An Old Warhorse, Still Trying to Make a Difference

By Warren Brown
Sunday, August 12, 2007

Miles Rubin has earned enough money over his decades as a lawyer and corporate leader to retire richly. But at 78, he remains a member of that small group of spirited, thoughtful, committed people who have the temerity to believe they can change the world.

To some, he might seem an idealistic crank, a liberal caricature of octogenarian billionaire Kirk Kerkorian, the chairman and chief executive of Beverly Hills-based Tracinda, a private-equity company famed for acquiring and flipping troubled companies and, in the process, stripping them of their most valuable assets.

But in truth, Rubin and Kerkorian are driven by the same fire. Both have lived long enough to understand the value of legacy. Both desperately want to leave one. The difference is the way they go about doing it.

Throughout his long and varied career history, Rubin has displayed an uncanny knack for making money and converting that cash to public good. Examples include the Miles and Nancy Rubin Loan Repayment Assistance Program that he and his wife, former ambassador Nancy Rubin, onetime U.S. representative to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, established at Stanford Law School in 1987.

The loan repayment program was designed to ease the tuition burden on law students who chose to pay for their education through several years of public service. It was the template for similar educational assistance programs that followed.

At heart, Rubin is a fix-it man who believes he can repair things, or at least help to set aright things large and small. He usually focuses on matters large, such as those involving national energy security, a concern that in the 1970s led him to set up the Energy Action Committee, a group dedicated to the development of alternative fuels and advanced vehicle propulsion systems.

Rubin smiles ruefully when he discusses that committee today. "We viewed ourselves as the vanguard in the push for energy independence," he said last week in an interview in his Northwest Washington home. "We were going to have electric cars. . . . We were in somebody's newspaper every day."

But the U.S. spot gasoline shortages that gave birth to those energy concerns in the 1970s disappeared. Gasoline prices dropped dramatically while technical fuel efficiency, under prodding by the federal government, increased. Cheap gas plus increased efficiency lowered the overall cost of driving. America celebrated by boosting horsepower, vehicle sizes and miles driven -- and consuming more gasoline than ever.

It is easy to assume that a savvy businessman like Rubin would have learned his lesson and abandoned his electric car dreams. But that is how he differs from hard-nosed capitalists such as Kerkorian. Rubin can't shake off the idea that Americans are smarter than they appear, that they are capable of doing the right thing, and that with the right amount of money, right public relations effort and right product, they could be weaned from their destructive appetite for oil in a world that is having difficulty producing more of the stuff.

And so here is Rubin today investing disgustingly large sums of his own money -- he won't say exactly how much -- in something called the Miles Automotive Group, a Santa Monica, Calif.-based company developing and producing electric cars in cooperation with Daihatsu of Japan and the Tianjin-Qingyuan Electric Vehicle of China.

Miles Automotive initially is rolling out low-speed electric models -- fully built-up automobiles, as compared with those cute but relatively useless golf-cart bubble mobiles. The Miles plug-in electric, such as the 2007 Miles ZX40 four-seat model I drove in the District, operates at a top speed of 25 mph with a driving range of 40 to 50 miles on a single charge from regular house current.

The car makes perfect sense in dedicated transportation environments, such as corporate and academic campuses, where most road speeds are 5 to 15 mph and where the constant use of traditional gasoline-powered automobiles borders on the ludicrous.

Clearly, a number of Miles Automotive customers accept that thesis. Miles electric cars, employing advanced lead-acid batteries, can be found in fleets at the National Park Service, U.S. Navy, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, California Corrections Department, and Yale and Stanford universities, among other places.

"I have no illusions that our cars will replace all gasoline models," Rubin said, adding that his company hopes to sell 5,000 electric models annually. "But we can begin to make a difference with these. Every Miles makes a difference," he said, borrowing from his company's slogan.

Miles Automotive next year plans to introduce a mid-size electric sedan, the Javlon XS500, powered by lithium-ion batteries.

"We still have some things to work out," Rubin said, acknowledging that he is taking an even larger risk with the Javlon. "But we think it's worth pursuing," he said.

I think he's right, and I wish him and his company well. And I'm thinking that if billionaire Kerkorian really wants to leave a favorable legacy, he would be wise to join forces with Miles Rubin in this very brave venture. What a story that would be -- two old war-horses coming from different sides of the capitalist battlefield to make a better world for the rest of us.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company