Avi's Story

Electric SUV owner a true believer

Apr 21, 2007
Stephen Wickens
Toronto Star

Like most people, Avi Hershkovitz can't say precisely how far he's driven in the past 11 years. But ask how many times he's filled his gas tank or changed his oil and he'll give an exact answer, without hesitation. "Zero, never," he says. Hershkovitz drives his five-year-old Toyota RAV4 about 160 km a day, most of it on the freeways of Los Angeles. But his is no regular RAV4. It's an all-electric – one of the ones that got away when auto makers tried to round up the remaining plug-ins produced to satisfy a short-lived California law demanding zero-emissions cars. "When the lease came up, (Toyota) really tried to talk me out of buying it, but I just told them, `you're wasting your time'," says Hershkovitz, a 47-year-old electrical engineer. "I've put more than 121,000 miles (195,000 km) on this vehicle, and it's definitely the best, most reliable thing I've ever driven." He adds: "I'd probably still have an EV1 if GM hadn't forced me to give it back. They were great, reliable and plug-in, but they only had two seats. This is better because we've got kids."

Electric cars are not exactly plug in and go. You're supposed to rotate the tires every 3,000 miles (5,000 km) and clean out the air vents that help keep the battery pack cool – though Hershkovitz admits to being a little slack on both counts. He also says the tires cost a bit more, and his RAV4 is on its second set."You have to refill the windshield washer, too. But that's pretty well about it." Probe further and he admits he'll also eventually need a new battery pack. He says he hasn't heard of anyone who has had to replace the batteries yet, but he figures it will cost about $10,000 (all figures U.S.). Even at that, Hershkovitz sees electric cars as a better deal. He calculates that his energy costs are about 20 per cent of what he'd be spending on gas. "I've never been one for conspiracy theories, but when you realize how good these are and how long the technology has been around, all the air pollution worries, and the experience I had with GM, you have to wonder," Hershkovitz says. A lot of other people have been wondering, too, especially since the release last June of Who Killed the Electric Car?, one of those rare documentaries that had some box office success.

And while electric vehicle enthusiasts still ridicule denials from auto makers and others that there was ever a conspiracy, nearly all those involved in the controversy now agree on one thing: nobody killed the electric. It won't be exactly the same technology and battery packs that put EVs – including some Ford Rangers, the Nissan Altra, Honda EV Plus and others – on California and Arizona roads over the past decade, but electric cars have a serious future. "Maybe the idea was just too good to kill," says Chris Paine, a former EV1 driver who directed the documentary.General Motors, portrayed as one of the villains in the film, now admits it blundered badly, from a PR perspective, when it rounded up, crushed and shredded most of the 1,115 EVs it made between 1996 and 1999. "The decision to take the vehicles back upon the last lease expiration was not easy," GM spokesperson Dave Barthmuss says. "We had to balance liability concerns with safety concerns with image and reputation concerns. The vehicles frankly lacked replacement parts. "And the reason we ended production and marketing of the EV1 was simply because we couldn't afford to lose any more money on it ... it cost us well over a billion dollars."

Paine, who now drives one of the 1,575 RAV4 EVs that Toyota built, says he understands that GM heavily subsidized the former lessees and that adequate return on investment is necessary to make any type of vehicle commercially viable. But he still believes GM and other former makers of plug-ins were wrong to join the oil companies and the Bush administration in a battle to have California repeal a 1990 law demanding that zero-emissions vehicles account for at least 2 per cent of the market. Paine also remains convinced the auto makers did a half-hearted job of promoting the new vehicles, and played on customers' fears about the EV1's range, even though 10 years ago it was already good enough on one charge for more than 80 per cent of daily urban U.S. driving. But speaking from Portland, Ore., a stop on his current speaking tour of university campuses, he sounds anything but bitter or stuck in the past. "It doesn't matter if there was a conspiracy," Paine says. "The movie has been out less than a year and the electric car landscape has already changed radically. Sure, there still aren't any electric cars available in the marketplace just yet, but it's hopeful."

Among the reasons for optimism, he lists:

Paine was on hand for GM's announcement at January's Detroit auto show and lauds the company's idea, even if an actual production vehicle is years off. But while Paine has called the Volt "vindication," Barthmuss emphasizes that the program was in no way influenced by Who Killed the Electric Car? "The idea behind the E-Flex and the Volt – and our continued pathway into electricity didn't stop after the EV1 – is the need to diversify away from oil as our single source of transportation energy," says Barthmuss, who defended GM in the movie. "We cannot be 97 or 98 per cent reliant on any one energy source and expect our company or our industry to survive in the long term." Barthmuss also stresses that some EV1s remain. "GM engineers are using them right now to advance lithium ion (battery) technology," he says, adding that others were donated to museums and universities. "We know vehicle electrification works . . . and the Chevy Volt has tremendous potential that we could only have by going through the EV1 experience."

A similar sentiment is expressed by Jan-Olaf Willums, president of Th!nk, a Norwegian company that plans to roll out its two-seater town cars across Europe in the next couple of years and is also eyeing the North American market. Rather than harbour a grudge against Ford, which pulled the plug on Th!nk around the time the tough California law was repealed, Willums views the Ford experience as a godsend. "Ford spent over $100 million to develop the car we are now launching, and it did an excellent job on safety and design." Electric car enthusiasts say few people ever heard about the electric cars when they were available and that the car makers probably feared the EV's reliability and simplicity would virtually kill the lucrative service and aftermarket parts businesses. Some also contend that fears over effects on the electricity grid are exaggerated, that 140 million EVs can be charged between midnight and 4 a.m. without adding any capacity in the U.S. Hershkovitz, meanwhile, is keeping abreast of what's on the EV market, even though he expects to get "several more years" out of his RAV4 – a vehicle valued at $41,000 new, and for which he bought out the lease at $27,000.

"The Th!nk is small and minimal and the ($100,000) Tesla is a toy for the rich man, though I'd buy one in the blink of an eye if I could afford it." He is determined to stay with EVs, partly because of cost, partly for environmental reasons, partly because it allows him to use high-occupancy vehicle lanes even when he's commuting by himself and partly because he says the cars are superior. However, Hershkovitz doesn't expect to see EVs widely available soon if major corporations remain "myopic, always worried about quarterly results," or unless politicians are willing to pass and stand behind gutsy laws. "Maybe the salvation will come from China," he says. "They could force the issue. In that system, they have the ability to make long-term decisions."

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