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."

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 EV1.org, HondaEV.org and DrivingTheFuture.com 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.


Hence, Chevron and GM together led to the end of Toyota's RAV4-EV program, it seems; at the current time, only Chevron is allowed to market "large-format" NiMH batteries in the USA, and Chevron has decided not to do so. In fact, Chevron won't sell its NiMH batteries to anyone except large fleets, it says. When I say Chevron, I am referring to their Joint Venture, "COBASYS," which is their unit controlling the batteries.


Lead-acid is inferior on weight, and has a shorter cycle-life; Lithium is not produced in large-format versions . . . We wait for 2014, when Chevron's patent rights, we think, expire.

As you watch us gas-guzzlers whining over the looming $4-a-gallon summer, how do you feel? Vindicated? Sympathetic? Are we getting what we deserve, or do you view us as pawns in a big shell (and Shell) game?

 
We don't deserve the catastrophe in Iraq, and the two madmen arguing over oil supply lines seem intent on martyrdom for Iraq in a widening war. With EV, we need not get involved in seizing and defending the oil supplies of the Mideast; nor need we maintain fleets, bomb and incarcerate people we can't stand, give foreign aid to oily dictators, and so on. It's not anything to laugh about.

I suppose that at the time of our story three years ago, some naysayers could have discounted 9/11, the Gulf Wars, rising childhood asthma and everything else associated with our oil economy and still branded you some kind of cultural oddity or threat to our "way of life." They'd look at air pollution and see freedom! But even they must recognize now how far ahead of the curve you are from everyone else, don't you think? Or will they never be convinced?

Worldwide gas prices are $5 to $7, in most developed countries; recently, the BBC was sort of sneering, in its snide, dry fashion, at the U.S. drivers who expect cheap gas, gas guzzlers, and to be able to drive long distances. Their point is it can't go on forever. Even T. Boone Pickens claims that we are not going to ever produce more than 120 million barrels per day, without some new supplies; and he just does not see any new fields that size coming on-line.
The only thing that will convince people, and the best way, is a big rise in gasoline prices.  Already, we see that diesel is now more expensive than gas because it has 1.11 times more energy, and the energy is now the deciding factor.

I hope you know that you do have fans with your emails chastising the Bush administration. But I wonder, when it comes to the EVs, do you ever feel like not drawing too much attention, not spoiling a good thing for current drivers, especially after winning some concessions from the automakers?

 
We are aiming for production electric plug-in hybrids, that can drive 120 miles in EV-only mode (or 10 miles, etc., depending on the user selection) and which has a small gas/generator (40 hp is enough to run the EV at 80 mph, so long as it just runs the motor and does not have to push gearing and clutch) to charge the batteries. We want cars generally available on the free market, made available to anyone who wants to buy, without trick or artifice, at a fair price and no phony "specialists," advisers, bad charging stations or other sabotage, to the general public. So that Joe Six Pack can jump into one and drive oil-free.


The Prius, for example, and ALL current hybrid cars, have the gas engine embedded in the power train, which is the LEAST efficient way of running an EV. These hybrids are all gas cars, because ALL of their energy, ultimately, comes from the gasoline pump.


It's a telling indictment of who runs the auto companies to realize that there are NO serial hybrids, and NO electric cars; even those writing stories about EVs miss the point, they were never sold (except the RAV4-EV, the last 328 of them); if they were ever sold, they would still be out there running. The EV1s that were crushed still ran as well as when they were new.


There's a reason for this, the profit profile of EVs is different from gas cars, and EVs don't need repair or logistical support, from which dealers make the majority of their money. So EVs threaten not just the oil companies, but dealer service and parts functions, muffler shops, smog shops, brake shops (EV have less brake and tire wear), radiator shops, tune-up shops, engine specialty shops, gas stations, and so on.

 

In addition, it threatens, of course, the high margins of current automakers. The cost of the batteries cannot be reduced as radically as the only $500 for an engine. Amazingly, it costs no more than $8,000 to make even the more expensive cars. EVs threaten, as well, auto constituencies: GM power train, engines, lubrication, all the trades dependent on making gasoline cars and the many systems they need to run these days. Unions are afraid of change, and afraid of learning new things, and so on.

When I looked back again at that previous story, I zeroed in on a section that sought to refute the automaker-propelled idea that no one wants electric cars. Given the current situation, that dog won't hunt, will it?

They still lie about it.

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