EV1 Vigilers Pledge to Pay GM $1.9 Million for 'Incarcerated' Electric Cars

Exclusive "on-the-scene" report by EV World publisher, Bill Moore

Published: 27-Feb-2005

BURBANK -- Soggy southern California dried out enough on Saturday, February 26th for nearly 100 "vigiler" to rally in support of "freeing" the last 77 EV1 electric cars thought to be remaining in the state. They gathered in front of General Motors' Burbank training center, behind which are parked dozens of red, black, and silver highway-capable, battery-powered cars.

Using a solar-powered public address system and led by actress and environmentalist Alexandra Paul, organizers asked GM to sell them the cars for their estimated residual value of $25,000. Holding up a large art board check for $1.9 million, a dozen of the 80 people who had -- in just 48 hours -- expressed interest in buying the cars, stepped up into the bed of an electrically-powered Ford Ranger, itself the focus of a similar protest in Sacramento in January. In that case, Ford relented to media and environmentalist pressure and offered to sell the remaining trucks to their current lessees for a token amount of $1 rather than go ahead with its plan to crush the vehicles. That move heartened electric car advocates in the Los Angeles area who decided to take on the world's largest car maker. Ironically, it was GM that pioneered the rebirth of the modern electric car in 1990 when it debuted the "Impact", a concept car from which the EV1 was developed.

Since launching their "death row vigil", as they refer to it, two weeks ago, vigilers have stood watch twenty-four hours a day through torrential rains, to make sure that GM doesn't attempt to move the cars, which are kept permanently recharged. Hired security guards sit in a battered van to prevent the protesters from climbing the fence and trying to gain access to the cars, which have been parked as far away from the building as possible. The only good way to see the cars is from the parking lot of an adjacent ice skating rink.

GM brought out the EV1 in the late 1990s in response to California's Zero Emission Vehicle mandate. It built over 1,000 of them, some 800 of which were leased mainly to California consumers, including a fair number of Hollywood celebrities. Despite its relatively short range of about 60-80 miles, the sleek, aerodynamic two-seater quickly won the affection and loyalty of their owners. A subsequent upgrade in of the car in 2000 offered improved batteries capable of delivering ranges up to 200 miles in test conditions and more than 120 miles in real world driving situations. It is those cars that are stored behind the training center. Somehow, rally organizers got the VIN numbers of the cars, which they chalked onto the sidewalk to underscore their message.

While most of those attending the rally seem committed to sticking it out for as long as takes to get GM to release the cars, they also seem resigned to the reality that GM may well find a way -- either legally or covertly -- to remove the cars and dispose of them at a facility in Arizona, where hundreds of earlier models of the car have been ignominiously crushed, as was illustrated in two blow-ups of aerial photos taken surreptitiously of the facility by electric car supporters.

Many of those on hand for the rally had taken advantage of Toyota's offer to sell them some 300 electric-only versions of their popular RAV4 small SUV. More than a half dozen were parked in front the center. Powered by NiMH batteries, the RAV4 EV, as it is known, has a range of 100 plus miles and can carry four adults.

One of the spectators at the rally was Southern California Edison executive Ed Kjaer, who had driven up from Newport Beach with his four-year-old daughter. He has run the utility's electric vehicle program for the last five years and daily commutes to his office in Rosemead in a RAV4 EV. Based on his more than a decade and a half in the auto industry, he offered perhaps the most pessimistic assessment of the day saying that in the end, General Motors will succeed in crushing the cars. SCE currently operates a fleet of 200 RAV4 EVs, which are slated to be returned to Toyota over the  next couple years. Kjaer expects to replace them with hybrids if the current energy bill is passed, which would classify gasoline-electric hybrids as "alternative" fuel vehicles.

Among those expressing interest in purchasing one of the EV1s was Tim Hastrup, a Hewlett Packard engineer who had flown down from northern California to express support for the vigil and to pen his name to the letter of intent, which will be sent to GM. He had previously leased an EV1, which he subsequently replaced with a pair of Toyota RAV4 EVs. Despite this, he said he was, like all the other EV1 devotees, willing to sign a letter abrogating GM of any liability for the cars or any responsibility for providing parts or service; effectively consigning the cars to the status of "collectibles". But this is the price he and his fellow electric car advocates appear willing to pay to send a message to both GM and the rest of the oil-consuming world that despite their shortcomings, battery electric cars have their place and deserve a chance in the marketplace, especially in the light of national security, oil depletion, environmental and global warming concerns.

Both EV1, RAV4 EV and Honda EV Plus owners attest to the fact that their electric cars provided them with up to 85 percent of their transportation needs in the sprawled out LA Basin, where even on weekends 10-lane freeways can be clogged with traffic often traveling at 25 mph or less.

The vigilers have now slung a $1.9 million "stone" at General Motors to get its attention. What remains to be seen as how the Goliath of Detroit will respond to these David's in Burbank. And if that doesn't get GM's attention, organizers were quietly plotting to find a way to get "Tonight Show" host Jay Leno involved.

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