By Clare Bell
Ford has given four major reasons why they want to end production of the Think EV. First, they say that there is no demand. Second, they say they need the resources to develop Fuel Cell Vehicle (FCV) technology, which will be more successful. Third, that there are no workable batteries. Fourth, that the existing government incentives are insufficient.
Close scrutiny shows that none of these reasons are real.
1. Ford says it has only sold 1000 Think vehicles so far and that demonstrates that there is little market for EVs. When one examines the situation closely, one discovers that Ford's claim that the Think City EV has no market is misleading.
How do you know what market there is for the cars if they aren't available?
Where has Ford actually SOLD Think EVs? Certainly not in the US. All the cars are LEASED. This starts to narrow the market down, since many people want to own their cars. Jay Leno, for instance, won't take a Think or an EV1 because he can't buy it.
You can't lease to buy, either. Ford won't do it.
Furthermore, Ford has restrictions on who can lease the cars. Not everybody can go down to their local Ford dealer and get a Think City. The dealer has to be part of the program, equipped to support the cars and willing to participate. In the San Francisco Bay Area, Southern California, New York and some other metro areas, it has been possible to get the City, but how many Think EV drivers are there in Kentucky? Minnesota? North Dakota?
And if you say that North Dakotans etc. don't drive EVs, you'd be wrong, because there are people in those outlying states or in the US heartland who have Corbin Sparrow EVs or who have built conversions. I know because I've talked to them.
The fact that Think Cities are available only on lease, and not even closed end-lease, artificially restricts the market. Yes, the European cars are in the US under a waiver because they don't meet all the Department of Transportation requirements for their year. What's missing? A passenger-side air bag and a 5 mph bumper. The cars can be retrofitted to make them DOT-approved. I'm sure similar things have been done with other cars and Ford is no stranger to them. But the missing DOT items sure do make a good excuse.
Even where the cars have been made available there are numerous restrictions. Even in the San Francisco bay area, availability was severely limited. I'm in Hollister, CA, about 40 miles south of San Jose. I can't get a Think City. Even though I worked on the cars in Norway and can basically put one together from parts -- there is no participating dealer close enough. A woman in San Jose is fighting to get a Think lease transferred from San Francisco to San Jose -- cities only 50 miles apart. This is evidence of the limited state of availability even in California's urban core.
S and C Ford in San Francisco states that the Think City is the only Ford product that has a waiting list. Another dealership reportedly has a 150-name waiting list. Dealer salespeople are annoyed; they were ready and willing to sell new US model Thinks because they know how much demand there is. Many other dealerships feel the same way. They have geared up and trained to sell EVs and they want to do it. Some have sunk money into expensive showrooms. Ford has pulled the rug out from under the dealers as well as present and prospective Think drivers.
In Norway, where Ford does sell the cars, Norwegians can't get them. Why? Because they're all going to the US for the leasing program.
Potential American buyers have been told to wait and see if demand justifies further production. Potential Norwegian buyers have been told to hold on because American buyers are taking priority. A circular argument, if there ever was one.
So why hasn't Ford SOLD many Think Cities? To sell something, you have to offer it for sale. The truth is, Ford hasn't.
Instead, they've taken a page from GM's saga of the EV1. It's easy to get out of building EVs. All you do is to raise the bar so high that it impossible for any but a small fraction of the population to make it over. When you find the bar can't be raised high enough to prevent waiting lists, you simply hire public relations firms and repeat over and over "there is no demand." Even reporters from respected newspapers such as the NY Times and LA Times haven't asked basic questions or spoken with actual EV drivers. Industry press releases are accepted as disinterested truth.
You simply claim there is no market and use that "fact" to knock down the California ZEV law. Devilishly brilliant.
All US car companies make a number of low-volume (as compared to mass-market) specialty vehicles. Can you imagine, say, the Viper or the new Hummer, being handled the same way as the Think? No! Would red-blooded American would-be Hummer drivers stand still for that? No, and the companies know it. Think is essentially a low (presently) volume specialty vehicle, just like certain high-powered sport scars, certain commercial trucks, tractors, farm equipment, flexible-fuel cars, etc. are.
What if the new Hummer was put out on lease only, made available only in restricted areas, to a limited number of individuals, held on a tight leash, like the Think? Then, the company could claim (and sound legitimate) that there was no market for such a vehicle. Would outraged would-be Hummer drivers sit still for that? Heck no.
They'd be out there, crowding Detroit parking lots with SUVs, alternating protest sessions with tailgate parties and in general raising a big stink. And the car companies would know that they would take hits on their image as well as their pocketbooks.
So what's different about Think? It's an EV. It doesn't go with the program, as laid down by the American car industry. It doesn't (gasp) need gasoline. It doesn't need Middle East wars. Politically, it's downright dangerous, so we can't really let it loose. Now that those crazy so-and-sos from the California Air Resources Board have been forced to see the error of their ways (thank you, GM and Chrysler), we don't have to.
Think City has a market. People want it. Intensely. This was shown by the pioneering 1996-1999 Pivco Citi program at Alameda, CA, run by Green Motorworks. The hardest part of the job (I worked there) was getting cars back from the people who had leased them. They didn't want to give up their Pivco. It was so easy to park, so nice to refuel by plugging in at home, so fun to drive and so cute that a lot of the cars had pet names. Kids gave Pivco divers smiles and thumbs-up signs. Some long-term lease people (yes, men too) literally cried when they had to turn in the cars.
The two early Think City prototypes that were shown at the 1998 Alameda EV expo stole the show. There were long lines for test drives. Market questionnaires given out during the test drives indicated that the Think had an even stronger attraction than the Pivco.
The waiting lists at various Ford dealerships indicate that this was not just a single-shot car-show phenomenon.
Every Think City that Ford made available, despite various restrictions and limitations on who could obtain one, were snatched up within months, with virtually no advertising. Waiting lists exist for the previously announced 2003 US version of the car.
Ford said its goal was to sell 5000 cars a year. They only produced 1050, all of which were successfully put into service. Ford's Think experience in California and New York only prove it would be easy to sell 5000 cars, probably in California alone.
In short, Ford's claim that the Think City EV has no market is, I repeat, self-serving misinformation.
2. Ford needs to put its effort into fuel cell vehicles (FCV's), not "battery cars".
Anyone who knows anything about fuel cells knows that an FCV IS AN EV. (Those who are familiar with fuel cell technology can skip the following three paragraphs)
Fuel cells produce electricity. FCVs often have a small pack of batteries aboard (to buffer the demand on the fuel cells) and their drive units are electric motors. GM has staved off criticism that they've dumped the EV1 by saying that they are using the platform to develop fuel cell cars. They are doing it because you build an FCV by starting with a good EV.
Ford would have us believe that developing EV's and developing FCV's are mutually exclusive, forcing a choice of how to allot limited resources. Actually, the two complement each other well. Time and effort put into EV development, especially EV experience in the field and with customers, can only be useful for building fuel cell cars. Better drivelines, better batteries, better charge control systems, etc. will only facilitate the FCV.
FCVs are more complex than EVs, since in addition to the electric drivetrain, they have the fuel cell itself and a reformulator, which is a device for generating hydrogen from liquid fuel. Combustion doesn't go away in an FCV. It is just slowed down and made less violent. Thus it is more complete and somewhat cleaner, however, the end products are hydrogen (H2) and carbon dioxide (CO2).
FCVs can be made without reformulators if they use hydrogen directly as fuel. In that case, there is no hydrocarbon combustion and the end result is water and electricity. No greenhouse CO2.
However, Ford and the other car companies are not choosing this path. They say on-board hydrogen storage is too difficult to deal with and they want the convenience that comes from having liquid fuels, which already have existing distribution systems. Substances such as methanol, ethanol and (tah-dah!) our favorite addictive hydrocarbon.... gasoline! Guess which fuel they are choosing to develop. Well, which fuel has the largest distribution system?
So now we see why Ford and other American automakers are so enamored with gasoline FCVs. GFCVs still have to pull up to the pump. They don't challenge the existing order, that which brings riches to few in this world and devastation and war to others.
What are FCVs real advantages? They don't spew out unburned hydrocarbons, carbon particles or nitrous oxide (NOX). They can probably get more mileage per gallon, so a FCV SUV might get 30 or 40 mpg instead of 22.
However they continue to generate carbon dioxide. In that they are not that different than the ULEV (ultra-low emission vehicle) engines that Honda is already selling.
In addition, FCVs are more complex and will take a longer time to develop, a perfect excuse for delaying their introduction. Perfect. They're a great excuse for canning EVs, they generate a lot of high-tech hype that baffles and narcotizes the public. And they don't challenge the existing system that uses blood to buy oil.
Once, when I was editor of the Electric Auto Association newsletter, Current EVents, I wrote a piece about the gasoline fuel cell, calling it "The Fool Cell". What I wrote then, I still believe now. EVs and hydrogen FCVs are the right way to go. Tanking hydrogen safely aboard a vehicle can't be that huge a technical barrier. We already have natural-gas and propane-fueled vehicles. Is making an HFCV more difficult than shrinking a bulky reformulator to fit inside a passenger car?
American industry prides itself on saying, if there's a will, there's a way. But we're seeing the flip side. If there ain't no will, baby, there ain't no way.
EVs and true hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles are not only vehicles for transport, they are vehicles for social change. Therein lies the rub for the car industry. If there is real meaningful change, they and their pocketbooks won't be part of it. And that's what really scares them.
In short, the "develop FCVs instead of EVs" gambit doesn't hold up.
3. There are no batteries for the Think City.
Right. And what do you Think the 400 present Thinks are running on? Norwegian gerbils?
Think has a good working battery, the flooded NiCads that Europe has been using for literally decades. Now US drivers are discovering how trouble-free NiCads can be. When a NiCad pack is used, its capacity stretches, like an exercised muscle. Over the 7 to 10 year life of a good NiCad pack is the most economical battery yet developed for a mass-market EV.
Ford doesn't like it. Why? Two reasons, they say. It costs too much up-front, and the EU is going to ban NiCads because they've been dumped in landfills and cadmium is toxic.
First the cost issue.
Ford doesn't want to pay $US5-7,000 for the French SAFT NiCad water-jacketed Think City packs. They'll make the car too expensive to sell for a profit.
Well, to that there are two answers. One is that SAFT is not the only game in town. Ford has never been one to be held hostage by a supplier. With the possible volumes involved, Ford could beat SAFT down on their price. They've done it to many other component suppliers -- that's they way they do business.
The other is to sell the car and LEASE the batteries. Europe has been doing that for years. Peugeot, Renault, Fiat and other EV makers sell their cars with leased batteries. That actually works very well, since it gets rid of the up front battery cost, so it lowers the purchase price of the EV. Second, it provides an easy conduit to recycling the used packs, since the lessees must eventually return them.
Which brings us to the proposed EU ban on NiCads, and Ford's claim that this is forcing them to use the unworkable lead-acids. Actually, no. The upcoming ban is on portable-electronics NiCads, which are being dumped in landfills because there is no good system to ensure that they are returned for recycling. NiCads for EVs are not affected until 2005, and even then, a good case could be made for exempting them, since they ARE usually recycled.
This exemption could, and probably will, be put in place to cover a transition period from NiCad to nickel-metal hydride or lithium ion and other advanced battery technologies. Peugeot, Renault and other European EV builders will face this and will deal with it.
Another point is that there are some lead-acid batteries, such as those from Panasonic, that do work. Monitoring, protection and charge control circuits are being developed to extend the lifetime of sealed Optima lead-acid cells in vehicles such as Sparrow.
Ford created the battery crisis (deliberately?), by forcing Think Nordic to build the new US prototypes with batteries from one of their in-house suppliers. They weren't very good batteries, they didn't have any monitoring or protection circuitry and Think Nordic didn't know how to deal with them, since they're used to NiCads. So they failed.
The battery issue is a straw man. It was created by Ford and can be solved by Ford ... if they want to solve it. But then they wouldn't have had the excuse to dump the EV and tell CARB that their ZEV law is cruel and unusual punishment. And CARB wouldn't have believed them either.
4. Ford says that government incentives are insufficient.
Ford said that it hoped to sell 5000 per year. Had Ford sold as announced the 2003 Think City in California at the sticker price of the leased cars of $26,000, each buyer would have received $9000 over 3 years from the state of California and a $4000 Federal tax credit. The effective cost of the overpriced Think City would have been $13,000. Those 5000 cars would have sold out within months. And Ford knows it.
In toto, these arguments float about as well as a failed Think PbA battery.
Here's the real truth:
Ford and other American automakers can't afford to let the EV cat out of the ICE bag, because they are afraid it will grow into a saber toothed tiger. The decision to kill the Think EV is not mandated by technology or lack of a market. It was done because of short-sighted corporate interest and Ford shouldn't be allowed to get away with it.
(With thanks to Think activists Marc Geller, Elaine Lissner and Josh Landess)
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