By Bill Moore
Editor's Note: This is apparently an evolving story. I've had to rewrite it once already. Expect more changes in the coming days. EV World reader reactions
Yesterday, Ford Motor Company quietly announced it was canceling the Th!nk program and that's when the confusion began. According to the first Reuters news report, it was the Th!nk city, pictured above, that was cancelled. Now the latest AP report is that it is the neighbor, Th!nks NEV that is being cancelled. The fate of the city is still uncertain, according to at least one California dealership, implying that the program is still alive for the moment.
The earlier Reuter's report stated that Ford was looking for a potential buyer for the Norwegian manufacturing facility it had bought back in late 1999, paying $23 million for it. A Reuters's news story stated the company had subsequently invested another $100 million in the program to build the Th!nk city, a battery-powered two-seater.
Ford's Tim Holmes is reported to have said the company was canceling the program because of low consumer demand and little government support, but it's unclear exactly which Th!nk product he was referring to. Reuters reported the company only had produced a little over 1,050 vehicles, far below its target of 5,000 a year. The company had originally expected to introduce the Th!nk city into the US later this year, a date which subsequently slipped in 2003 as the company searched for a different battery technology for the all-electric car.
Signs that the Th!nk program may have been in trouble began as early as December 2000 when Dave Goldstein (see his remarks below) noticed a "For Lease" sign on the building leased by TH!nk in Carlsbad, California. Th!nk's director, John Wallace reassured EV World that the company was only sub-letting a part of the building it wasn't using.
Throughout 2001, the company continued to be up-beat and positive about the Th!nk program, though it quietly (which is how these things are done, it seems) terminated its Th!nk electric bicycle sales effort and shifted its Th!nk neighbor NEV manufacturing from a proposed site in Kansas to one closer to Detroit. The company also ran a nationwide series of television spots highlighting the benefits of the Th!nk city.
Starting in January 2002, the company debuted the redesigned Th!nk, pictured above, at the glitzy Los Angeles Auto Show. As late as early this Summer, Wallace was planning on a fall roll-out of the city, going so far as to invite EV World's editor to the as-yet-unplanned event.
But events both globally and at Ford were converging on the innovative Th!nk program. Once flush with a multi-billion dollar surplus of cash, Ford finances began to take a serious hit from the Firestone tire scandal, which Firestone blamed on the design of the Ford Explorer, while Ford counter-charged the problem was the tire maker's fault. Now Ford finds itself faced with another tire recall, this time with Continental, to the tune of some 500,000 tires, again on Ford SUVs. At the same time, lawsuits are being brought against the company over its Crown Victoria sedan, a model popular with many American police departments. The suits allege the car's gas tank is poorly placed and can result in lethal explosions and fires when hit from the rear.
Overall the company has lost more than $5.45 billion dollars in 2001, forcing the resignation of Jacque Nasser, the closing of five manufacturing plants and the lay-off of tens of thousands of workers.
This was followed mid-Summer 2002 with Ford announcing it might join GM and DaimlerChrysler in their lawsuit against California's ZEV mandate, just one week after Chairman Bill Ford indicated his desire to tone down the angry rhetoric between California lawmakers and the carmakers.
So, when John Wallace replied to EV World's email inquiry about the status of the Th!nk city program several weeks ago, Wallace candidly admitted the little electric car was in trouble. Wallace wrote that the program was "very unprofitable," a sure sign its days at cash-strapped Ford were numbered.
Friday's announcement, clearly intended to coincide with the long Labor Day week-end in the US, that it was "pulling the plug" on the Th!nk city shouldn't have come as a surprise and it didn't to EV World, though it clearly is a huge disappointment to everyone interested in seeing non-polluting vehicles like the reach the marketplace.
For the time being at least, it appears that Ford's hybrid-electric Escape program is still on track and that the company will continue its fuel cell development efforts, though here again, Wallace warned EV World earlier this year, that even fuel cells are not sacrosanct. They face many of the same cost, technology and infrastructure issues that have bedeviled battery electric vehicles like GM's EV1 and now the Th!nk city.
So, where are we in the development of battery electric vehicles?
Ford's possible termination of the Th!nk city program would be a major setback for the technology. It would mean that not a single major carmaker, with the exception of Toyota and its RAV4 EV, has a viable battery electric vehicle program. All of the promising technology of the late 90's has gradually faded into a handful of glorified golf cars called neighborhood electric vehicles, which companies like GM and DaimlerChrysler are now planning to give away to non-profit groups and businesses in order to bank their ZEV credits under California law. This may say as much about the technical prowess of the world's largest corporations as it does their lack of enthusiasm for a technology they regard as commercially untenable.
Even the ground-breaking hybrid-electric Prius was recently given a public relations black eye by an article in the Los Angeles Times which highlighted problems with the car's batteries, mainly its starter battery on some vehicles. There have also been problems with accelerated tire wear on some cars, both in the US and Europe. Honda's Insight has its share of problems with one owner reporting computer problems at around 30,000 miles. My own Insight has been in the shop three times for a faulty oxygen sensor, which has apparently again failed on my way home from the office on Friday.
Obviously this is new technology and problems are going to arise. It is also technology that is - - hopefully - - just a temporary bridge to cleaner, simpler, more sustainable forms of transportation that are affordable to all. This may or may not be in the form of the personal automobile. It may eventually take many different shapes from car-share programs to personal electric transport pods to high-speed rail.
One thing is painfully clear, we are headed towards disaster if we continue on our current path. While we might rightly mourn the demise of the Th!nk city, today 1.5 billion people in the world are without clean water. Nearly twice that number have no access to electricity. Much of the pollution in the southern hemisphere and in Asia comes from wood, charcoal and animal dung cooking fires of destitute people for whom a bicycle is an expensive luxury. Worse yet, the people we are depending upon to help address these problems can't even agree what the problems are, let alone how to solve them, as witnessed by the antics at the Earth Summit in Johannesburg.
Electric vehicles may or may not be a part of the solution. They certainly won't solve the poverty and misery that plagues much of the third world. They won't solve the problems stemming from over-population, resource exploitation, and our overly-consumptive, materialistic society. But they are a start in the right direction. It's a pity the company who made the Model "T" affordable for the common man can't find the means to do the same for a modern Model "E".
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