Monday, March 29, 2004

Orphan Cars
In the 1980s and early 1990s, consumers had to worry about buying computers that would turn into "orphans" when their makers went bust or were absorbed into another company. Now it's orphan cars, all-electric vehicles that their manufacturers insist on taking back, once their initial leases are up. This seems like terrible PR on the part of GM and Ford, but it's not hard to envision the conversations between company lawyers and accountants that might have led to these decisions.

A key fact missing from the Times article is that most of these first-generation cars were delivered with conventional lead-acid batteries--dozens of them. Imagine pulling into Sears to buy 26 DieHards in one go. This was one reason the auto firms' chose to offer battery cars only on lease. You also have to wonder what other parts might now be wearing out, with which the average mechanic would have no prior experience. Let's see, my EV-1 breaks down after warranty, and I take it to the corner mechanic, who accidentally comes in contact with a high voltage circuit... The lawyers must have been in a cold sweat at this prospect.

A few years ago I had the pleasure of driving one of these cars. It was a brand new GM EV-1, and I got to take it around the streets of Phoenix, AZ for a few minutes. I was amazed not only by how quiet it was, but by its terrific acceleration. It was great fun leaving a BMW in the dust at a green light, with its owner wondering what on earth I was driving.

However, it was also clear that the car I drove would never be mass marketed. Its range was under 100 miles, and achieving that required either an overnight charge at home, or about an hour and a half at a public, high voltage recharging station, of which there were relatively few. On top of this, it was a 2-seater with limited storage space. Fun, different, but not very practical.

Rather than lament its passing, I'd rather cheer for the few thousand enthusiasts who got to drive the car of their dreams--and consciences--for three or four years, and the car companies that learned a tremendous amount about the practicalities of electric drive. That knowledge is already paying dividends in the new hybrid cars--part electric and part gasoline-powered--and will certainly benefit future electric-based vehicles such as those powered by fuel cells.

At the same time, environmentally-oriented EV owners should remember that the power to recharge these cars must be generated somewhere. For Southern California, where most of these vehicles were leased, the EV-1's "virtual tailpipe" was probably connected to a coal-fired power plant in Four Corners, AZ.

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