Meeting You Half Way
By Remy Chevalier
Editor-at-Large, Electrifying Times
February 8th 2000
Updated May 9th 2001
That’s what the Toyota Man said to the Exxon Man at a hybrid conference three years ago: “I hope with the Prius we’re meeting you half way.” You see the Prius is half electric car – half gasoline engine. Toyota sold 100,000 of these hybrids in Japan. It arrived on US shores last summer. Honda, who wanted to beat Toyota to the punch in America, started selling their hybrid called the Insight a few months prior. The scheduled 5000-production run was virtually pre-sold, so the car never sat in dealerships long enough for future customers to test-drive them.
The line was drawn in the sand back in 1984 when Honda tried to introduce its 68 mpg 1.3 CRX. The Big Three and the 7 Sisters sent Honda packing and it was the beginning of a wonderful new friendship. The Japanese understood fuel efficiency could not take precedence over gasoline sales if they were going to conquer the US car market. The new Insight barely gets much more that what the 1984 CRX did, a mere 70mpg. Yet the media is quick to swallow green washing to satisfy the public’s growing concern with ecological decay. In 1999, pure electric vehicles were cast aside in favor of these hybrid vehicles that still needs their fix of black gold.
Let’s not forget the US, through the Army’s Marshall Plan, bought and paid for Japan’s auto industry*. Japanese cars are Japanese in name only. The Japanese have no oil. They live on islands smaller than California with a population half the size of the United States. We went to war in the Gulf to protect their oil supply, not ours, since 90% of all oil shipped from Kuwait goes to Japan. So Japan is eager to find alternatives to the oil economy, but not so eager as to anger big oil interest, which is partly to blame for their current economical woes. Japanese finances are controlled by Britain and have been ever since the end of the Second World War. Once Japan got too far ahead of itself as electronics masters of the Universe, the de-facto world government pulled the finance rug from under their feet.
What does this have to do with electric cars? Well, for one thing, were the Japanese free to design, develop and sell any car they wanted, we would have millions of electric cars on the roads in America today. They grew up watching Astro Boy. But they are constrained by the oil/car-tels. Little did Reagan know when he deregulated the electric utilities that he would open a can of worms which made it possible for the Japanese to re-introduce “reduced” gasoline consumption cars into this country. I think it never occurred to Reagan’s Republican administration that cleaner and often cheaper alternatives to oil, coal and nuclear would loom over the horizon despite the fact he shut down all solar energy programs. The utilities started finding it very attractive economically not to have to buy gasoline for their fleets of pick-up trucks and started putting pressure on Detroit to provide them with electric versions of the Chevrolet S-10 and the Ford Ranger, which have now sold thousands of electric vehicles since deregulation, not only to the utilities, but to military bases, national parks and corporate parks as well.
Why the fascination for a type of car that doesn’t go as fast as plain old gasoline alone? Well for one thing, once you’ve driven one you know why. They are even easier and smoother to drive than an automatic transmission. When you are at full stop, there is no idle. The car just stops dead. Not only do you feel good about not spewing dirty exhaust into the air, there is no vibration, just silence. Since most white-collar workers use his or her car to commute, spending around 2 hours a day in bumper-to-bumper traffic talking on their cell phones, hybrids are a Godsend for the 21st Century lifestyle.
What makes EVs so attractive, even if their range is limited to just 50 miles, more or less, on a single charge? The Innovator’s Dilemma, a Harvard Business book reviewed by Infinite Energy magazine last year dedicates a whole chapter on marketing strategies for EVs. A great selling point is in fact its limited range, because it would prevent teenagers from straying too far away from home! In other words, few employees would go off and use company pick-ups for family outings on the weekends. To the utilities the fuel is free, and maintenance on batteries and electric motors is virtually non-existent. So it’s a win-win proposition.
Turns out this type of thinking out of the gasoline box is also a big selling point for other people, people who like to play golf all day and live just a few blocks from the club green behind gated communities. Bombardier, the Canadian defense contractor who otherwise builds bullet trains, markets what are called neighborhood electric vehicles, or NEVs for short. They are not alone. Dozens of other companies, including Ford’s new Th!nk division now also makes them. Nissan is planning to market one called the Hypermini complete with its own garage solar rooftop electrical charging system.
Little Red Riding Honda
At the turn of the century when electric cars were still the rage, women loved them because they did not taint their clothes with that awful odor. Now our entire cities smell of fuel, worse in metropolitan areas like Paris or Rome where diesel is common, with smog destroying all historical monuments. Don’t let anyone tell you it takes all day to charge an electric car anymore. This hasn’t been true for years. Hundreds of charging stations now exists in the Los Angeles area, all equipped with rapid charging technology. Someone discovered awhile back that if you used a computer to vary the rate of charge from slow to progressively fast to slow again, you could charge cars in about 10 minutes, without straining the battery, and without gasoline spills contaminating ground water supplies with toxic additives like MTBE. Plans are in the works to line all of Route 66 with EV charging stations so tourists can rent-an-EV in LA and cruise the famous vista-laden scenic highway all the way to Chicago and back.
Problem is only two companies control the bulk of battery technology in the world, Duracell and Eveready, the Coke & Pepsi of the throwaway battery society. The December 99 issue of Consumer Reports made that pretty evident. Any attempts on the part of smaller competitors like Rayovac for example to establish a genuine market for rechargeables has been thwarted by the two top dogs, Earth Day ethics or not! Just like GE’s light bulb rumored designed to blow out in time to buy another one, battery companies are not eager to introduce technology that will allow longer lasting charges. One need only look at the cold fusion saga. So R&D is limited to special space and military applications that seldom see the light of day in the real world.
What made all the difference a few years ago for EVs was that the Japanese got hold of what is called Nickel Metal Hydride batteries from maverick solar inventor Stanford Ovshinsky and even though Varta, the German battery company, a favorite of photographers, had contracted to develop the technology commercially, Panasonic did what Japanese companies do, went ahead and mass produced them anyway. Ovonics, Ovshinsky’s company in partnership with General Motors, spent five years dragging Panasonic through the courts instead of developing its own better mousetrap. By then it was too late. Both Toyota and Honda had introduced Nickel Metal Hydride power packs in all its electric cars, doubling their range, while GM’s EV1 was still struggling to get 50 miles on one lead-acid charge.
GM finally pulled the plug on the EV1 last year after spending a reported $700 million on the project. A convenient fire hazard had GM recall all EV1s which is probably what GM had wanted to do all along, since day one, but they were forced to develop the car by California zero-emission standards. When these mandates were relaxed, GM’s schizophrenia was suddenly cured. It was a lot of money spent for a car targeted at a niche Hollywood eco-celebrity market in which you could not even stick your elbow out the window because the door was too high, and you could not order a convertible model to enjoy the silent breeze in the California sunshine. GM would only lease them and refused to lease the car outside the state. The restrictions were so great, people wanting to buy one gave up trying. 600 were leased out of the 1000 built, and they will probably be scraped for parts when their batteries need servicing. Since there was no option to buy, they can’t become collector’s items.
Maria Mendez & The Prius
While Detroit keeps having a love affair with committee cars that never make it past the concept stage under the bright lights of auto shows, the Japanese have pushed ahead and delivered commercially available models that have captured the imagination of a whole new segment of the population, coined Generation Y, who just sees the automobile as a functional tool, a must-have of daily life.
Sure, there are dozens of independent car companies trying to launch their own electric or hybrid models, like Solectria in New England or Amory Lovins with Hypercar. But, the lessons learned from Tucker and DeLorian have demonstrated chances an independent automaker bringing its own vehicle to market in substantial numbers is a pipe dream. Keep in mind the Yugo factory was the first thing bombed in Belgrade! The automobile business is a closed game. New players are not being invited to the poker table. What we are seeing is an ever pressing need for established automobile companies to meet the needs of their customers, and those needs now are expressed by a strong environmental consciousness which is demanding not so much better mileage, but less emissions. Transition away from oil as a fuel is not yet an option.
60% of all television and print advertising is cars and trucks, and what comes in between, the yuppie assault vehicle. 4x4 SUVs are all the rage. Every suburban mother wants one to protect her kids. So let’s give them an emission free SUV! That’s what the army has done by developing a hybrid Humvee that has twice the speed and power of the regular diesel version, but to boot, can ride in total silence with no heat signature. Introduced to the press with great fanfare at Disney World in 1998, it has since been hushed up. GM bought the company twarting any plans for the Terminator adding one to his collection. This is why, as editor of Electrifying Times, the only electric vehicle publication yet on newsstands, I was fighting a losing battle to make people aware. If Detroit was really serious about EVs, or hybrids for that matter, Electrifying Times, or any other EV publication, would be supported by the auto industry to reach out into the general public the way other car magazines dedicated to niche markets do.
Electric cars are only limited by the willingness of automakers to commercialize them. About 4000 enthusiasts, members of the US Electric Auto Association, have retrofitted and registered electric cars as a hobby and use them daily. A study from International Competitive Assessments estimates there are a million pure EVs in the United States, counting golf carts, industrial and utility vehicles, people movers, etc... It’s another Kar Kulture, much like Hot Rods or Low Riders. As sales volume increase and applied technology improves, it will inevitably spread.
In France, where electric cars are advocated by environmentalists and seen as a threat to the national power company, the Electricite De France (EDF) doesn’t mind using EVs for governmental services. They just don’t want private citizen to have them! 90% of electricity in France comes from nuclear power. In Europe EVs have become synonymous with a need for “clean” electricity by the Greens, so EDF is afraid newly formed independent energy companies could start providing green power alternatives to their customers, as is the case now in California, New Hampshire and Vermont.
The annual electric vehicle symposium held October 1999 in Beijing saw few American EV enthusiasts attend because of the prohibitive travel cost. But China has been listening and doesn’t want to repeat the West’s city planning mistakes. Hundreds of thousands of electric bicycles are made and sold in China every year. America is trying to capitalize on that emerging market by building and selling state-of-the-art batteries there. Soon, China will start selling its electric bicycles here, for a fraction of the cost of what Lee Iacocca can make and sell his own electric bicycles for. Iacocca, after retiring from Chrysler, formed EV Global Motors, with eventual plans to make electric cars as well. But will Detroit allow him to turn his back on the Good Ol’Boys? Let’s not forget Honda started out making motorcycles. We’re on the potential verge of a transportation revolution, but the Wall Street Journal and other establishment publications are trying to squelch it with paranoid anti-pure EV editorials.
Look at Monte Carlo. They worship $300.000 sports car there, but the city is lodged in a basin that traps car fumes and suffocates the tourists. So all city service vehicles are electric, and now citizens are buying them for themselves. When Swatch announced its partnership with Mercedes, the plan was to make the Swatchmobile hybrid or electric. But Mercedes put a stop to it, and the Swiss watchmaker resigned in protest. Today it is called the Smart, and it isn’t so smart. It’s been losing money for Mercedes in Europe because they “met the oil companies half-way”. The Smart is a super-trendy two-seater, supped-up golf cart. It’s built as solid as a Formula 1 cockpit. Unfortunately, DaimlerChrysler’s decision to cancel the EV or hybrid original concept tore into its target audience and reduced its sales potential.
The future for pure EVs, 100% electric, could be just as bright as for hybrids, but it might take forever for pure EVs to establish themselves in the court of public opinion. The old clichés are diehard. NEDRA, the National Electric Drag Racing Association, failed to capitalize on the sudden fame its drivers received from the mainstream press in 1999. Both Wired and Top Gear magazines praised NEDRA in lavish articles, heralding it as a bastion of genuine automotive ingenuity. Turns out the instant torque of electric motors could make them a real challenge for nitrous oxide boosted alcohol fuels, and if things heat up, and records keep being broken, electric dragsters may very well overtake the internal combustion engine in standing-start races. It’s just a matter of time before EVs race for pink slips on San Diego’s deserted midnight streets, and win! This would be a nail in the coffin for smoke and pistons. You’d see bikini girls modeling brightly colored EVs at trade shows instead of having EVs hidden in some forgotten corner somewhere with the rest of the dull non-profit organizations! But that’s the fantasy.
The reality is that the media is there to cover the unveiling of fancy eco-cars aimed at the environmental market, but when the camera lights go out, the auto companies roll these vehicles back into moth balls and come up with a pre-arranged set of excuses as to how they failed to develop and market them a year later. It’s a vicious circle jerk. Short of a Bill Gates deciding to bank his entire fortune on changing the face of the auto industry, I don’t see much change in sight. It would take a massive consumer rebellion.
On a positive note, that revolution might finally come, but only if Toyota and Honda are successful in selling hybrids in America. These two companies might really be singing a new tune, and not be blowing smoke in our eyes again for a change. Both the Toyota Prius and the Honda Insight sticker price come at a very affordable $20.000. If enough eco-conscious drivers demand one, these carmakers may have no other choice but to build more of them, making way for Detroit to follow.
*1995 book “Car Wars” by Jonathan Mantle (How American interests has always owned and controlled all the car companies in the world.)
*1975 book "Forbidden Fuel", by Hal Bernton, William Kovarik & Scott Sklar
(The whole story about how the oil companies funded the 1930’s prohibition just to destroy the ethanol fuel industry.) Go to: http://www.runet.edu/~wkovarik/papers/fuel.html for a 1999 update by William Kovarik.
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Edited versions of this article were published in The Global Situation Report, an email news service provided by Michael Lindemann, and by In Business magazine.