While much of Southern California was getting ready for the Academy Awards on Saturday, 100 people showed up for a rally at the General Motors Training Facility in Burbank to support a group of electric vehicle devotees who have been protesting GM’s policies regarding its all-electric EV1 cars. Saturday’s gathering marked the eleventh day of a round-the-clock vigil that began February 16.
Actor Peter Horton decided to go electric after noticing “those sleek, sort of George Jetson EV1s shoot by me with surprising speed on the freeways. I thought, fine, I’ll get an EV1. Along with simply loving the car, there was a sense that if this succeeded, it would significantly change the automotive landscape. But as I lifted the phone to make the call, I had no way of knowing that this simple, reasonable act was my first step into the electric car wars.”
Santa Monica resident Paul Scott helped organize the vigil and the rally. He’s been hooked on electric, he says, since buying a RAV-4 two years ago. “It was incredible to me that these cars aren’t available to anyone who wants one.”
When GM leased its first 800 or so electric vehicles to residents of Arizona and California in 1996, it looked like the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Why, then, has GM seemingly snatched them back from their happy owners?
“There is no recall,” says GM spokesman Dave Barthmuss. “There is no roundup. Our EV1 program ended in 2000 and the last lease expired in August 2004.”
“The manufacturers,” Scott says, “are saying they had to end the EV program because they had trouble leasing 800 cars in a four-year period. That’s a lie. The truth is, GM hardly advertised the EV1, yet they leased every one they made and had long waiting lists for more. Had GM advertised the EV1 like it does the Hummer, they would have sold tens of thousands.”
“GM spent over $1 billion to create a market,” Barthmuss counters, “but one never materialized. We couldn’t afford to keep spending money on a program that only appealed to a small although passionate group of consumers.”
Scott points out that each of the 78 EV1s on “death row” in Burbank has a driver eager to adopt it and willing to pay the stated residual value of $24,761.60, as well as release the company from future liability.
“In 48 hours, we had 88 people sign up. And these are used vehicles with no warranties,” says Scott, who put his name down for two.
“People talk about releasing us from liability. There is no such thing,” Barthmuss contends. “There are 2,000 handmade, unique, one-of-a-kind parts on each one of these vehicles and they’re no longer available. One very old, computerized component controls the rear brakes. If it fails, there are no parts to replace it. The vendors we worked with left GM in 1997 or ’98 when we weren’t able to order a high enough volume of parts to make it viable for them.”
Filmmaker Chris Paine is producing a documentary about the circumstances that delivered, then did away with, the electric car. He drove an EV1, until his lease expired.
“GM built a fantastic car,” he says, “and I really loved driving it. But never has a car not been available for sale at the end of a lease. If GM was serious about their electric car program, why wouldn’t they make spare parts? And why did they destroy all those cars in the desert that have all those spare parts on them? This supports the contention made by many activists that GM never meant this car to be successful.”
Observes Scott, “Forty percent of the auto industry’s profit comes from parts and service, according to the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. EVs are so reliable, they need virtually no parts or service.”
“People are willing to buy these cars without spare parts availability and without liability,” Paine continues. “They just want them saved. There are engineers that could keep the cars going for years. I’m not an attorney, but I understand that Ford EV drivers negotiated with Ford, releasing them from liability.”
The website for Paine’s documentary (www.evconfidential.com) includes photos said to depict crushed EV1s at the GM Proving Ground in Mesa, Arizona. But Barthmuss dismisses claims that GM is destroying the cars.
“What happens at the end of the EV1’s useful life,” he says, “is one of four things. The vehicles are donated to colleges and engineering schools. They go to museums for display — one is at the Peterson Automotive Museum in Los Angeles. They are used by engineers in New York and Massachusetts to learn how they operate in cold weather so they can transfer the technology to hybrids. Other vehicles will be recycled, not crushed or scrapped or put into the landfill.”
GM decided that the EV1 would never appeal to a mass market.
“The EV1 forced the consumer to make too many tradeoffs in their transportation lifestyle,” Barthmuss says. “Battery technology was never going to advance any further than it has today. The car would never go more than 100 miles without recharging, and would never charge in less than 6 or 8 hours. If we’re serious about reducing the amount of fuel all of our vehicles use, we have to have advanced technology that we can use in hundreds of thousands – even millions – of units. The EV1 appealed to a very small number of people.”
Not everyone agrees.
“Once upon a time, I drove a car that was made in America, emitted nothing when I drove it, required little or no maintenance and used American made electricity,” laments Bob Seldon, a Santa Monica attorney whose son dreamed of driving the EV1 to college. “My neighbors who drove it couldn’t get the smiles off of their faces. It was a winner designed by a team of unsung and largely unknown heroes. GM decided it had to die.”
“With the lithium ion battery used in cell phones and laptops,” adds Scott, “a car like the EV1 could go 300 miles. In Los Angeles, there are cars doing 300 miles. They’re designed by the same Cal-Tech engineers who designed the EV1.”
General Motors, Barthmuss explains, has shifted its focus to “hybrids and ultimately fuel cells,” pointing to the company’s HydroGen3, a demo vehicle currently being tested in Japan. “GM and the entire auto industry believe that hydrogen is the long-term fuel of choice.”
There are between one and seven “vigilers,” as they call themselves, on hand in Burbank at any given time. “It’s tough,” Scott admits. “I’ve pulled a couple 1-5 a.m. shifts. But we’re going to go until we win. And we’ll win when GM starts talking to us and realizes what they’re doing is wrong.”