My wife Zan Dubin Scott and I are activists for electric cars. We didn’t mean to be, but we were kind of forced into it.
Back in 2002, I chanced upon a website where people were talking about electric cars. The things they were saying sounded almost too good to be true. These were not the low speed EVs sometimes derided as golf carts, these were full function, highway capable cars, trucks and SUVs. I had recently installed a 3 kW solar photovoltaic system on my house, so all of my electricity was now generated by sunlight falling on my roof. Since I had always tried to reduce my gasoline usage, it seemed a perfect solution to buy a car that could run on those very same kilowatt-hours. As it happened, only Toyota was willing to actually sell their EV, the versatile RAV4, a small SUV. After our first test drive, we jumped at the chance, bought one and took possession of it on winter solstice 2002.
We were now running our house and our car on sunlight, no pollution well-to-wheels, no more of our money going to foreign countries for oil, and just as important, none of our money paying for the bombs and bullets that were killing our soldiers. We thought everyone would follow our lead. The future felt bright in spite of the turmoil in the world at the time.
One week later, we were informed that Toyota was stopping production on their EV. The electric vehicle program was unceremoniously shut down, leaving thousands of eager customers in line for a car that was no longer available.
Here we were with first hand knowledge of a technology that could literally change the world for better in massively significant ways; elimination of all pollution connected to driving a car and most of the pollution connected to running a household; keeping hundreds of billions of dollars from leaving the country to purchase foreign oil, money that could instead be used to hire workers to install solar panels and windmills; and finally, eliminating the need to fight wars over oil. We’ve never fought a war for electricity, and we never will.
Yet the one piece of the puzzle that could make all of this happen, the vehicle that ran on electricity, was taken away. Given that we, along with a few dozen other Californians, knew this truth first hand, we decided to become activists and fight the car companies over the crushing of their cars. It was very clear to us that the whole world needed to understand this truth, and as soon as possible. Being naive, we had no idea how hard it would ultimately be.
There followed three years of protests in the hot sun and the pouring rain, around the clock in some cases. Whatever it took. We protested in Sacramento, San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego in front of car dealers, state regulators and, as depicted in the documentary, “Who Killed the Electric Car?”, we protested for 28 straight days around the clock in front of GM’s training facility in Burbank, CA.
Our efforts got picked up here and there, including in the LA Times, Washington Post and the New York Times. And when the film premiered in June of 2006 the whole story was finally revealed in great detail. It was then that everything changed.
The film resonated with Americans who had been brought up on rumors of magical additives and super-carburetors that had been quietly bought up and hidden from the public, all to keep everyone from reducing their need for oil. Well, rumor or true, those paled in comparison to a car that not only ran without any gas at all, but also ran quicker, ran quieter and didn’t pollute one bit. “Zero Emission Vehicle” they called it, ZEV for short. These cars represented everything the carmakers despised. They required virtually no maintenance and lasted a long time, and considering that the auto industry gets about 40% of its profit from parts and maintenance, the car industry wanted nothing to do with them.
As thousands, and then hundreds of thousands of Americans saw the film, word spread that this technology did indeed work. It worked so well in fact that years later, the original cars from the California experiment were still running exactly the same as when they were new. With no maintenance and no deterioration, and the ability to run on domestic fuel with no pollution, people were starting to pay attention.
Then the hammer came down – $4/gallon.
I had thought maybe $3/gallon would do it, but I was wrong, we blew right through that price and SUVs kept rolling out of the car lots. But, when the magic $4 was announced as the nationwide average, you could feel the shift. The price continued to go up and people began to hurt a lot. The pundits speculated on the ultimate price, while the most pivotal Presidential election in our lifetime was heating up. The high price of fuel, coupled with a growing recession, mortally wounded a domestic auto industry saddled with bloated, inefficient vehicles.
We now find ourselves in a different world from just a few years ago. The Obama administration is intent on reducing pollution from dirty fuels and also reducing our dependence on foreign oil. As external costs are internalized in the price of oil, and the scarcity of peak oil is fully understood, the cost of gas and diesel will rise dramatically.
Coincident with this, we now find that every carmaker on the planet is in development on plug-in vehicles of all shapes and sizes. From powerful motorcycles to small city cars, from blindingly fast sports cars to trucks capable of hauling 60,000 lbs, all manner of plug-in vehicles are racing to get to market first. We find start up companies in Silicon Valley competing with the “Crumbling Three” of Detroit. There are even start-ups rising Phoenix-like out of the ashes of GM facilities in Indiana. And all of them are competing with well-funded companies out of China and India. China is even publicly announcing that it will lead the world in EV production, a shot across the bow of Carlos Ghosn’s Nissan who lays claim to the same goal.
On the ground, our little protest group had morphed into a grown up advocacy organization with 15,000 active members and a sophisticated working board that helps federal and state regulators and legislators devise incentives to get plug-ins to market. We are the go-to organization for media the world over when they want to report on this movement from the perspective of the consumer, because we are those people. We have been using this technology for six to ten years and know what it means to drive a car that doesn’t pollute, doesn’t make noise and doesn’t put our country at risk. Soon, all our friends and neighbors will get to experience what we’ve been experiencing, and this time, there’ll be no attempted murder of a technology, just sweet revenge.
By Paul Scott
Paul Scott, a lifelong environmental activist, co-founded Plug In America (PIA) in 2005 to galvanize support and advocate for the manufacture of Electric Vehicles and plug-in hybrids that reduce America’s dependence on petroleum and improve the global environment. As one of the nonprofit organization’s most visible leaders, he is regularly interviewed by media coast to coast and works with auto industry officials, consumers and local, state and federal policymakers to advance clean car technology.
Paul helped create Don’tCrush.com, PIA’s predecessor, a grassroots group that single-handedly prevented some 1,000 production EVs from being destroyed by the auto companies that manufactured them. His work with both groups has included strategic campaign research, planning and execution. He is among the key figures featured in “Who Killed the Electric Car?” the 2006 documentary distributed by Sony Pictures Classics.
Paul works professionally as a consultant for SolarCity, a solar installation firm. He owns a Toyota RAV4 EV, which he drives on sunshine generated by the photovoltaic panels on his own roof in Santa Monica. He is President of the Electric Vehicle Assn. of Southern California and Vice President of Plug In America.
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