Powerful people want to stop EVs in Washington D.C./Detroit/the courts
(The Internet Electric Vehicle List News - EVLN)
Forget neat technology, enviro-cuddliness,
gas-price savings -- the real question about battery-powered cars is,
can they turn us on? DOUG SAUNDERS 04/22/2000 The Globe and Mail
Metro R9 All material copyright Thomson Canada Limited or its
licensors. All rights reserved.
Los Angeles -- The security guard accosted me as I was leaving the
parking garage last weekend. A close-cropped senior with a fervent
look, he pointed to the car and signaled me to lower my window. I
wondered what I'd done wrong. He shouted, "Young man!" I tried to look
innocent. "Young man," he yelled, "that is the future. It is the
future in your hands! Powerful people want to stop it. They're trying
to stop it in Washington, in Detroit, in the courts. But I tell you,
it is the future!"
I should have known. This sort of thing happens all the time in an
electric car. Flashing him a smile and a thumbs-up, I floored the
accelerator. The car remained utterly silent and still. Then, after
perhaps a second's delay, it glided away with only a rush of air. As
I whizzed onto the freeway in my electric Toyota RAV-4, the old man's
speech still resonating, I wondered if what I was doing could even
really be called driving. None of the car's controls were connected to
anything -- the pedals and steering wheel controlled computers, which
ran the car -- and the whole thing felt much more like sailing a small
catamaran in a good wind: The same breezy silence, the same delayed
glide of acceleration.
Moving from A to B, yes, but driving? I thought about how much we have
invested in this word. Drive is something we try to display at the
office and in the sack, and we despair when we lose it. My toolbox
contains something called a "nut driver," and there is no mystery to
the grunting, sweating torque its use entails.
Can we really talk about "driving" a vehicle with no gas pedal, no
exhaust, no starter, no engine and no sound? In the hours after I
picked it up, I was actually afraid to look under the hood, worried,
like that adolescent nightmare where you pull down your pants in front
of a crowd, that I'd unveil only a smooth blankness.
This is not abstract talk. Battery-powered cars suddenly are a
day-to-day reality for 3,000 owners, most of them in the southwestern
United States, and electric vehicles are being quietly manufactured
for street use by most of the big car companies. In Canada, last
month, Ford launched a demonstration program for its City car, a poky
gas-electric hybrid, 50 of which will be on Canadian roads over the
next two years. The hybrids Toyota Prius and Honda Insight will be
available later this summer. In Quebec, provincial utilities have also
purchased 16 Ford Ranger electric trucks.
Meanwhile, without much fanfare, the last generation's futuristic
prediction has become a West Coast commonplace. Electric-vehicle
charging stations are scattered every few blocks in neighbourhoods
around the Silicon Valley and Los Angeles, and the machines are being
sold, albeit quietly, by Toyota, Honda and General Motors. All three
companies have long waiting lists.
This year's gas-price shock has raised the real possibility that
electric cars could spread across the continent -- after all, they go
1,600 kilometres on less than $20 (U.S.) worth of electricity, they
get upward of 160 km on a charge (which takes four hours), and they
drive at highway speeds. They may be one of those California car
innovations, like the convertible, the emission-control law and the
vanity licence plate, that seems eccentric one day and appears on your
block the next.
On the other hand, the electric car may stumble on its greatest flaw,
a problem I can only really describe as its dicklessness. That sense
of vehicular emasculation, that lack of phallic expression in a world
where the car is inseparable from our will to power, is a far greater
challenge to the electric-car business than those dark conspiracies
the old man talked about, true as they may be.
The car companies know this, and a grave debate is taking place in
their offices right now over whether the public will ever fully accept
a car with no engine. If it does not turn into a worldwide marketing
campaign, the two-year experiment in electric driving could be phased
out next year.
Walking across a supermarket parking lot one afternoon a couple of
weeks ago, I saw the solution to this problem, in the form of Brad
Wigor. The first thing I noticed was Brad Wigor's car, a
ground-hugging, teardrop-shaped silver-blue streak that looked quite
unlike anything on the road. In a way, it resembled a tiny version of
that streamlined 1950s French rarity, the Citroen DS.
With the audacity of that security guard, I interrupted his parking
manoeuvres and told him so. He leaned out his window and laughed,
explained that he'd actually once owned a Citroen DS (the parts proved
too expensive), and this particular vehicle was a General Motors EV-1,
the most advanced electric car currently made.
It did not look anything like the dorky boxes one expects. Then again,
Wigor, sandy-haired, stocky and in his early 40s, was nothing like the
dorky owner one expects. Before long, I was at his house in the
Hollywood Hills, talking about the rechargeable lifestyle and taking
his car for a spin.
"I'm a movie producer," he said, "and I consider myself an eclectic
guy -- I accumulate interesting things." He and his partner, a fashion
designer, have filled their stylish house with antique advertising
lithographs, and there is a little martini bar in one corner. For
Wigor, the electric car was a purely aesthetic choice.
Plus, it makes him the centre of attention when he drives it, quite an
accomplishment in a town where the most exotic cars are commonplace.
"It's the closest thing I'll ever get to being a celebrity," he says.
As we took a brief drive, four people stopped him to ask about it, and
the valet at his bakery pretty much begged to park it.
Wigor interested me because he is an entirely new breed of
electric-car owner. He is a movie producer, a hipster and a man
largely uninterested in the great dramas that have made the electric
car possible. In him, I saw hope for this most unusual vehicle.
Up to this point, almost all the people willing to spend the money and
suffer the inconvenience of an electric car had fallen into two
groups: the engineers, technical folks who enjoy the circuitry behind
these novel vehicles, and the environmentalists, committed Greens who
want to do minimum harm to the atmosphere in their daily commute. A
great many owners fall into both camps.
"We tend to be interested in the ideas behind it, and not just how it
looks," said Marc Zorn, a software engineer who lives in Orange
County, the vast suburb south of Los Angeles, and uses an EV-1 for his
Zorn seemed the quintessential electric-car owner when I met him at
the rental depot, where he was picking up a replacement while his own
EV-1 was being recalled for a small repair. Actually, he was picking
up a replacement for the replacement, as he complained that the
original rental smelled faintly of cigarette smoke. "I think a lot
about energy conservation, and I'm also really interested in the
science behind it," said Zorn, a soft, bearded man who wears T-shirts
People like Zorn are familiar figures in Silicon Valley and the
high-tech suburbs of L.A., and they constitute most of the
electric-car constituency. They may be saints, but their tastes are
hardly going to inspire the rest of us to spend the money. Right now,
electric cars can cost more than $100,000 (Can.) to make, although the
price would drop sharply if they went into full production.
For now, General Motors leases its EV-1 at a loss for around $600 a
month, plus tax, and throws in a home-charging unit valued at $3,000.
(The charger is about the size of a small, two-drawer filing cabinet;
Wigor keeps his bolted inconspicuously to the wall of his small
carport.) And most owners still have to own a gas vehicle for trips
longer than an hour or two. Wigor and his partner call their new Audi
"the combustion car."
So strong is the techno-granola stereotype that the designers at
General Motors, when putting together the interior for the high-end
EV-1, were told by the company's marketing department that they
couldn't include leather seats, since they would offend the
sensibilities of the people the car was aimed at. When I rented my
electric Toyota, from a special Budget outlet at the Los Angeles
airport, the attendant completed our transaction by exclaiming,
completely without irony, "Thank you for helping our planet!"
The people who go for this kind of stuff, folks like Zorn, are much
like the guys who owned personal computers in the late seventies and
early eighties, when there was no good reason to have a computer
around your house. (In many instances, they are exactly the same
people.) And although those folks kept the PC business alive in its
fallow years, it took the sex appeal of Apple before the rest of us
wanted one in our den.
In the two years they've been on the road, electric cars have been the
exclusive province of the committed. But Wigor bought his just because
it's cool. "I'm not particularly Green, frankly -- not against it, but
the environment has not been my passion. And until I got this I was
not very technically inclined." He only became interested in the EV-1
when he saw one, and knew he had to have it when he drove it. "You've
got to experience this," he says. "It's really incredible."
I am skeptical. The electric Toyota RAV-4 I've been driving is novel
enough, especially its noiselessness, but it also confirms some of the
worst images. It is a white cube with tiny wheels, awkward to control
(gas RAV-4s are singularly unimpressive machines, and the heavy
batteries don't improve matters), and with the words "Electric
Vehicle" stenciled inelegantly on the sides and back.
When I floor it, there is a strange delay, and acceleration feels
something like a monorail train, slightly less speedy than my
underpowered 1996 Corolla, and just slightly better than a
three-cylinder Dodge Firefly I once rented. It does turn heads, but
not for the right reasons.
In Wigor's carport, though, I slide into the car, low to the ground,
with plenty of leg room. He taps a security code into a keypad in the
central console, and signals me to press the "Start" button. I do, and
the wraparound dashboard lights up with multicoloured displays. (I am
reminded of a recent joke: If the auto industry were run by Bill
Gates, you'd have to hit the "Start" button to make your car stop.
We're almost there.)
A big display reads 138, the miles of driving available before the
battery goes dead; as we coast down the hills into Los Angeles, the
spinning wheels run a charger, and the number gradually increases to
150. Imagine if your car generated gas as you drove!
On a flat stretch of road, I give it, uh, current (we need a new
vocabulary for these things), and unlike the Toyota, the EV-1 takes
off like a shot. It accelerates with the kind of immediacy and force
you'd experience in a good Porsche, but without any need for
gear-shifting. It does not corner terribly well, largely because its
front wheels are closer together than the rear wheels (the
shopping-cart effect), but it is still an impressive ride, comparable
to a good sports car.
At low speeds, you can turn a switch that warbles the horn and flashes
the headlights, since it's so silent that pedestrians and cyclists
wouldn't otherwise know it's there. "When we first saw it, we expected
a glorified golf cart," Wigor says. "Then when we drove it, that
changed everything. It was just short of a high-performance car."
Of course, even if they can be made chic and thrilling, there are
still obstacles to electric cars catching on in the mainstream. Since
they need a four-hour charge for every 90 minutes of driving, you have
to plan your life around them. For basic commuting, this is simple
enough -- you jack it in at home and at the office -- but anything
more complex than a supermarket excursion entails a careful study of
the charging-station atlas. (There are 350 public chargers in Los
Angeles, and a similar number in the San Francisco Bay area. They
become much more sparse in other areas).
And, no, there is nothing much under the hood. Tinkering is pointless,
though the GM technicians currently make house calls. For dedicated
pistonheads, the whole experience could be an unpleasant shock.
The failure of auto models is often attributed to a lack of apparent
virility. Popular myth holds that the Ford Edsel failed because its
front grille so resembled a vulva (though there were more substantial
factors at play, including its ridiculous price). The minivan inspired
such a violent backlash among domesticated men that millions
compensated by purchasing outlandishly overpowered sports-utility
vehicles. And we shall speak no more of the Gremlin and the Pacer,
which have become cinematic emblems of perverted masculinity.
Then again, the EV-1 is more ballsy and elegant than anybody's Taurus,
Jetta, Infiniti or Lexus. The Mexican Americans who drive their
low-rider cars down L.A. streets at freakishly low speeds are well
aware of the axiom: Getting noticed is far more important than going
fast. That could be the siren song of the electric car.
Driving back in my strange little electric Toyota, I recalled a
Firebird I'd seen once on Yonge Street in Toronto. Souped up with neon
lights in its undercarriage, its owner had emblazoned the words "My
Bitch" on its back window in orange. Will there ever come a day when
an electric car will be proudly identified as someone's bitch? Perhaps
not, I thought. But perhaps that's just as well.