New York Times Interview
Romance Made Electric
September 29, 2005
By DANNY HAKIM
DETROIT, Sept. 28 – Alexandra Paul, a former star of “Baywatch,” is not a satisfied General Motors customer – to put it mildly.
In 2002, G.M. sent a tow truck to her house to reclaim a car she had leased from the company. When it was done, she went inside and cried.
“I’ve never had any emotional feelings toward a car in my life,” Ms. Paul, 42, said in an interview recently. But this particular car was the EV1, a low-slung, battery-power car that zipped out from a standing start without releasing emissions from the tailpipe.
G.M. and other automakers had decided to discontinue their electric vehicle programs that had been started in response to a California clean-air law, contending that they were economically unsustainable. The companies reclaimed most of the vehicles they had leased.
Ms. Paul, who is now making movies for Lifetime, would plug in her EV1 at home through an adapter, and in the seven years she leased the car never stopped at a gas station. She keeps pictures of it in an album.
“To me, it heralded a new wave of people’s thinking about cars, maybe a new era of clean cars,” she said.
These days, everyone paying $40 or $50 at the gas pump would like a silver-bullet alternative to gasoline. There are none. But devoted pioneers around the country are trying something else – driving cars that do not use gasoline, or even combustion engines.
And this year, while much of the interest in electric motors among major automakers is focused on building gas-and-electric hybrid vehicles, the battery-powered electric car is showing signs of a pulse.
Recently, Mitsubishi said it was developing one for sale in Japan by the end of the decade, and Subaru plans to start testing a prototype version in March. Shinichi Murata, a spokesman for Fuji Heavy Industries, Subaru’s parent company, said electric vehicles would be more realistic “if we can develop a high-efficiency, high-performance battery.”
Fuji Heavy Industries and other companies are working on that, and the technology can also be used in developing hybrid-electric cars and other variations of the electric vehicle. A futuristic industry project, cars powered by hydrogen fuel cells, would also produce electric vehicles, but ones equipped with an onboard power-generating system fueled by hydrogen.
Battery-electric cars continue to have drawbacks that bedeviled Thomas A. Edison a century ago, in the days when steam and electricity vied with combustion for hegemony under the hood. Even now, a typical electric vehicle travels less than half as far as most gasoline cars before it needs recharging – something that often takes hours.
And they are emissions-free only in the sense that pollution may not come from the tailpipe; power plants that produce the electricity to run the cars generate emissions.
Still, for all their drawbacks, electric cars, like G.M.’s EV1, inspired deep devotion among their drivers. Tens of thousands of vehicles that ran on electricity stored in cumbersome battery packs were produced in the 1990’s because of a California regulation forcing automakers to sell zero-emission vehicles in the state.
Some automakers put electric motors under the hoods of conventional vehicles, and enough batteries for 50 miles to 130 miles of driving – Toyota did so with its RAV4 sport utility vehicle and Ford with its Ranger pickup truck.
G.M. built its EV1 from the ground up as an electric car. The vehicles are noticeably different, from the whine of their electric motor to their instantaneous acceleration. “It was like being in a rocket ship compared to the cars I’ve had before,” Ms. Paul remarked.
But these cars have become an endangered species. After California amended its regulations in 2003 in the wake of a legal challenge from G.M. and DaimlerChrysler, automakers began reclaiming and dismantling their electrics as they came off lease. Among other things, they said they would face lawsuits over safety issues if the cars remained on the road without adequate replacement parts.
Electric cars, however, have advantages. Electricity can be domestically produced and is potentially cleaner.
“EV’s generally have less of a deleterious impact on climate and urban air quality than do gasoline vehicles,” said Mark A. Delucchi, a research scientist at the University of California, Davis, who has studied transportation technologies and fuels. “The only general exception to this would be if relatively dirty coal-fired plants are used, relatively near to cities.”
Electric vehicles are also much more efficient in translating energy into motion than gasoline-fueled cars, though higher manufacturing costs to this point have wiped out cost advantages.
And driving them over longer distances also means more expensive batteries. Toyota, which mostly leased the electric RAV4 sport utility vehicle, briefly sold it for $42,000 – more than double the base price of the gasoline-powered vehicle – but they cost the company more than $100,000 to make.
A spokesman for G.M., Dave Barthmuss, said the company stopped producing the EV1 because it had little to show for more than $1 billion in investment.
“We couldn’t afford to lose any more money on a program that appealed to a very small number of people,” Mr. Barthmuss said. “As great as it was, it would go about 100 miles and take about six to eight hours to charge.”
The company has refused offers to sell the vehicles to lessees, like Ms. Paul. Toyota and Ford, though, relented and sold some of their remaining electrics.
People who still drive the vehicles say the auto industry never wanted to give them a real chance, and resented being forced by California to produce them.
“Most of the people who complain about range and recharging time haven’t used EV’s,” said Tom Gage, a former Chrysler engineer who is now president of AC Propulsion, a small company that builds electric cars. “There certainly are times when using an EV would be an inconvenience, but one idea that has to be replaced is the idea that EV’s would replace gasoline cars 100 percent. Nobody is saying they will or they should.”
Bill Reinert, Toyota’s national manager for advanced technologies, said: “Maybe as we make some progress with the batteries, maybe it will result in EV’s as an acceptable product.
“Or maybe the conditions regarding transportation throughout the world as a result of, say, geopolitics, will mean that there’s a strong case to be made for EV’s.”
Several hundred electric vehicles are still up and running, mostly in California. Their drivers say admiringly that they are quiet, fast and futuristic.
Ms. Paul has had electric cars since 1990, when she bought an old Datsun that was converted in someone’s garage. She had consulted with her friend Ed Begley Jr., another actor-environmentalist.
“I first decided to get an electric car in 1989,” the year of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, she recalled. “I was all on my high horse about Exxon, and then I realized hey, you know what, the reason that boat was out there is because I need gasoline for my car. I was part of the problem.”
Her perspective on conservation was inherited, she said, from a mother raised in wartime Britain.
“When I go to the grocery store to buy peanut butter,” Ms. Paul added, “I check to see if there are any glass containers because to me they’re better than plastic.”
She and other former EV1 lessees have formed a small but voluble group that has protested the dismantling of their vehicles.
In March, Ms. Paul was arrested during a protest at a Burbank, Calif., installation where G.M. was stockpiling reclaimed EV1’s. She and another protester locked themselves in a car parked at the building’s exit, blocking trucks that were ready to ferry the cars away. Burbank police officers converged on the scene for more than an hour before jimmying the lock and hauling Ms. Paul and the other protester away to jail. She spent five hours in the lock-up, and received a $1,600 fine and 80 hours of community service.
But she has faced worse: After G.M. took her car away, she could not quickly find an electric car to buy. That meant going back to the gas station.
“It was months, torturous months,” she said, before she found a used electric RAV4. In the meantime, she had to drive her husband’s Toyota Prius hybrid, which to many Americans is the height of eco-wizardry.
Not to her.
“I’m not particularly impressed with going 50 miles per gallon,” she said. “To me in the 21st century, 50 miles per gallon doesn’t impress me when we can go to the moon.”