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EV Owners Have Their Say, Part III: Miles by the Jolt — How I Acquired an EV

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I gave up cute or sexy or classy, and settled. Then I waited for average and imperfect to arrive.

It was Thanksgiving Day, but this blind date had been set into motion back in mid-June, when I was surfing the Internet looking for love. Rumblings of a disquiet in Burbank, made me more determined during the spring. By fall, I was committed.

Finally, the guy arrived with my 1995 Solectria Force from Vermont.

Okay, maybe it wasn’t exactly love, but I did notice a slight tingle after seeing the image of a bolt of electricity ending in a plug where the gas tank is normally located.

It wasn’t the sexy AC Propulsion T-Zero. Nor was it the classic 1950s Henney Killowatt. It didn’t have the sporty, lovable lines of a VW bug conversion.

My Solectria was a solid, four-door former Geo Metro that had been professionally converted to electric.

I began researching EV conversions at the millennium. The VW Bug seemed ideal — people loved them, conversion kits were available, and parts were easy to find.

I cruised OldBug.com and The-Samba.com, looking for a body to convert. On an EV Web site, I found a classy 1968 conversion by Don Bastin and started corresponding with him. His conversion used a kit provided by the Santa Rosa-based EV supply company, ElectroAuto.com.

Yet members of the Los Angeles Electric Vehicle Club, which meets at Caltech the first Saturday of every month, convinced me that a used EV was a better, cheaper option. I found a 1950s-era purple and black Bug at ZapWorld.com, but the dealership wouldn’t email me any photos of the interior, so that deal was off. I then found an EV VW Bug converted into a truck, but the owner insisted that I fly to meet him. I didn’t, so that deal also fell through.

I then considered buying a funky CitiCar and finally found one with low mileage that was almost perfect for me. But again, I couldn’t get the owner to send more photos and that deal also never materialized.

Now here I was with my Force, which, for all its faults, was something of a childhood dream come true. When I was a kid, my dad liked giving us wild rides in his Jeep and tinkering with motors in the garage. He also loved cartoons. I remember one of an oversized magnifying glass attached to the top of a car that directed beams of sunlight to the engine — the solar-powered car of the future.

As a child, I believed that could happen, and here in my driveway was proof that it had, well, for the most part. Yet even in smoggy Pasadena and environmentally conscious California, EVs weren’t welcomed with open arms by bureaucrats. After a flurry of confusion requiring two inspections and half a day at the DMV, my Force was registered, but as a second-owner I wasn’t eligible for any tax credits.

Coming into range
During the late 1970s and early 1980s, rising gas prices resulted in the development of the cheap but claustrophobically small CitiCar and Elcar. They were essentially what are now called Neighborhood Electric Vehicles (NEVs). They could hit speeds of about 30 mph and weren’t freeway-worthy.

Yet, EVs had been around much, much longer than that. At the LA EV Club meeting, a local man, Lew Miller, showed me a photo of his prized 1904 Baker two-seater. I was amazed. I didn’t know that EV technology had been around that long. I later learned that Jay Leno has a 1909 Baker.

Actually, according to Inventor.about.com’s EV history, EVs have been around since the 1830s. As battery technology improved, France and Great Britain encouraged EV development, and by 1899 an electric racing car had set a world record speed of 68 mph.

In the 1920s, EVs were preferred to the hand-crank gasoline engine that required a gear shifter and long periods of time to warm up.

Then, after oil was discovered in Texas and gasoline prices plummeted, the auto industry chose gas to fuel its new inventions. In 1912, when EV production was at its peak, Charles Kettering invented an electric starter, which eliminated the need for hand cranking. Henry Ford then began mass-producing internal combustion engines. All of these things brought the price of gas-powered cars down and sent the price of EVs through the roof.

By 1912, the cost of an electric car was almost three times the cost of a gas car, which sold for about $650. By then, paved roads started connecting towns across America and another limitation of the EV — range — became apparent.

Gas-powered cars may have produced smog, but they cheaply delivered limitless range. Today, nearly a century later, all that driving is catching up with us, with smog now playing a critical role in the ongoing warming of the planet and gas — thanks to global oil market instability and war — no longer cheap.

Sparking EV-angelism
The US Clean Air Act of 1990 and 1992’s Energy Policy Act, as well as regulations of the California Air Resources Board, sparked renewed interest in the EV development, giving rise to a number of companies that worked on nothing but electric motors.

Beginning in 1989, Massachusetts-based Solectria took Geo Metros and converted them into EVs with a 50-mile range by using lead acid batteries. Fifty miles? That’s not enough for getting around in Los Angeles, you might think. And you would be right. Yet, in 1994 one Solectria drove 200 miles on a single charge with ovonic nickel metal hydride (NiMH) batteries, showing battery technology had certainly improved.

E-Vermont, a nonprofit research and development organization, then bought some of these cars in order to develop new technologies and introduce them to the locals. According to Stephen Miracle, E-Vermont technical director, “We found that certain types would find a way to make them not work while others who we saw as more open-minded were able to use the cars within their limitations and were very successful.”

Miracle added, “We have three projects going right now. The first is designing and assembling three-battery electric vehicles. The second is installing a renewable hydrogen station and using a modified Prius to burn the fuel. Last is a plug-in Prius project that will enable 20-plus mile EV range.”

Here in Pasadena, there’s a strong link between EVs and Caltech. In 1968, a Caltech undergrad named Wally Rippel issued a challenge: A cross-country EV race between MIT and Caltech. Rippel matched his converted VW van against MIT ‘s GM Corvair.

Starting at their respective campuses at the same time, the race began on Aug. 26 and ended when Rippel’s VW arrived at MIT 210 hours and 3 minutes later on Sept. 4. Years later, Rippel helped develop for the GM EV1.

Alec Brooks, a Caltech graduate now at AeroVironment, helped develop the Impact. Another graduate from Caltech, Alan Cocconi, founded AC Propulsion, developed a solar-powered vehicle for GM and helped co-develop the EV1.

Never heard of the GM EV1? That car was the first EV shown to the public by one of Detroit’s major carmakers. Introduced as a concept car at the LA Auto Show as the GM Impact, it was renamed the EV1 when it was offered for lease in California and Arizona in 1996.

Temple City resident James Baker wrote via email, “I remember being thrilled when the EV1 came out, though it was a bit too expensive for me, and I didn’t like the idea that I had to lease it. At the time, I thought that the EV1 represented a first step, and that EV availability and performance were only going to improve from there.”

As Caltech alum Randy Pollock recalled, “My favorite EV experience with the [Honda] EV+ was about a year after we got it. My son and I were in the parking lot for the La Cañada Library waiting for it to open. A woman walked up to the car and asked if it was an electric. I said it was. She replied, ‘I am so excited to see them on the road again! I am 89 and my father drove electric cars when I was a kid. He said that the noisy, smelly gas cars would never catch on.'”

They’ve caught on well enough. The GM EV1 had its fans, some of whom protested after GM refused to extend the leases or sell the cars, even to celebrities like Mel Gibson. Instead, GM and Honda chose to crush their EVs. And without their support, the money to sustain the California electric charge station infrastructure evaporated.

Glendale resident Tim McCann explained, “The biggest problem I have now driving my truck around is the dwindling charging station infrastructure. I’m finding more and more broken chargers and I haven’t been able to get any of them fixed either. That limits me to the 40-mile range my truck has.” McCann thought he’d buy a four-passenger GM EV1 but that dream never materialized. Instead, he drives a 1961 Corvair Rampside EV pick-up.

‘Who Killed the EV ?’
As small companies like the Solectria were trying to convince people that EVs were the future, other companies were making deals with the devil, according to Chris Paine’s documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? which opens this week.

According to the film, Detroit automakers were developing EVs to conform to California’s zero-emission laws while also lobbying against zero-emission legislation.

Cocconi, Brooks, Rippel, and former Caltech President Thomas Everhart — a former GM board membe — along with EV enthusiast Mel Gibson, appear in Paine’s documentary, which amounts to little more than an indictment against carmakers, consumers, the Bush administration, and major oil companies.

President Bush and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger push hydrogen, something that allows status quo with the auto and oil industries because while EV technology is here, hydrogen is 20-30 years away from becoming a consumer reality.

Chris Yoder, a Caltech staff member and EV enthusiast, commented via email, “We got our first EV1 in March of 1997 — including going through the long wait, having GM make sure that our credit was excellent, and being told every single flaw of the vehicle. … Our main ‘delay’ in getting an EV1 was that we simply did not want to lease it, we wanted to purchase it. Eventually we decided it was better to rent happiness for a while than to never have it.”

Paine, also a former GM EV1 owner, filmed a protest in Burbank last year, something that really galvanized my determination to buy an EV, even if it didn’t feel like driving the Batmobile, Gibson’s description of his EV1 experience.

Miracle, who hasn’t seen the movie, said “EVs were an easy target for anyone who wished to sabotage their reputation. They appear to be fundamentally un-American. When compared to the gas cars that we have become accustomed to, we see that they are smaller, go slower for shorter distances and tend to be less sexy. They do not portray the sense of freedom that a tank full of gas being pumped into a V8 does. What hurt them the most is that they are coming to the playing field with a huge handicap and going up against a traditional and universally accepted superior product.”

If GM didn’t see the possibilities of the EV1, Toyota does see a future in plug-in technology. Last year in Tokyo, they introduced a plug-in Prius as a concept car destined for consumer in 2010. This one was even charged at a concept house powered by solar energy.

Current technology for battery-run EVs gives the best mile-range to the person with the most money. The best batteries (lithium) are wildly expensive — $2,000 each for a 100-mile range. My Force needs 13 batteries. Mass production would make them cheaper. Until then I’ll settle for the NiMH for about $120 a pop and a 50-mile range.

Still, my affection for my Solectria, continues to grow, even if I still fantasize about the T-Zero and wait for the plug-in Toyota Prius.

Part one of this three-part series recounts the reactions of EV owners to the new film, Who Killed the Electric Car? In part two, the same owners describe their personal histories with the cars.

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  • http://www.elitistpig.com Dave Nalle

    Just wanted to say that I thought this series was fantastic. I’d done some research on Electronic Vehicles while researching alternative fuel vehicles for my own articles, but you’ve gathered more info here than I was able to find in much web searching. Great job.

    Dave

  • roark

    I just saw the “Who KIlled the Electric Car” Documentary on Showtime… its was awesome!!! the movie that is… The decision of GM to “Shred” the cars, is for one just un-unexcusable. I just don’t get it. How does a company like GM think they have the luxury of “shredding” products that people want to acquire. I suppose I just answered my own question, as GM is in serious financial trouble… and the “Brain Trust” who lives in the penthouses offices decides to Shred Hundreds of cars that people would probably kill for now that our Oil Interests have gone so well in the Middle East where the price of a gallon of gas is now, today, $3.65 a gallon. The most ever paid in this state for gas.

    How did the American car industry go into extinction? They lost the ability to adapt and adjust, just like the dinosaurs, will go into the shredder of history.

  • danny

    i watch the movie,can’t believe all the ev’s were shredded.i FOUND THIS ARTICAL searching for info electric conversion kits,(oil $125.00 a barrel today $5.75/gallon here)i hope someone makes GM eat that choice.i would like to convert a car over to electric,can’t wait to see them on the roads.

  • http://www.purpletigressrose.blogspot.com Purple Tigress

    Remember, the problem we now face was predictable. Fossil fuels and relations with the Middle East made them so. We had the potential to develop solar energy and make it a source of electrical energy. We had the choice in the US to go with EVs. In Los Angeles, we have the technical geniuses at Caltech working on projects and technical companies attempting to find the answer. The answer was there. Instead, now we are looking into biodiesel and hydrogen.

    Remember how when the American auto companies were in trouble the government back them up and there were at least two waves of Japan-bashing focused on Japanese cars versus American cars.

    America’s industrial leaders made decisions that led us to this juncture.

    We had the answer to the gasoline crisis in the US and in California. And our American industrial leaders dropped the ball as did our political leaders.

    And look who picked up the ball and saw the future? Japan and the Toyota Prius.

    Shame on GM. Shame on the oil companies.

  • bliffle

    The US auto companies and oil companies have an iron grip on the US government (and on the minds of US citizens, apparently) and have prevented an easy migration to alternative energy. But they, individually, are smart enough to know it can’t last forever so they are just riding their sunset industries down into the dust, taking big dividends on the way. They will have their way since their lobbying and bribing make it possible.

    But they know The End Is Near.

    Just beware that they intend to dominate the alternative energy scene, too, when the time comes.

    Beware, beware, beware.

  • http://sdquarterly.com/ Phillip Winn

    bliffle, that seems a bit too “conspiracist” for me. The U.S. is a freaking huge country, with a lot of cars on the road. It is nearly infinitely harder for the U.S. to do *anything* nationwide than it is for *any* other country, and I really think that’s all there is to it.

    Could we have done it? Sure. But it’s an tough uphill struggle even without ascribing nefarious tactics to companies who would benefit enormously if they could pull it off successfully.

  • http://www.purpletigressrose.blogspot.com Purple Tigress

    Ask yourself why did GM insist on a paddle as opposed to a plug?

    After all, older EV can be plugged in directly to the garage and do not require a special charging station.

    Second, why destroy a car when you have buyers lined up?

  • bliffle

    As alternative energy systems come online the government will provide subsidies favorable to Big Companies and monopoly Intellectual Property judgements favorable to Big Interests.

    It’s in the nature of the kind of managed economy that we have developed in this country. Who, one must ask, is it managed in favor of?