuesday to talk about his increasingly futile campaign to save the Earth by saving the electric car in California. But then I imagined pulling up to Korthof's Seal Beach house in my yacht-sized 1974 Cadillac El Dorado convertible, the one that racks up a pathetic 7.5 miles to the gallon.

One cannot allow mere personal shame to stand in the way of a good story, however, so I made a bold move: I rescheduled the interview for Wednesday, and when I drive down Korthof's street, I'm behind the wheel of a 1994 Nissan Sentra sedan with peeling paint and a cracked windshield.

* * *

You may know Doug Korthof from such previous environmental battles as the fight to stop development of the Little Shell wetlands in Huntington Beach, the struggle to keep Hellman Ranch developers from building on ancient Indian burial grounds, and the campaign that forced the Orange County Sanitation District to clean up sewage it pipes offshore.

But this time, it's personal. Korthof is the proud owner of electric vehicles—EVs—bound literally for the dustbin of history. He owns a Toyota RAV4-EV and leases a Saturn EV1 produced by General Motors. He used to lease a Honda EV Plus and still would, but Honda mysteriously confiscated it when the lease ended—refusing Korthof's offer to buy it—and sent the EV to an electric-car junkyard.

Korthof's house looks like all the other houses on his block, where none of the houses look alike. Built in the days before cookie-cutter subdivisions, his house, like several others nearby, has an added-on second story. But atop that top deck is something the other abodes don't have: solar panels to charge a bank of batteries that power his electric cars.

The solar system feeds directly into the grid—the place where power generated from plants is stored—through his home's electric meter. On a warm morning like the one on which we meet—a peak period for electric usage—the solar panels collect enough energy not only for his house but also for four or five surrounding homes. Even if clouds completely block the sun, the juice stored in the batteries could run the lights and appliances in Korthof's house for two days. There has never been a lack of sunshine for more than two consecutive days in the 14 months he has relied on solar power—and the skies in this beach town are often blanketed with coastal fog and cloud cover.

"Everyone who gets a solar system seems to go out and watch the meter spin backward on the first day," he says.

Standing in his kitchen, Korthof (B.S. in mathematics, master's in philosophy from Cal State Long Beach) is your classic rational. He points to a chart created by Southern California Edison (SCE) that maps electricity usage in his house. It shows his monthly electric usage and what SCE bills him. Most months, the dollar amounts represent how much credit he has received from SCE for generating more electricity during peak periods than he's using in off-peak hours. By his math, SCE should pay him most months. Instead, there is a "yearly reckoning" where SCE has been known to zero-out his bill, essentially charging him nothing to power his house and cars.

Korthof acknowledges "there are legitimate missions that only gas cars can perform," but driving EVs and charging from solar power has enabled his family to live mostly oil-free.

It naturally makes one wonder how life would be if every other house in the neighborhood—or the next hundred new housing developments in California —had similar solar panels on their roofs. Imagine a step further, having some of that excess energy charging up electric cars for those neighbors who drive less than 80 to 120 miles daily, the respective ranges of Korthof's EV1 and RAV4-EV.

"We'd never need foreign oil," Korthof says.

The bumper sticker on the back of his EV1 says it all: "Starve Terrorists, Drive Electric."

* * *

Sadly, Korthof's prized EV1's days are numbered: GM has announced it won't extend leases on the cars when the last of them expires in 2004. Korthof will have to surrender his car.

EVs were created to satisfy the California Air Resources Board (CARB), the state agency charged with preventing the air we breathe from killing us. In 1990, CARB mandated that 10 percent of all cars sold in California this year be zero-emission vehicles (ZEVs); subsequent proposals lowered the mandate to 2 percent, then 1 percent. But on April 24, CARB junked the 1990 mandate altogether, instead urging automakers to sell 125,000 gasoline-electric hybrid vehicles and ultra-clean gasoline-powered vehicles by 2010. There was hope that CARB would allow for even a few hundred more electric cars just to keep the technology alive, but the only nod to zero-emissions advocates like Korthof was CARB's recommendation that the auto industry continue work on hydrogen-powered fuel-cell cars.

To hear Korthof tell it, the conversion to electric cars was doomed from the get-go when an industry that would be rendered irrelevant by their widespread use—that would be the oil companies—teamed up with an industry that would not stand to profit off them in the short term—major carmakers. Some last-minute help from a White House teeming with former oil executives made it a fait accompli. You might refer to CARB as the pallbearers.

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."

* * *

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."

* * *

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.

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.

"That just goes to show you that people with an asshole can say all kinds of things," Korthof said.

First, if electric car owners had solar panels on their homes as Korthof does, power plants might become obsolete. But even those drivers connected to the grid would most likely drive by day and recharge the cars overnight, during non-peak hours when the power companies actually want us using more electricity, to even out the loads.

Besides, as intensive state and federal investigations have shown, the problem from the recent energy crisis was not a lack of power plants; it was power companies systematically shutting plants to illegally manipulate the energy market for the benefit of a few rich fucks.

I steer Korthof into another rant. "So, Doug, what about the hydrogen fuel-cell technology the Bush administration wants to explore for the next 20 years?"

Korthof explains that so much hydrogen fuel would be needed for fuel cells that cars would have to use liquid nitrogen, which would ultimately cost more than electricity. Experts currently put the cost of a fuel-cell car at $1 million —way more than even a Hummer! And even if you accept the arguments of electric-car naysayers, making existing electric technology better would be easier and cheaper than creating a whole new hydrogen-based system.

"To say they'll have hydrogen-cell cars in 20 years, it's like, "Yeah, far out, man,'" says Korthof, making a peace sign with the hand that's not on the wheel.

He does allow that someone will certainly make a lot of money off the technology. "I know what they'll do with all that money. It's all bullshit."

"I think we turn in right here," Korthof says before pulling into a driveway that takes us to the parking lot of the Seal Beach Pier. I can't recall ever having been here before, and if I have, I certainly didn't notice the row of electric-car rechargers.

After pulling alongside one, Korthof gets out, grabs a nozzle, starts to put it in the slot near the front of his EV1's hood—and then stops. It won't fit. Shaking his head, he says, "Here's another way they've sabotaged it."

Back inside his car, he pulls out a small plastic adapter. In all, he has come across five different-sized nozzles at free recharging stations, which means drivers have to carry a tool box of attachments to get juice from different chargers. Could you imagine drivers of gas cars putting up with this?

"There's no reason you shouldn't be able to plug the car into a standard household electrical outlet," he says. "The infrastructure is already there. We wouldn't need these recharging stations."

* * *

Looking back, Korthof says he should have known something was amiss when he bought this EV1. He pretended to be interested in the gas-guzzlers on the lot at Saturn of Cerritos when the salesman took him into the showroom. Spotting an electric car in the corner, he asked about it.

The salesman insisted that he wouldn't want one, that those who own them hate them, that it would take $600 per month just to keep the car running. Korthof responded by taking out his checkbook and offering to buy it on the spot. That so flustered the salesman that he called over a "specialist" to handle the transaction. The specialist gave Korthof the same bad-electric-car rap. Again, he whipped out his checkbook.

Well, so many drivers apparently didn't want electric cars that there was a waiting list that meant Korthof would not take delivery of his EV1 for six weeks. Can you name another car that auto dealers don't want to take money for, don't let you drive off the lot and then make you wait six weeks for? Talk about a cooling-off period!

* * *

If you're looking for evidence of a conspiracy, look here. In the early 1990s, at about the time the auto industry was poised to spend billions to develop batteries that would meet the CARB mandate, the state plunged into recession. Factories shut down and anti-regulation fever swept California. Heck, even our skies were getting clearer, although—then and now—we still have the worst smog in the U.S. A new strategy emerged among automakers: kill the ZEV mandate. First, automakers offered to build cleaner-burning, gas-powered cars ahead of state requirements. Then, they secretly funded scores of lobbying groups with names like Californians Against Hidden Taxes to create the impression that average folks were anti-electric. A weird little chapter from the period includes the industry's recruitment of firefighters. According to Katherine Nguyen's October 2001 story in the Los Angeles New Times, the firefighters would testify before CARB that extinguishing burning EV or fuel-cell cars would be dangerous.

Stan Ovshinski, president of Energy Conversion Devices of Troy, Michigan, the creator of solar-energy cells, the holder of 250 U.S. Patents and Time magazine's "Hero of the Planet" for 1999, told Nguyen, "The people who are saying that battery technology isn't ready are absolutely wrong. It's part of the party line. It's self-perpetuating. It's very sad. You tell a lie big enough and long enough, and people start to believe it. The fact of the matter is volume. That's the only reason batteries are the cost that they are."

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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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