By Chris Roberts
By Joe Eskenazi
By Albert Samaha
By Mike Billings
By Rachel Swan
By Erin Sherbert
By Joe Eskenazi
By Albert Samaha
Since he introduced it in 1999, Corbin has sold more than 200 Sparrows, and he has a waiting list of about 1,000 customers. The Sparrow is freeway-legal, insurable, and licensable in all 50 states. It's legal for carpool lanes, and the latest models are fully chargeable within 20 minutes from any regular 110-volt outlet, company officials claim. "Everybody laughed at this, but Mike is a visionary," says Ron Huch, president of Corbin Motors. "It's something that the car guys aren't willing to do. They think in terms of 100,000 units, and they are absolutely committed to full-size cars. To date, we've invested only $15 million -- Detroit couldn't get a committee together for that."
To CALSTART's Gage, the market hasn't been adequately tested. "Has there been a good-faith effort to meet the demand? No. To the best of my knowledge, there has been a waiting list for every electric vehicle made," he says. "But there's no question that the automakers have lost money on every one they've made."
With newer battery technology, electric vehicles are making some inroads in places they were expected to be years ago. The U.S. Postal Service has taken delivery of Ford's battery-powered postal van. And high-tech batteries, combined with software advances, have revolutionized the potential for hybrid cars like the Toyota Prius and the Honda Insight, though some would argue they aren't quite ready for the market.
Car and Driver magazine tested the Prius, got scarcely more than 35 miles a gallon -- admittedly in cold weather, which cuts the car's fuel efficiency -- and called it "perhaps the first car that runs on guilt."
But even SULEVs won't meet the no-tailpipe-emissions requirement for 2003, and the marketing battle for pure EVs is expected to heat up again -- that is, if the mandate isn't further eroded by automaker and oil-industry political and legal maneuvering. General Motors has filed suit to overturn the mandate, saying it illegally ignores cheaper and more effective ways to clean the air. And Assemblyman Marco Firebaugh (D-L.A.), has introduced legislation to block CARB from imposing penalties on car manufacturers for violating the zero-emissions mandate.
If the mandate survives, don't expect to see fleets of the zippy EV1s hitting the streets. What both Ford and GM are talking about offering are "city cars" -- electric-powered cars that aren't fast enough to travel on the freeway safely. The city cars are supposed to be capable of surface-street travel, but GM's Walker isn't optimistic about putting these smaller, slower vehicles on the real-world roads of hulking SUVs.
"They're unsafe, too small, but they're the only way to meet the mandate without being taken to the cleaners," he says. "People love the EV1, but who wouldn't love a $100,000 car that they're getting for a fraction of that?" Simply put, the existing oil-dependent auto industry isn't going to change its outlook without the carrot of profits dangling in front of it. "The internal combustion engine is here to stay. It's what customers want," Walker says.
Gage of CALSTART has been peering into the crystal ball of clean-transportation technology longer than most. "What will have to happen is what is known as disruptive technology -- a breakthrough that makes the existing technology obsolete," he says. "It could be out there, but right now there's just no market for it. The difficulty is finding a group without the investment in the status quo [but] with the financial wherewithal."
Carmichael of the Coalition for Clean Air says the need for zero-emissions cars remains critical, because no matter how clean internal combustion engines get, they will still pollute to some extent. "This never was just about getting big air-pollution gains in 2003," he says. "It is about creating a new system of transportation for the long term, a clean system. And waiting for the automakers to create it on their own is, in my opinion, the least likely scenario. There will have to be the technological breakthrough, the regulators will have to find religion, or there has to be a groundswell from the public. And we see sparks of that -- every time the automakers talk about how inadequate electric cars are, the owners talk about how much, in truth, they love them." Detroit automakers have spent millions attempting to unplug California's effort to put electric cars on the road. And so far, Detroit's succeeding.
Find everything you're looking for in your city
Find the best happy hour deals in your city
Get today's exclusive deals at savings of anywhere from 50-90%
Check out the hottest list of places and things to do around your city