Electric

I, too, once lived in Arcady.  In 1997 some friends of mine told me that some friends of theirs had just leased a Honda EV Plus, one of the major-nameplate production electric vehicles released under the California ZEV Mandate.  Having recently retired my 120,000-mile VW Cabriolet due to a blown head gasket, I hustled down to the Honda dealer, signed up, and in three weeks a team of electricians showed up to put in a 220v, 3-phase, 50-watt charger in my garage.  The next day I took the bus to the Honda dealer and drove off in a fully electric vehicle.

My EV+ was one of only about 1,500 production EVs produced by GM, Honda, and Toyota.  Available only on lease, it would have been impractical to purchase: the battery pack alone cost $20,000 to produce, it was said, and they were essentially hand-built on the Honda NSX production line.  The $600/month lease covered all service and maintenance (you were in fact forbidden to have anybody but Honda service the vehicle) but had no residual: it was essentially an expensive rent-a-car.  The lease term was 3 years, after which, Honda said, “other arrangements might be made.”  

But it was an utter joy to drive.  Silent, roomy, zippy, eye-catching, it was like no other vehicle on the road.  I was both elated and disappointed when I noticed that a family literally around the corner had also leased one; I was only barely the first on my block.  When we EV drivers would meet, we’d wave and smile as if we belonged to an elite club, the forefront of some great movement.

We sailed down the highway in the carpool lane as single drivers, with our special stickers.  We parked in exclusive, Electric Vehicle Only parking places at BART stations, Costco, and the Fifth and Mission garage. and we grinned silly grins as we flew past gas stations that were hiking their prices to well over $2.00 per gallon.

I drove the EV+ for three years.  We moved to a new house; the charger moved with us.  My wife and I had a baby; the infant seat went in the back and I drove him to and from day care in it.  I commuted 20 miles a day.  We put 4.5kW of photovoltaic panels on the roof, and not only was I driving on cheaper, cleaner energy, I was actually generating more energy that I was using on my commute.

After 3 years Honda extended the lease for another year and dropped the price $100 a month.  Then another year, and another.  I drove that car 55,000 miles on one battery pack.  All I ever put into it was wiper fluid and air into the tires.  Nothing ever broke, which was itself remarkable for a vehicle with a production run of 300 cars; but a lot was due to the utter simplicity of the electric drivetrain. Fewer moving parts means a more reliable vehicle.  No gearbox means easier to drive.  Regeneration means the brakes last longer; the kinetic energy goes back into the battery instead into heat.

Finally in 2004 Honda, Ford, Toyota, and GM convinced the California Air Resources Board that the ZEV program had been a failure: the cars were too expensive and impractical and demand was nonexistent.  (They seemed to discount the thousands of names on the waiting list for cars they had stopped building three years earlier.)  When CARB relented, the manufacturers ended the pilot programs, terminated the leases, and repossessed the cars.

Some people fought.  Some staged a mock funeral.  Some refused to return the car. I sadly drove up to San Francisco, turned in my keys, and went back to driving my wife’s Passat (as she’d moved into a minivan on the birth of our second child). Eventually I bought a Honda Civic Hybrid, but it took a long time to get the bad taste out of my mouth as to how much Honda had touted their green cred with the EV+ while lobbying to kill the regulation that made it possible.  (The friends’ friends who leased that first EV+? Their son made a movie about their experience, Who Killed the Electric Car?, that tells the whole story.)

We’re further from an energy-independent personal transportation infrastructure than we were in 1998.  Hybrids are gas sippers, not gas guzzlers, but they’re not atoning for another decade of SUV purchases — and those SUVs are going to be on the road for another decade.  Hydrogen is a pipe dream.  The infrastructure costs are enormous and the conversion losses (hydrogen has to be made somehow, using either hydrocarbon fuel or electricity) make it significantly more expensive than oil or electricity.

Plug-in hybrids, continual improvement in battery technology, and continual improvement in solar technology are our only way to escape the gasoline-powered personal car.  People will go hybrid because of $4.00 gas.  Hybrids will battle for market share on economy and distance, and bigger battery packs and pluggability will win in the market.  Rooftop solar becomes more feasible for more homes every day.  And the curves are converging: most homes in America are capable of generating the energy needed for family transportation every day.

It will take two or three decades and about $10,000 per household, but eventually most suburban homes will have rooftop solar filling the batteries of electric cars.  Our national gasoline use will decline, perhaps to half the current amount.  It’s our major, perhaps only, chance to reverse the upward trend in carbon dioxide generation.  

When the pluggable hybrid is available, I’ll be first in line.  Again.

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One response to “Electric

  1. Thanks for sharing your EV experience, pain and hope. My wife and I are signed up for a Tesla Roadster and the waiting is difficult. I can only imagine what it was like to have an awesome EV and be forced to give it up because of corporate myopia and political cowardice.

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