Baby, You Can Still Drive My Electric Car

As gas prices soar and Americans lose their taste for foreign oil, OC's biggest EV booster sounds like a prophet

Every so often I still flash on the moment in the driveway of Doug Korthof's Seal Beach home three years ago when he turned the key on the dash of his most precious automobile and . . . nothing happened.

"When are you going to start it?" I asked, fearful that what we had here was a dead AC Delco.

"I already did."

Lisa Rosen, Doug Korthof and their fine ride./James Bunoan photo
Lisa Rosen, Doug Korthof and their fine ride./James Bunoan photo

See, the reason I did not hear a reassuring engine crank is because there is no such sound with this particular GM car. Korthof was behind the wheel of an all-electric vehicle, or EV as they call them in the auto biz, a Saturn EV1 to be precise. A bank of lights built into the instrument panel was the only indicator we were good to go.

Putt-putting, without the putt-putts, around the county's northernmost beach country in the colorful Korthof's smooth-riding space buggy that postcard-worthy day shaded my Weekly story "Dude, Where's My Electric Car? Can one activist fight off Detroit, Japan, Big Oil and the Bush administration to keep EVs alive?" (May 8, 2003). Back then, Korthof seemed to be half greenie, half penny pincher. Solar panels atop his clean middle-class home charged a bank of batteries in his garage that powered his electric cars—and generated enough juice that he could sell it back to Edison. That spring day, we were a couple months into the current Iraq War—remember shock and awe? Good times, good times—and it was still soon enough after 9/11 that Korthof could get a rise from his "Starve Terrorists, Drive Electric" bumper sticker.

Under state law, the automakers were supposed to have phased in EVs in a big way by now, but using its immense influence and a double whammy of lies (about underperforming battery technology AND zero consumer interest in electric cars—both untrue), they first got the regulations watered down, then scrapped completely. Since the state's original 1990 mandate, only 5,000 EVs made it on the road, nearly all of them leased, and as those leases expired, the automakers immediately began crushing the electrics. (Why? You'll have to read on.) Korthof and his co-horts worked overtime to save as many as possible through the only means available: publicly shaming the auto industry. As for the state, it now recommends, but does not demand, fleets of hybrids, which still guzzle gas.

As most of the lazy media, prodded by the shameless oil men in the White House, spin their wheels over false "solutions" like hybrids and biodiesel and hydrogen and ethanol and ANWAR, Korthof and his all-electric army continue to boost EV technology. Some are listening. Magazines followed up on his story, CNN a couple weeks ago ran a segment revisiting the supposedly dead EV issue and our own LA "By God" Times just had a piece on the front of this past Sunday's Business section about an '03 Toyota RAV4 electric selling for $67,300 on eBay—double what a Chatsworth couple originally paid for it. Later this summer, the new old idea of going EV will get another jolt when Sony Classics releases in theaters the documentary Who Killed the Electric Car?

All along, Korthof's been plugging along. His Yahoo web group keeps people in the know about electrics for sale, the latest actions against (or concessions from) the automakers and tips for getting even more juice out EVs and hybrids. The retired computer programmer runs dozens of other sites as well, including, and that are geared toward specific driver groups.

With all this renewed interest in renewables, and a $4-a-gallon summer bearing down on us, the time is ripe to catch up with the EV activist.

OC Weekly: Where are you with your personal EV story?

Doug Korthof: Lisa [Rosen, his wife] and I own the RAV4-EV license "NOGASO," and Lisa usually drives our son Bill's company car, "EESOLAR", when she works there. We own several conversions, and we have a great 2001 Toyota CNG Camry registered to us. Last year, SCE owed us $99 (it drops off, they don't pay; in fact, they charge for the meter) for electric. This year, so far, they owe us $30.

The cars are virtually trouble-free, as is the solar system. We benefit from "time-of-use" pricing, meaning SCE pays more for daytime peak production, and we charge at night with much cheaper off-peak electric.

The earlier story mentioned how a proven battery technology was suppressed after out-performing expectations. Anything new on that front? Anyone figuring out ways around it?

The battery we use is the NiMH, same as used in cameras and small cylinder AA, AAA, etc. Toyota-Panasonic formed a partnership "PEVE" to license and improve NiMH for EVs. Around this time, GM purchased the worldwide patent rights to the NiMH battery. Later, GM decided to sell those rights to Texaco, which then merged with Chevron. Chevron then put the battery rights under control of a Joint Venture, "COBASYS," and decided to fund a lawsuit against large-format (electric car battery) competitors such as Toyota-Panasonic.
Chevron's lawsuit led to a settlement agreement with PEVE (and Sanyo, etc.) whereby Toyota paid $30M to Chevron, Toyota was granted the rights to use "small-format" batteries on the Prius, and Toyota agreed not to build "large-format" versions of its batteries (needed for plug-in cars) for export to the U.S. until 2014. At least, that's what it seems to be; portions of the settlement agreement are still secret.

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