Chelsea Sexton
Chelsea Sexton at February 26, 2005 rally at GM's Burbank California training center. She and other former GM EV1 specialists contend that they have evidence of strong consumer demand for the two-passenger battery-powered car.

Car-sitters vs. Car-crushers

Former GM EV1 specialist gives her perspective on the current stand-off between the corporation and electric car enthusiasts

By Chelsea Sexton

UPDATE: Saturday, March 5, 2005. GM successfully removed 5-6 EV1s from the Burbank storage area on Friday, but not without a brief confrontation with one vigiler blocking the truck, until Burbank police arrived. The truck was later involved in a freeway accident when the driver apparently hit a concrete medium, disabling the truck for 5-6 hours, at last report.

It's 3:30am, and I am sitting in front of the General Motors training facility in Burbank, a place most people don’t even know is here. From the front, it is innocuous enough- a wide brick building in a residential neighborhood, bearing the name and logo of the largest company in the world. Normally the gates to this facility are wide open during the week, but today the guards are just arriving for their 12-hour shift, guards that are only here because I am. It is day 14 of the 24/7 EV1 Vigil, otherwise known as the California GM Car-sit.

In 1996, General Motors debuted the EV1, the first mass-produced modern electric car, and their bid to meet the California Zero Emission Vehicle mandate. It was sleek and fast, completely dispelling the "EVs are golf carts" myth- a sporty little 2-seater that could take a Viper off the line and has a range up to 140 miles per charge… and it didn’t pollute. In short, the EV1 was good, clean, fun.

To bring the EV1 to market, General Motors hired 13 passionate young people as EV Specialists- "the Originals". I was one of these Specialists; at age 20, I was the youngest, and it was my dream job. The technology was amazing, the people fascinating and the potential intoxicating. We were responsible for leasing the vehicles to customers, working the Saturn retailers through which the EV1 was leased, designing and executing events, creating marketing materials – and for me, the line between job and life blurred further. I met and married an EV1 technician, and had my son Chris, who as a baby slept in EV1’s while they were up in the air with his dad working on them from underneath, and attended so many EV1 events that he became the unofficial mascot. What started as my own passion became a family project, and what once was just a car, had clearly become my life.

Eventually, when we ran out of cars to lease, the EV Specialists started a waiting list, not having any idea how controversial that move would become. "If there’s enough demand, General Motors would tell us, we will build you more cars." Problem was, they would never quantify just how many orders constituted "demand"- and so our list just kept growing with the names of people willing to wait an unknown period of time for the possibility of getting a car. Many of the people who were able to lease EV1s had to wait up to a year to do so.

Eventually, GM wouldn’t just settle for not building more cars, they wanted back the ones that had been leased, no matter how much their loyal drivers begged to keep them. Not only did they take them back, they laid off the EV Specialists and shipped the most environmental car ever to hit the road off to Mesa, Arizona and crushed them, after only a fraction of their useful life. And kept crushing them, until there were only 78 left in Burbank. And so began the California GM Car-sit.

A coalition of former EV1 drivers, current EV drivers and supporters, and environmental organizations makes up the coalition currently sitting vigil in front of General Motors in Burbank. And there’s me, one of the most enthusiastic employees GM ever had, but someone who also can’t sit by and watch them kill the car I’ve dedicated a third of my life to- and lie about why they’re doing it. Because as much as General Motors would like the government and the public to believe that there was no demand for the EV1, just the opposite was true.

General Motors claims that they could "only" lease 800 cars in 4 years, and that they shut down the program because it was an economic failure. The truth is GM only made 800 vehicles available. They ignored the Specialists’ and the public’s pleas for more, and sued the State of California to get rid of the California mandate. But they’ll tell you in their sincerest Midwestern accent that they tried as hard as they could to make a business out of it.

A few days ago, we vigilers decided to test the "no demand" theory. We asked whether anyone would be willing to purchase one of the incarcerated Burbank EV1s for $24,671.60, which is the residual price stated in the original EV1 lease. As these are six year-old cars, these cars would have no warranty, and we are willing to release GM from all liability relating to parts or service. We received over 80 orders in 48 hours. On Saturday, February 26- day 11 of the vigil, we held a rally to announce our offer of approximately $1.9 million to purchase the EV1s that have "no demand." Adding that to the $18,000 in lease payments and up to $13,000 in public tax money they have already received on each car, General Motors will have been paid or offered up to $56,000 each, on cars that cost only $44,000 in the first place , negating their argument that they couldn’t make a profit on electric vehicles. As we await an answer, we continue our round-the-clock watch over the EV1s.

It gets lonely out here, especially in the middle of the night. Vigiling is not a sexy activity, and sometimes not a very exciting one- at other times, it’s too exciting. We’ve been hit by one of he biggest storms of the season, which destroyed our shelter and left several of us battling illness. Quite often, one of us is out here alone- we have books and computers, and we are heartened by an occasional 3am email offering encouragement or to send us pizza from across the country- but we miss our families and the usual rhythm of life. Even when you are not on shift, you are on call in your head- waiting for the phone call that says that a transport truck is there to take the cars, despite our best efforts.

We have our fun moments and creature comforts too- rallies every Saturday, a solar array to plug in our coffee maker (we’re entertaining the idea of a neighborhood X-box tournament, and I’ve weighed in my vote for a blender and some Jimmy Buffett music), and we get great visitors at odd hours with treats to keep our spirits up.

But, even in the smallest moments when the streets are dark and quiet and the guards have gone, and there seems like there is no threat to protect against, you can’t help but feel a part of something. Something big, something so compelling that you don’t even really have to ask yourself whether or not to do it. There is a sense of dedication and solidarity among us- we aren’t going anywhere.

I used to tell people who asked why I did what I did, "I figure that if I do my job well enough, my son will never remember a time before there were electric cars on the road." Well, Chris is six now, and he doesn’t. The problem is, he also can’t understand why we can’t have an EV1 now, and he’s not unlike most of the adults I know.

Someone recently called what General Motors has done with the EV1 program "a betrayal of the American Dream." It’s an appropriate description; the EV1 is a symbol of what’s possible, and General Motors is crushing that symbol. To allow that to happen is the wrong message to send to the public, to the government, and to our children.

And so, with a view of my 78 little EV1s as inspiration, I continue to sit and watch the sun come up.

In addition to EV drivers and supporters, the California GM Car-sit is supported by Rainforest Action Network, Earth Resource Foundation, Global Exchange, the American Lung Association, the Coalition for Clean Air, Environment Now, Energy Independence Now and Global Green. For more information, contact Chelsea Sexton at (310) 948-2451 or ev1vigil@hotmail.com.

Times Article Viewed: 15932
Published: 05-Mar-2005


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