Bursting the Bubble Again
By Bill Moore
It was my very first electric vehicle conference. Toyota had just debuted its game-changing Prius gasoline-electric hybrid and I had just made the acquaintance of one of Ford's electric car engineers. We were surrounded by exciting battery electric car exhibits that included the exotic GM EV1 and Chevy S10 EV, Chrysler's electric Minivan, Nissan's HyperMini, Toyota's E-Com, Honda's EV+ and Ford's Ranger EV, as well as exciting prototype cars from Solectria, Unique Mobility and Keio University in Japan
Despite this, the Ford engineer confided to me that he hoped what we were seeing was not just another electric car "bubble," the third he'd seen since starting his career decades before. Sadly, his words were prescient; the bubble did burst again.
The last Ford electric cars are quietly being pulled off the road, destined to be "recycled", which is just an euphemism for being smashed into junk. The thirty-month leases on 360-plus Th!nk city electric cars, which were brought into the USA from Norway by Ford under special NHTSA-waivers, are now expiring and owners, who have grown quite fond of their little electric runabouts, are losing them.
EV World interviewed two owners on the day they lost their cars. We also talked with the former-Ford executive who was the company's strongest and most visible EV-advocate. Here are the stories they told us.
Lillo is the founder and CEO of PlanetLink located in Marin County, California, just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. Like many American couples, he and his partner own two cars. The Th!nk city was his first electric car and he used it daily to commute to work and run errands around Marin County, including driving on the freeway. Because his office was just a mile from his home, he seldom used even half of the car's 50 mile range.
For Lillo, losing the Th!nk was like losing a friend. "It's like something really important in your life is now missing," he told EV World.
With gasoline currently costing about US$2.50 a gallon in his area, it's little wonder he will miss the Th!nk city, which he estimated ran about 40 cents a day to operate, while the lease cost $199 a month. Not included in the lease price was the periodic maintenance that needed to be done on the car's NiCad battery pack, which had to be performed by Lillo's local Ford dealership every 3,000 miles, about the same frequency as changing oil in a gasoline car.
Critics of EVs often point out that eventually the battery pack will have to be replaced at a significant cost, but the experiences of Th!nk city owners in Norway, who were actually able to buy the car, suggests that the NiCads are capable of provides more than 100,000 km of service. In addition, the battery Ford intended to use in the new model has demonstrated a life cycle of more than 10 years. Similarly, Toyota's RAV 4 EVs with NiMH batteries are showing service lives of 110,000 miles, with estimates now indicating the packs will be serviceable to at least 130,000 miles.
Lillo commented that over the 30 months he owned the car, the batteries actually appeared to perform better as they "got broken in." He found he had more power at lower states of charge.
He agrees that a car with 50 miles range might not meet everyone's travel needs, but newer battery technology solved this problem in the version Ford was planning to introduce when it abruptly canceled the program.
"I think as a second car for a family, it would be ideal. It's great for running errands. I think a lot of people would be able to use a car like this and get mileage out of it." Of course, now we'll never know how many people would have benefited from owning something like the Th!nk city, which leads Lillo and others to speculate about how sincere Ford was in its desire to actually market the car.
"I have to wonder about the intentionality they actually put into marketing them and selling them. One of the things I realize about marketing and business is that especially when you come out with something new that hasn't been available to the mass population and it isn't something people are used to, is that you have to sell it to them. You have to present it to them and let them know what the benefits are, and that's not anything Ford did with this car."
Lillo added that this was especially true in the Bay Area, where Ford did virtually no marketing of the car, and yet dealers had waiting lists for it.
With his electric car now headed for the crusher, Lillo plans to make due with his family's one car while waiting to see what happens with ZAP's plans to import the DaimlerChrysler's Smart car from Europe. The Sebastipol, California company tells him that they are still waiting on California EPA approval to bring the car into the state, a process that should be completed in a month, but Lillo notes they've been saying that for several months now.
"It's a still a gas car," he said, "but at least it gets 60 miles to the gallon where the hybrids get 40 to 50." Lillo concluded by sharing his sense of frustration at seeing a vehicle with so much useful life left in it being destroyed. "It's such a waste to have something that's so usable and so needed in the world, do we really want to continue to rely on fossil fuels and pollute our environment, or do we want to make a difference and take some positive steps. Here's something that is entirely usable, if not for someone in the United States, they could go back to Norway and be used over there, because they are in the United States on a waiver. But instead, they are being destroyed. It's very sad. Where are people's values? What's important to people and what are people doing to make a difference?
"One of the things I realized when I got an electric car is that we can all be part of the solution or continue to be part of the problem, and it takes a conscious choice."
Carter has to hold the Guiness Book of Records for the longest electric car rental -- not lease -- of anyone in the world. He was so keen to drive a Th!nk city that when he couldn't lease one, he rented one for 18 months from Hertz in San Francisco, until he was able to sub-lease the car through an arrangement with CalStart. It is that car that he was about to return to the dealership in less than a hour when we reached him at his home. As a symbolic gesture, Carter had invited over some friends and fellow EV owners and supporters for drinks and to participate in a mock "funeral procession" as he drove the car to the Ford dealer and gave up the keys.
While we talked, a handful of electric vehicles, including one of the few Ford Rangers still out on lease and a Corbin Sparrow, sat in his drive under the banner of the North Bay Electric Vehicle Owners Association and the red, white and blue flag of Norway.
A native Briton, Carter and his wife of eleven years settled in Santa Rosa, California, about 60 miles north of San Francisco, where he operates npc Imaging.
Carter explained that he had received so many encouraging emails, including several from Th!nk Nordic employees and city owners, that what he thought would be a sad moment "where everyone sat around and cried into our beers" had become a very positive one, instead.
Like Lillo, Carter doesn't understand why the cars can't be returned to Norway where they are full-certified, crash-tested and where there is a long list of people waiting to buy them. He shared with me some of those emails, one from Th!nk Nordic's field manager, Anne Valera Diesen, who wrote, "We tried for a year to make a deal with Ford on this, but they choose to scrap the vehicles, and we regret that very much. However, life goes on - let's hope that Think Nordic can bring new vehicles to the market some day."
Øyvind Lunde wrote, "It is absolutely unbelievable that [Ford] chose to wreck the only solution against oil dependence. BEV is the only currently usable technology [that] can use energy produced by renewable energy sources as wind, sun and hydroelectric power plants. Don't forget that the total energy consumption in the [fuel cell vehicle] chain is approximately 3-4 times higher per mile. Is this not a fact worth mentioning in a world with increasing power consumption and energy prices? Lunde continued, "My TH!NK has now passed 110 000Km and 16 of 19 ni-cd blocks are still original. Three were changed at 108 000Km. I am glad I got the chance to buy and not lease. He concluded, "You should know that every TH!NK / EV owner in Norway feels that this is madness."
Carter explained to me that he's found people he meets are intrigued by the "cute" little car, though he isn't certain how many of them would be willing to cough up the cash to buy one had Ford brought them to market. Both he and Lillo said they'd write a check for it today. The big question is, how many others would be willing to do the same?
"When you start to talk to people about the practical implications, they get the picture," he said. "If you talk about oil dependence or renewable energy, clean transportation, all those issues, they're all tied into this. Most of the time, the regular people we talk with day-in-day-out on the street, they really get that message." Carter's efforts to get an electric car began in San Diego where he lived at the time. He originally wanted to lease GM's EV1, but was told there wasn't sufficient demand, the same story other would-be EV owners would hear from the car companies. He then tried to lease the Th!nk city when it became available, but since he was moving to Santa Rosa, Ford turned him down, saying it was too far from the dealership. That's when he turned to renting the car, instead.
For a car with a range of only 50 miles, Carter has managed to accumulate a total of 25,000 miles between the two Th!nks he operated for two and a half years. He told EV World that he's driven the car a number of times down to San Francisco by taking advantage of public charging facilities. He's also driven it to Sacramento and over to the Pacific Coast and into the East Bay area.
Even he wondered at first if a car with only 50 miles range and 56 mph top speed could meet his family's needs, but he discovered it did. It was both he and his wife's primary means of transportation for getting to work, shopping and running errands. Losing the efficient little car will mean a significant change of lifestyle for the Carters. "It's a good way to emphasize to people that even a vehicle as limited as this EV can be a very practical tool." He added, "People call this their second car and then you realize that you drive it so much that it's your gas car that becomes the 'second' car."
For Nick Carter, it's the bigger picture that is more important than the somewhat petty debate of whether or not Ford should send the cars back to Norway. He pointed out that local university professor and author, Richard Heinberg, has written about the end of the oil age in "The Party's Over" and in his new book, "Power Down."
"He's writing about peak oil, and the more you read on that subject area, the more it puts this whole issue into context. To be arguing about things like that is just twiddling our thumbs while we drive off the cliff." Carter cited a half dozen people he knows of personally who power their electric cars with sunlight from the photovoltaic panels on the roofs of their homes, so this is not some futuristic scenario. People are driving today using virtually no fossil fuels in their day-to-day living and driving; and their solar panels have 25 year warranties.
"I mean, civilization should be pulling together and facing the big issues that Richard Heinberg is talking about, and others... We're facing a serious crisis. It may not happen today or this week, but it certainly is going to happen in the next few years; and we just have no choice. Ford won't be able to say we're making 80 percent of our profits from SUVs and trucks. That's not going to be an option, so would it make more sense to face these issues now?"
Based on the reaction of people he's personally met, there's a huge market for these cars, but he also accepts the fact that what people say is often different from what they do, especially when it comes to pocketbook issues like cars. When they ask him how much does it cost, he tells them, he really doesn't know because he's never been given an answer. "When you make 300 of anything, it's going to be expensive," he explained. His point is that until we see production runs of 100,000 vehicles like the Th!nk city, we'll never know what it actually costs of build one.
Once Carter turns in the car, he'll be without a vehicle, and he has no immediate plains to replace it. He told me that he lives within easy walking distance of work and shopping. The transit system can get him downtown. From there he can get to San Francisco. His wife, however, has a ten mile drive to her work, so she'll have to fire up her aging gasoline car, which has sat unused for the last 30 months, a situation that frustrates them both.
"Nowadays, we're reading about these lawsuits from the attorneys general from various states suing over carbon dioxide emissions and global warming, and I am thinking, here we are being forced into contributing to global warming when we haven't been for two-and-a-half years. It just seems ludicrous."
Wallace was the director of Th!nk Mobility, the division that was set up by Ford Motor Company to develop its line of electric-drive vehicles, including fuel cells and battery electric cars and trucks. He was instrumental in Ford buying bankrupt Pivco for $10 million. Their two-passenger, plastic-bodied car would eventually be redesigned and rechristened the "city".
I caught Wallace by cellphone driving in his car into San Diego. It took three attempts after successive dropped calls to get his views on why Ford abandoned its EV-program within months of what was supposed to be the official launch of the car.
Instead, Ford announced it was terminating its involvement with the Norwegian company, after investing an estimated US$100 million. Since it owned 51 percent of Th!nk Norway, it also announced it would begin looking for a buyer, eventually settling on Singapore-based Kamkorp, to whom it is rumored Ford gave an additional $50 million; a sum critics say was used to make the "problem" of the city go away, creating a liability buffer between potential future lawsuits and Ford.
I asked Wallace, who left the company shortly after it killed Th!nk Mobility, what happened at Ford, where its Chairman at the time was Bill Ford, Jr, an avowed environmentalist. Wallace said it was the culmination of the "perfect storm." The California Air Resources Board, under relentless pressure from automaker lawsuits and threats from the Bush Justice Department, had for all intents and purposes, abandoned its ten year-old Zero Emission Vehicle mandate. The ZEV mandate originally stipulated that 10% of all new cars sold in the state starting in 2001 had to be non-polluting. Suddenly, the reason for investing in Th!nk evaporated like mist off the California coast.
Then too, Ford was -- and still is, according to Wallace -- in serious financial hurt. Under its then-CEO Jacque Nasser, it was hemorrhaging cash, despite having made a killing on its highly profitable SUV and pickup line for nearly a decade. Nasser left in disgrace and Bill Ford, Jr. stepped in, leaving his environmental ideals behind as he struggled to save the company his great-grandfather had built 100 years earlier. Ford couldn't afford the luxury of too many "feel-good" programs. It would cut its loses on Th!nk and focus what limited resources it had on the Escape Hybrid and on fuel cells.
Finally -- and this assertion is clearly debatable -- Wallace said that his team just couldn't make a sound business case for the car. He told EV World that his team saw a total worldwide market numbering only 1000 vehicles annually, which is sort of like the head of IBM saying in the 1950s that the world only needed a handful of computers.
"We couldn't build Aston Martin numbers of cars and sell them for $20,000", the same price as the Toyota Prius and Honda Civic gasoline-electric hybrids. Worse still, "no one wanted to own it" within the company, he told me. In his words, he saw the "wind blowing the other way" inside Ford and knew it was time retire and move on. He now consults for a number of electric-drive and fuel cell related programs including the People's Republic of China and the California Fuel Cell Partnership.
From Wallace's perspective, the world is going to have to change a lot, like $10 a gallon gasoline in America, before the car buying public sees the value of a vehicle like the Th!nk city. He pointed out that even a company the size of Toyota, which is enjoying record profits and can afford to take the "long view" in its business decisions -- unlike Ford -- isn't building any electric cars anymore, even though there are still a few hundred RAV4 EVs on the road in California.
In talking with Wallace, I sensed both regret and resignation. He believes he and his team gave it their best try. Their redesigned Th!nk city showed great promise. Dubbed the 306 model, it had distinctive Ford lines, a range in excess of 70 miles, powered by the ZEBRA sodium nickel chloride battery, which had a protected life expectancy of at least 5 years, and ZEBRA in Switzerland would tell you it is at least twice that.
With funds running low, Th!nk Nordic has asked for the cars to be shipped back, as originally promised. They want to refurbish them and sell them in Norway, where there is strong demand. The cars get special access privileges on congested Olso streets. The Crown Prince even bought one for the Royal Family. Owners like Carter and Lillo are also prepared to write a check to Ford.
Instead, Ford plans to send the cars to a recycling center in Florida, forever eliminating them as potential liabilities. I asked Wallace about whether or not Ford actually faces any real threat from having these cars on the road in Norway. He replied that while he thought Ford could find a way around the issue, he said he really didn't see an upside for the company, other than the few tens of thousands of dollars Th!nk Norway might pay Ford to get the cars back. Even though the 286 model, which is the one brought to the USA, was engineered before Ford bought the company, "it was built on our watch," Wallace admitted.
"It's a legal issue," he stated, "but I would want to ask the general counsel, Are you sure you have to maintain this obligation?"
But as Nick Carter might point out, which is the greater obligation? Protecting corporate profits or protecting the wellbeing of the planet upon which we live? Somewhere there has to be happy middle ground, one that includes not just gasoline and diesel hybrids but battery electric runabouts of all shapes and sizes.
When gasoline hits $10 a gallon and consumers clamor for alternatives, will carmakers have options like the Th!nk city ready?
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