Hybrid Cars Jump Past Electric Ones

The growing popularity of hybrid cars and an upcoming California "Hydrogen Highway" proposal highlight how cheaper, more convenient or politically expedient technologies have leapfrogged vehicles powered by rechargable batteries.

Nearly 15 years ago, electric cars were all the road rage with bureaucrats and environmentalists who thought the non-polluting vehicles would eventually take over California's freeways.Nearly 15 years ago, electric cars were all the road rage with bureaucrats and environmentalists who thought the non-polluting vehicles would eventually take over California's freeways.

But the growing popularity of hybrid cars and an upcoming state "Hydrogen Highway" proposal highlight how other cheaper, more convenient or politically expedient technologies have leapfrogged the vehicles powered by rechargable batteries.

The electric car is wheezing its last breath. Fewer than 1,000 of them remain on the road in California, and auto makers have turned their backs on technology.

"The big problem with electric vehicles is that the automakers have thumped their heads on getting battery technology up to snuff," said James Bell, publisher of Campbell-based IntelliChoice, which tracks trends in the automotive industry. "They've never been able to solve the range and recharge problems to make electric cars competitive."

Pushed by tax credits and the California Air Resources Board's 1990 mandate to produce zero-emissions vehicles, the Big Three U.S. car makers issued limited runs of electric autos from 1996 to 2003.

General Motors Corp. had its EV1 compact car and an electric version of its Chevy S10 truck. Ford Motor Co. leased its TH!NK City two-passenger vehicle and Ranger EV pickup. DaimlerChrysler AG produced the EPIC Minivan EV.

Foreign automakers got into the act, too. Honda Motor Co. Ltd. delivered a compact, the EV Plus, and Toyota Motor Corp. rolled out its RAV4 EV. With a few exceptions, such as the RAV 4 EV, the vehicles only were available through closed-end lease agreements. At the end of the lease, the manufacturer would take the vehicle back and dismantle it.

"All of these vehicles were designed to be 'proof of concept' cars," Bell said. "The cynical side says that it was a way for manufacturers to prove that rechargeable cars couldn't work and that there was no consumer demand. The manufacturers' side says that it was merely a technology in development and a half-step to hybrids."

At the height of the EV wave in 1997-98 about 5,000 all-electric vehicles were on the state's roads, and battery charging stations were installed at sites from Arden Fair Mall and the Wells Fargo Building in Sacramento to a Raley's grocery store in Rancho Cordova.

By 2000, the number of electric cars had dropped to 3,000, according to California Air Resources Board researchers. Today, the number is down to "around 900, and getting smaller all the time," said board spokesman Jerry Martin.

The vehicles are mostly being supplanted by hybrids, such as the Toyota Prius, that combine a gasoline engine with an electric motor that kicks in during stops and low speeds. Also, many people think another alternative, hydrogen fueled vehicles, are the key to selling Americans on zero emissions autos.

But electric car enthusiasts aren't letting their vehicles go without a fight. Earlier this year, Mariposa County resident and Ranger EV owner David Raboy staged an eight-day vigil in front of Sacramento's Senator Ford dealership to buy his truck after his lease ran out.

Ford relented and sold the pickup to Raboy and other leaseholders for $1.

"Baywatch" TV actress Alexandra Paul was arrested in March after blocking trucks that were hauling EV1 cars from a Burbank storage facility to Arizona for crushing.

GM spokesman Dave Barthmuss said that the Detroit-based car manufacturer spent approximately $1 billion on all-electric car research and produced about 800 EV1s between 1996 and 2000.

"We stopped making the car because we couldn't afford to keep losing money on a product with no broad public demand," Barthmuss said.

This month several environmental and pro-electric groups have organized under the DontCrush.com banner to pressure Toyota from recycling its RAV4 EV.

The company made 1,484 of the small electric SUVs from 1998 to 2003. About 600 are still on American roads, half of them purchased and the other half under lease. The rest have been crushed and recycled, said company spokeswoman Cindy Knight.

For the next few years Toyota will make parts as needed for the RAV4 EV, which originally retailed for about $42,000. But made-to-order parts are expensive: A battery pack, which lasts an average of three years, costs $25,000 to replace.

The company also stopped training its mechanics to repair the RAV4 EV, Knight said, and few dealerships are equipped to make EV repairs.

"Toyota is not changing its mind about this," Knight said.

DontCrush.com spokesman Marc Geller called the decision "immoral." A recent ad from the Los Angeles-based group links gasoline consumption to "foreign dictators" and "terrorists" who profit from oil exports.

"If people are willing to buy these cars at the end of their lease, Toyota has a moral obligation to keep them on the road," Geller said. "Instead, they're taking functioning, non-polluting vehicles and junking them."

Tom and Vera Dowling's two RAV4 EVs have avoided the junk heap so far because the retired Folsom couple purchased them outright a couple of years ago.

Tom Dowling said that the RAV4 EVs are "the best cars we've ever had." They get up to 110 miles per charge, he said, enough to drive around town or to take day trips to Sacramento, Davis and Placerville.

"It's great. I never have to go to a gas station," he said. "It's quiet, there are no tune-ups, no maintenance. The car doesn't even have a tailpipe or a transmission."

Toyota has told the Dowlings that it will repair the cars until 2008. After that date repair could become "difficult, even impossibly costly," said Tom Dowling. "We'll cross that bridge when we come to it."

It looks like public officials, including Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, have already moved on. More than a year ago, he called for a "Hydrogen Highway" stretching the length of the state, with hydrogen fueling stations every 20 miles.

The state Environmental Protection Agency has been working on a blueprint that recommends clustering the stations in Sacramento, the Bay Area, Los Angeles and San Diego. It proposes the state spend $54 million over five years to help build 100 hydrogen fueling stations, buy some fleet vehicles and provide incentives.

Still, the "Hydrogen Highway" is still probably 15 years away, say some experts. Hydrogen cars have a range of about 150 miles between fill-ups, the technology is still very expensive to mass produce and pump conversion costs about $1 million per pump, said Mark Bilek, editorial director for Consumer Guide Automotive.

Hybrids don't break dependence on polluting fossil fuels, Bilek added.

"And we haven't even thought about transporting the fuel in trucks," Bilek said. "In the long run you want a zero emission vehicle. In my opinion, once battery technology improves, electric is where we're going to end up."

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Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News