Why EV Owners Love Their Electric Cars

The hybrid's rising star is heartening to owners and fans of pure electric cars for reasons ranging from environmental concern to national security. But for some, it's also a bit galling.

Published: 23-May-2005

StartFragment -->Marc Geller turns the key to his compact sport utility vehicle and nothing happens.

Well, that's the way it sounds.

A motor powered by watts, not gas, packs little in the way of rumble.

His Toyota RAV4 EV (for "electric vehicle") gets him around the streets of San Francisco, where he lives. The vehicle is ideal for short-hop trips common to urban life. And those trips don't include a stop at a gas pump. He plugs in the SUV each night, and it's good to go the next day.

"All I can say is that the car has never failed me," says Geller, a 50-year-old photographer who has owned it since August; before that, he owned an electric Ford TH!NK for three years. "It's an amazing thing to do what you need to do every day and not buy gasoline and not pollute.

"It's the whole enchilada, really."

The big auto manufacturers, however, don't see eye-to-eye with Geller and other electric-car owners. Toyota, General Motors and other carmakers have shut down production of highway-capable electrics, and in most cases have not allowed people who leased electric cars to buy them outright when the leases expired.

Meanwhile, cars that combine electric and internal-combustion power — hybrids — have become the Next Hip Thing. Toyota, which offers the Jelly Belly-shaped Prius hybrid, says it has sold 80,000 of them in the United States. Last week, Toyota said it will build hybrid versions of its popular Camry at a Kentucky plant.

The hybrid's rising star is heartening to owners and fans of pure electric cars for reasons ranging from environmental concern to national security. But for some, it's also a bit galling.

"In truth, a Prius is closer to a Hummer than it is to my RAV4," Geller says, "because it still has an internal-combustion engine." David Raboy and Heather Bernikoff use a Ford Ranger to get around their 116-acre spread in Mariposa County. And their truck is much closer to Geller's RAV4 than to a Hummer.

A series of batteries encased beneath the Ranger's bed make the truck go. Its owners say they get 60 to 80 miles from a full charge. The truck can top 75 mph, and the battery case gives it a low center of gravity "so it handles more like a Porsche than a workhorse," Raboy says.

The couple had to work overtime to earn ownership of the Ranger, which they leased in 2001 (the truck formerly was in a business fleet) from a Sacramento dealership. In Novem- ber, as the three-year lease expired, Ford notified them they would have to turn in the Ranger. The company did not offer an option to buy the truck.

Ford said it did not want to be on the hook for liability or servicing problems. The couple responded with letters and phone calls. "We were willing to sign any waivers," Raboy says.

When it became clear conventional communication wouldn't work, Raboy and Bernikoff took a bold and attention-grabbing step. In January, they parked the Ranger in front of a Sacramento dealership and hung a banner in front of it that read: "Save Dave's Ranger. Zero Emissions NOW!"

The couple, along with some friends, shared the duty of baby-sitting the Ranger around the clock. They got the expected coverage from local TV and newspapers, but it still took eight days before the dealership's manager came to them and gave Raboy a slip of paper with a phone number to the manager's boss.

"So I called the district manager and he said, 'Yeah, we're going to sell it to you.'"

The banner today is draped over a table in the couple's airy, open home. Raboy, a 34-year-old computer-software consultant, and Bernikoff, a 35-year-old grant consultant, manage 37 head of cattle on an undulating spread a few miles north of Catheys Valley.

The Ranger is parked on the grass a few yards from solar panels that augment the home's electric power. The words "ZERO EMISSIONS" stand out in white letters against the black paint job. A "Howard Dean for America" sticker clings to the rear bumper, not far from the "PLUGNGO" license plate.

Raboy and Bernikoff moved to Mariposa County from Pleasant Hill about two years ago. The surroundings remind Bernikoff of her childhood upbringing in rural Tuolumne Country, not far from Yosemite National Park.

The couple say their embrace of electric and solar power certainly has strong environmental motivations. The source of electric power is especially clean on the West Coast, where much of it is generated by hydroelectric plants.

But their motivations also have a strong global — and political — edge. The horror of 9/11 and the resulting battle against terrorism have sharpened their resolve against foreign oil, the prime source of gasoline.

"We just feel so liberated to be disconnected from the oil exploration, oil protection, oil delivery cycle," Bernikoff says. (The couple does own a conventional car for longer trips.)

"It's all about national security," Raboy adds. "It's so stupid that we're beholden to countries that house terrorists."

Like other electric-car enthusiasts, the couple cast a jaded eye at the hybrids. "They're OK," Bernikoff says, "but they're not going to cure our long-term energy problems or our dependency on oil."

Mass-produced electric cars capable of highway driving started rolling off the assembly line in the late 1990s. Leading the way was General Motors' EV1, which debuted in 1996.

The EV1, along with other electric cars, was not marketed or sold in the central San Joaquin Valley. The automakers stuck to markets such as Southern California, Arizona and the San Francisco Bay Area, where they thought they would find people with deeper pockets and stronger environmental concern.

At first, the aerodynamic two-seaters had a range of about 60 miles per charge. Improvements in electronics and battery technology led to a "Gen II" EV1 in 1999 that boasted between 100 and 140 miles per charge. (The EV1 also was pricey, with a tag of about $35,000.)

Chelsea Sexton, who was part of GM's EV1 marketing team, says that with today's lithium-ion battery technology, an EV1 would have a range of 300 miles — more than enough, she says, to allay concerns about being left high and dry with no place to charge up.

The batteries were the most common source of problems with the car, especially with the first-generation EV1, Sexton says. The problems decreased, but not completely, with the Gen IIs.

No one, however, will ever see what an EV1 could do with today's technology. In 2002, GM denied lessees' requests to purchase their cars. The carmaker rounded up the vehicles and transported them to Arizona, where they were crushed for scrap.

GM has said it had to reclaim the cars because there wasn't a large enough supply of the car's 2,000 parts. That could make the vehicles unsafe and lead to lawsuits, the company said, also citing legal obligations to service the cars.

Sexton was among protesters who earlier this year held a 28-day vigil at a GM employee training center in Burbank, where 78 condemned EV1s were stored. They were unable to stop transport trucks that arrived over several days and hauled the cars away.

Sexton, now 29 and a consultant for smaller automotive companies, says her work on GM's EV1 team was a labor of love. "We were passionate about the technology and what it meant. … The more we were told we couldn't do something, the more we were determined to do it."

The EV1, along with other electrics of its era such as the Ford TH!NK, fell in line with the California Air Resources Board's 1990 edict that, by 2003, 10% of all cars sold in the state could not produce any fuel emissions. (Ford pulled the plug on the TH!NK in 2002.) GM and DaimlerChrysler, along with several automakers, fought the mandate with a federal lawsuit. In June 2002, they won an injunction against its enforcement in U.S. District Court in Fresno.

By then, the push for electric cars was low on juice. Automakers were abandoning their production and beginning to turn to hybrids, which they said would conserve fuel while solving the limited-range issue that dogged the electrics.

Fans of electric cars, however, say the range thing is a dodge. The vehicles do a great job with around-town trips, which is what consumes most of our driving time, they say.

"The electric car is fantastic, but it won't take you cross-country," says Folsom resident Tom Dowling, who leased two EV1s and now owns a pair of electric-powered Toyota RAV4s. "It's not truly practical for the average person."

Dowling, 68, was drawn to electric cars from a technological angle; his father worked for San Francisco's Muni transit system, which used electric-powered buses. Dowling drives the SUVs around town but keeps a conventionally powered car in the garage for longer trips ("I only take it out every two or three weeks").

The RAV4s tend to advertise themselves. They come from the factory with big "EV" decals on the door panels. And then there's that lack of engine noise.

Dowling said people will ask whether he puts gas in the SUV (no), how far he can go on a full charge (between 80 and 100 miles) and how much the vehicle costs (about $42,000 retail, though California kicks in a $9,000 rebate).

"People will tell me, 'Thank you,'" Dowling says. "What they're saying is, 'Thank you for cleaning up the environment. I probably wouldn't do it myself.'"

Back in 1998, Dowling and some other EV1 drivers drove to Truckee and linked up with Greg Hanssen, who had piloted his EV1 from Los Angeles to the central San Joaquin Valley, up through Yosemite and over Tioga Pass, and farther north to Interstate 80. Together, they formed an EV1 convoy back to Sacramento.

The trek, designed to attract media attention (Hanssen and the car got a write-up in The Bee), also required some planning to bridge the car's limited range. Diesel-powered generators, for instance, were set up in Yosemite to give the EV1 a charge.

"I saw it as more of a cool toy than as an environmental statement," Hanssen says. "I became more environmentally minded later."

Today, Hanssen is a partner in a company called EDrive, which is developing an add-on for hybrids that will allow owners to plug the car into any 110-volt outlet. The package beefs up the car's electric power; the company says a "plug-in hybrid" would average 100 to 150 miles per gallon for the first 60 miles after a charge.

Toyota has said it has no plans to produce a plug-in version of the Prius, noting that it would add up to $5,000 to the car's sticker price. So Hanssen and his colleagues have stepped in (another start-up company, CalCars, is developing similar technology).

"All we're saying is, 'Look at what you could have done with a bigger battery,'" Hanssen says.

People such as Dowling, Raboy and Bernikoff also support plug-in hybrids, saying they are a strong compromise between electric and fuel power. But they remain frustrated by what could have been.

"It's a shame the U.S. automakers are losing their technological edge when they had it all along," Raboy says, "and I'm driving it."

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