Poor Sales Job Drained Battery Power
By Warren Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 11, 2004; Page G02
The electric car is alive. But it has been marketed poorly, and lousy marketing will put the kibosh on anything.
That's why many people assume that the electric car is dead. It's also why much of the world's mainstream media ignored the International Conference for Renewable Energies held June 1-4 in Bonn, Germany.
The conference, according to officials of Britain's Electric Vehicles UK, an advocacy group, examined many developments in electric batteries and battery-powered cars, trucks and buses. German news organizations and the British Broadcasting Company covered the event. The rest of the world's media, uninterested in what they considered a corpse, gave it a pass.
But rumors of the death of the electric car are greatly exaggerated. The problem is a marketing message that got things all wrong in the first place.
Consider what happened in the United States in the 1990s. The California Air Resources Board established its zero emission vehicle (ZEV) mandate.
"ZEV" is a West Coast term that really means all-electric, battery-powered vehicles -- inasmuch as those are the vehicles that emit no tailpipe pollutants. Heck, unlike gas-electric hybrids, ZEVs have no tailpipes. The now-defunct California mandate would have required automakers doing business in the state to put ZEVs in 2 percent of their new-vehicle retail fleets by 1998 and in 10 percent of their California sales fleets by 2003.
According to Automotive News, a Detroit-based trade publication, and numbers provided by the U.S. auto retail industry, Californians bought a bit more than 2 million, or 12 percent, of the 16.7 million new cars and trucks sold in the United States last year.
Had the California Air Resources Board's 10 percent ZEV mandate been in effect, car companies would have been required to sell 200,000 all-electric, plug-in-rechargeable, battery-powered cars and trucks in the state in 2003. That's mass-market territory.
The problem is that battery-powered cars have never in their history been mass-market vehicles. In the 1890s, when rechargeable batteries helped to boost the popularity of electric cars in America, they were restricted to urban use because electric service barely existed outside of city limits, according to research done by the Electric Auto Association, based in San Jose.
By the late 1990s, when General Motors Corp., Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co., had launched creditable drives to win general public acceptance for electric cars, those vehicles remained unsuitable for the mass market. Electric-car driving ranges were too short, 50 to 150 miles before recharging, depending on driving speeds and the use of appliances such as air conditioners. Their recharging times were too long -- one to three hours or longer depending on the vehicle and recharging method. (And even one hour is too long in an era when gasoline companies are using electronics to help cut refueling times to a minute or less.) Prices for battery-powered cars were, and in many cases remain, too high for most mass-market expectations of dollar-for-value in automotive purchases.
Thus, instead of selling 200,000 battery-powered cars in California in 2003, the mass-market-oriented, electric-car retail efforts of GM, Toyota and Honda all came to naught in that year. GM stopped production of its EV1 compact coupe. Toyota scrapped its RAV4 EV sport-utility wagon; and Honda put an end to its comparable EV Plus vehicle.
The media declared the electric car dead. They were wrong.
Overlooked were the noble, continuing efforts of a company now simply known as ZAP (Zero Air Pollution), headquartered in Santa Rosa, Calif. ZAP had been around in one form or another since its inception as ZAP Power Systems in Sebastopol, Calif., in September 1994.
The company, which started out making electric bicycles and battery-powered city scooters, has never made money. It went through a brief Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization in 2002. But when it comes to electric cars, ZAP has a better idea -- one that could get some high-voltage retail juice flowing through the struggling electric-vehicle industry and generate sustainable profits.
ZAP is pushing the idea of neighborhood electric vehicles (NEVs), and that makes perfect sense considering that most electric cars and trucks still fall short of their fossil-fueled counterparts in load-influenced driving ranges, refueling times and dollar-for-value expectations.
In the NEV format, cars such as ZAP's Intimidator LUV (light-utility vehicle) are marketed as low-speed, short-distance, easy-park automobiles. The Intimidator, for example, has a top speed of 25 miles per hour, a driving range of 50 miles before recharging and a recharging time of about one hour.
It is a bug-shaped, canopied oddity, something akin to a golf cart. Its low speed and relatively low weight, 705 pounds, restricts its use to urban streets. But it makes sense for personal transportation around college and corporate campuses, retirement communities, or small towns such as South Padre Island, Tex. (six miles long, one mile wide).
In Las Vegas, where one of the first shipments of ZAP Intimidator LUVs is on sale, and where others go out as daily rentals, some of the little cars can be seen running up and down the Strip. Recharging time is moot in that milieu. People park and recharge their ZAP-mobiles in casino parking lots while they go inside to gamble, or watch a show.
ZAP Intimidator LUV pricing could be a problem. ZAP dealers in Las Vegas say the car retails for about $12,000 -- around the price of a new, economical Hyundai Accent sedan that gets good gas mileage, offers substantially more amenities and can keep up with highway traffic.
But there probably will come a time when battery-powered cars -- versus gas-electrics, which use fossil fuels combined with electric power and do not need to be plugged in -- can compete effectively with conventional gasoline cars in terms of driving range and costs. Companies such as AC Propulsion Inc., based in San Dimas, Calif., are working on that possibility.
But until that time comes, the ZAP neighborhood vehicle approach is the best way to keep the battery-powered car alive. It's basic common sense. You market a product based on its strengths, as opposed to its weaknesses.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company