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Peter Buys an Electric Car

When a Local Actor Falls in Love With the EV1, Little Does He Know He's About to Enter GM's Twilight Zone

June 08, 2003|Peter Horton | Peter Horton is a Santa Monica-based actor, director and writer.

I consider myself a reasonable man. As such I tend to expect others to behave with a modicum of reason and common sense. Especially those with power.

It was with this perspective in the spring of 2001 that I watched in shock as 30 years of environmental protection were being methodically dismantled. From the Clean Air Act to the Clean Water Act to global warming initiatives--you name it, it was being killed. As my shock plummeted into a sense of powerlessness, my gaze drifted past the porch rail and landed with a thud on our family car. A big, fat, gas-guzzling SUV. Just sitting there taunting me.

Like a slap I realized I was one of them. The UNreasonable ones. So I made a decision. A radical decision. I decided to go electric. I had seen those sleek, sort of George Jetson EV1s shoot by me with surprising speed on the freeways. I thought, fine, I'll get an EV1. 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.

In 1990, California found itself in danger of losing federal highway funds if it couldn't find a way to meet air quality targets set by the Clean Air Act. As the California Air Resources Board searched the hazy landscape for relief, its eyes landed on a prototype electric car coming out of GM called the Impact, to which Johnny Carson cracked, "What's next, the Ford Whiplash?" So the air resources board proposed a mandate that by 1998, 2% of cars sold in California would be zero-emission vehicles. By 2001 that would increase to 5%. And by 2003 a whopping 10% of all new automobiles sold in California would be emission free.

GM's first response was to dive in. The company committed millions of dollars and teams of designers and engineers, who emerged six years later with a sleek rocket ship of an electric car renamed the EV1. It then set out in search of a sales team, one that was not only good at selling cars, but that had the patience and passion to educate an interested but suspicious public. It ended up with a group of men and women in their 20s who were almost all single, determined and enthusiastic about the electric car. GM titled them, rather dryly, "EV specialists." By the time I met them five years later, they could be more aptly called "the Subversives." They were battered and bitter, but fighting with almost religious fervor against GM, the company that had recruited them, for the survival of the EV1.

The result of my call to Saturn, through which EV1s were being sold, was a dismissive letter basically saying there's no way in hell you can get one of these cars. I was welcome to join their waiting list, along with undisclosed others, for an indefinite period of time, but my chances of getting a car were slim since they also informed me that they weren't planning to make any more.

That didn't seem logical. If the cars were so great that there was a waiting list, wasn't that a good thing? Didn't the waiting list suggest a market, especially if it were a long list? (I would find out later it was a few thousand.) Clearly I needed to learn more, so I decided to pull whatever strings I had.

The first string led to actor/director Hart Bochner, an enthusiastic EV1 owner, who immediately hopped into his car and came whirring up to my house for a test-drive. The first thing you notice with one of these cars is what's missing. There's virtually no sound. Just the slight hum and quiet clicks of the brakes. Second, there's no exhaust. No fumes come wafting by like a wake chasing a motorboat. Then, when you get behind the wheel, there's no lag between pedal and power, and boy, does this car have power. With no gears to complicate acceleration, you get that launched sort of feeling, a childish giddiness the Subversives called "the EV smile."

After a brief but invigorating spin around the neighborhood, we hummed to a stop in front of my house. Hart bounced out of the car like an Amway salesman, pamphlets in hand, already well into his pitch about how hard these cars are to get and how frustrated he was that GM and the oil lobby were trying to kill the EV1.

"But wait a minute," I said. "I guess I can understand why the oil lobby would try and kill it, but why GM?"

"I don't know," he said, "but they are."

When GM first launched the EV1, it was to mixed reviews. The cars were expensive, the infrastructure was minimal, there were constant breakdowns and, worst of all, the advertised range of 70 to 90 miles per charge was in reality about 50.

As one of the Subversives put it, "They had this battery pack that was worthless. And they knew it from the get-go. I mean, why were we releasing this car, with these batteries, when we knew it didn't meet our specifications?"

Needless to say, the reaction from consumers was chilly. By March 1997, the cars were stagnating on showroom floors and GM was making more vehicles than it was leasing. So after the initial batch of 648 Generation I cars, GM shut down the assembly line.

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