Electric Smoke Screen
The first thing Stanford Ovshinsky asks the reporter is why his advertisement caused such a furor among the auto industry. "I couldn't understand why it made such a hoopla," said the chief executive officer of Ovonic Battery Co., sounding genuinely mystified.Ovshinksy had planned to run an ad, "Ovonic Batteries Make Electric Cars Practical," in the June 26 issue of Fortune magazine. Upon hearing that his ad was creating an "uproar among various groups in the automotive industry," Ovshinsky told the Sacramento News & Review he decided to pull it at the last minute. But many electric car advocates are not mystified. They say Ovshinksy's ad, which revealed that electric cars can be efficient and affordable, would have sabotaged a big-money public relations campaign that is gearing up to kill California's electric car mandate. A 1990 Air Resources Board regulation requires that 2 percent of the vehicles sold in California by major automakers be non-polluting in 1998, with the proportion going up to 10 percent by the year 2008. "It's just such silly politics going on right now," said a bemused Bill Van Amburg, spokesman for CALSTART, an alternative fuel technology consortium of more than 140 companies. Silly maybe, but billions of dollars are at stake. If California's mandate remains in place, it could hasten the breakup of the world's love affair with the internal combustion engine and accelerate progress toward making "clean" technology affordable. This would be bad news not only for petroleum giants, but also for American automakers, who seem neither ready nor willing to undertake a costly re-tooling of factories to accommodate this technological revolution. Ovshinsky's ad would have appeared two days before top executives of the Big Three descended upon a state Air Resources Board workshop in El Monte, Calif., last week to make their case against the mandate. Ford Motor Company, Chrysler and General Motors used the forum to press their most potent argument against "EVs", or electric vehicles: the battery problem. "We've interviewed more than 10,000 people, and most of them have told us that they need an EV that can deliver at least 100 miles of range, at a cost not much more than their conventional vehicle," said John Wallace, Ford's electric vehicle czar. "The dilemma is that today's batteries cannot satisfy these consumer needs. As anybody who is familiar with today's battery technology will tell you, EVs are not ready for prime time." Judging by Wallace's statement, Ovshinsky is a liar. The Ovonic ad, obtained by supporters of the mandate, claimed the Troy, Mich., firm's new battery is recyclable and environmentally benign, has a range of more than 200 miles, and can be recharged very quickly. In short, the new battery would counter every argument of the automotive industry, and--as the ad put it--"make electric vehicles cost-competitive with gasoline-powered automobiles." Ovshinksy said he made the decision to pull the ad to avoid controversy--and not as a result of any pressure from General Motors, which has entered into a consortium with Ovonic to produce the battery. There is no question, however, that General Motors is a member of the American Automobile Manufacturers Association, a coalition that has hired a Los Angeles public relations firm to try to kill the electric car mandate, with an urgency that increases as the year 1998 draws closer. "I think [the automakers] view this as their last big chance, because as I understand it, they need a certain amount of lead time to gear up for production of these vehicles," said Allan Hirsch, spokesman for the California Air Board. "They want to determine as soon as they can what whether we intend to continue with this mandate."The "Smoking Gun" For more than a year, opponents of the regulation--mainly automakers, the oil industry and the California Manufacturers Association (CMA)--have been claiming Californians will not buy electric vehicles. The typical range of EVs, using conventional lead-acid batteries, is about 100 miles--more than enough to satisfy the needs of a majority of commuters. But the CMA's pessimistic view of how citizens supposedly feel about electric cars runs directly counter to a confidential letter to public relations firms authored by the Detroit-based American Automobile Manufacturers Association--a document referred to by electric car advocates as "the smoking gun." The March 24 document notes "greater consumer acceptance of electric vehicles," and announces, that "the AAMA is conducting a search for a qualified contractor to manage a statewide grass-roots and educational campaign in California to create a climate in which the state's mandate requiring automakers to produce a fixed percentage of electric vehicles beginning in 1998 can be repealed." Subtle, huh? You might have thought grass-roots political campaigns were supposed to spring up from the concerned masses. Not anymore. The rise of these so-called "AstroTurf" groups--cultivated by public relations firms using money, misinformation and phone banks--has been well-documented. Industry's attempt to kill the EV mandate using such groups was reported at least as far back as April 1994 by the Los Angeles Times and San Francisco's legal newspaper, the Recorder. One such group, electric car advocates say, is Californians Against Hidden Taxes, headed by Anita Mangels of Laguna. To turn out opponents for the June 28 Air Resources Board workshop, the group sent out a mailer beforehand (asking for help to stop "this bureacratic boondoggle!!!"), offering transportation by luxury bus, two meals and refreshments--all free. Mangels, who formerly was active in fighting Proposition 185, the gasoline sales tax initiative, is up front about where her paycheck comes from: the oil companies' lobbying group, Western States Petroleum Association. "I believe most, if not all of our funding comes from WSPA--that's no secret," she said. "We may get all our funding from one source, but we do have a broad-based coalition of groups of people across the state of California that think this [mandate] is a bad idea." Her campaign is managed by Burlingame's Woodward and McDowell public relations firm, which has managed similar groups on behalf of the oil industry. (One such effort was for Californians Against Utility Company Abuses, which fought against utility companies' efforts to have ratepayers fund $600 million of infrastructure and equipment--such as charging stations--to support electric vehicles.) Mangels is armed with a study, also paid for by WSPA, conducted by Sacramento's Sierra Research, Inc. The study updated an earlier report that claimed alternative fuel vehicles received $800 million in federal, state and local subsidies (including private donations to publicly funded programs). Apparently, this figure wasn't frightening enough, because the new study predicts $3 billion in total subsidies by the year 2000, and a total of $28 billion by the year 2010 if the current programs stay in place. Electric car advocates say these numbers are overblown--and besides, why shouldn't alternative fuels get government money? They cite a Citizen Advocate study that stated the oil industry received $38.4 billion in tax breaks from 1984 to 1993. And that doesn't count the cost of lives lost in the Gulf War, said Sacramento environmentalist Tom Whitney. "We fought Saddam Hussein," said Whitney. "That's a subsidy, straight out." Another publicity campaign, titled "Short Circuit," is funded by the California Manufacturers Association and run by the Sacramento firm McNally Temple Associates. It consists of a series of articles and editorials that are skeptical of electric vehicles and California's mandate that are sent to decision-makers, organizations and the media. Critics say the articles are based on studies that use bogus or dated information. "We are not opposing electric vehicle technology development, we are not opposing clean air technology," said the CMA's Martha Alcott, echoing Mangels, the AAMA and WSPA. "We are opposing a mandate being issued for one particular technology. ... We are coming from a philosophical standpoint that the private sector and consumers should be the ones to decide how to best meet air standards." Ironically, this rhetoric seems to pit the industry groups--traditionally big supporters of Wilson--against one of the main philosophical tenets of the governor's environmental policy: Technology will conquer all. The past four years have seen Gov. Pete Wilson's Cal/EPA (often lobbied by WSPA) turn its efforts away from aggressive enforcement of existing regulations and toward reducing pollution through multimillion-dollar environmental technology initiatives. The rest of the story is that electric utilities will benefit if gasoline is no longer the main power source for transportation. An anti-electric article in the May 29 issue of the conservative National Review magazine quotes a PG&E official saying his company could profit $200 million by the year 2005 if electrics are phased in.Will Wilson Buckle? In the battle over electrics, the big wild card is Gov. Wilson and the influence his presidential ambitions might have on his stance toward electric vehicles. Obviously, it would not hurt his candidacy to have the support of the governors of midwestern states (not to mention that of the oil industry, the automakers and the manufacturer's association). So the pro-electric groups were alarmed when the Council of Great Lakes Governors sent Wilson a letter in May asking him to drop the California mandate and instead work with the other states to come up with a weaker alternative. Publicly, at least, Wilson refused. Still, the fear remains that Wilson will use his appointees on the air board to scrap the mandate, said Cecile Martin, the Sacramento lobbyist for the California Electric Transportation Coalition, which is partly funded by utilities. Also, Wilson did agree to join his ally, Gov. Bill Weld of Massachusetts, to commission an "independent audit and technical review" of battery technology.This development has at least one Air Resources Board employee thinking the fix is on. "Well, what the hell have we been doing for the last five years?" said the employee, referring to the agency's extensive battery research. "We don't need to look outside for expertise." The employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity, also cited the unprecedented series of nine public workshops on the mandate that led up to a board hearing next January, saying they appear to be designed to allow the greatest possible exposure, which could help the opposition. "A lot of control is being taken away from the agency," the employee said, adding that the board's procedure "has always been one workshop, one hearing." But Joe Caves, who is active in the pro-mandate coalition among environmentalists, utilities and electric car advocates, retains the hope that Wilson will continue his past support for electric vehicles. "I don't know that the fix is on," said Caves, a lobbyist in the Sacramento office of the Union of Concerned Scientists. "I know the pressure is on. I think the oil companies and the car companies would like for the fix to be on." Caves and his allies say the worst thing about the industry propaganda campaign is that it is poisoning public opinion against electric vehicles with misinformation, such as that the new products will have a prohibitive cost, break down often, and handle like low-powered golf carts.The Future Of EVs The rhetoric obscures the great strides electric vehicles have made in the last several years. A Southern California firm co-owned by Alan Cocconi, a former researcher with GM's electric vehicle program, has developed a 200-horsepower motor that propels a four-seater converted Honda Civic from zero to 60 mph in a mere 6.2 seconds, according to the July Road & Track magazine. The vehicle needs only two hours to recharge using a washer/dryer outlet. Of course, it costs $75,000; but Cocconi told the News & Review the high price is because it is a prototype, hand-built by the company's seven employees--not by an assembly line. "If you build 1,000 a year, it would be below $30,000; and if you build 10,000 a year, you get it down to around $20,000," he said. Cocconi, who hopes to license AC's product to the big automakers, echoes what may be their most persuasive argument against California's mandate: that it will cause the market to be flooded with low-quality electric vehicles, turning a generation against cleaner technology. However, Cecile Martin is skeptical. "I believe automakers have their reputations at stake, and they won't put a poor quality product on the market." Of the Big Three, GM is the furthest ahead. In addition to its partnership with Ovonic, GM has been field testing its Impact prototype, a sleek electric two-seater, in Sacramento and other cities. The car has been well-received, said Mike Wirsch, who manages the 100-vehicle electric fleet of the Sacramento Municipal Utility District. "It's a real car," he said, "and it's fun to drive." He believes oil companies hope to stall electric vehicle technology because increased fuel efficiency has forced them to focus on developing new markets in countries such as India, China, Malaysia and the Phillipines, where an extensive "gasoline infrastructure" of service stations is not yet in place. If electrics catch on in those countries--their governments are currently examining the new technology--then it will be bad news for petroleum profits. "These countries could go either way," said Wirsch. Though he stressed he has no opinion on the California mandate, Stanford Ovshinksy said this potential foreign market for electrics is the reason American car companies should accept change in the industry. "If the United States industry doesn't respond, it doesn't mean there won't be electric vehicles," he said. "The Japanese and the Koreans and the Europeans--all of whom we work with--will all come in with [their own] electric cars." He said he would prefer to see America take the leadership position. The Ovonic battery powered a vehicle that set a new range record (238 miles on one charge) in the American Tour Del Sol in May. So it's no wonder Ovshinksy is optimistic that whatever happens in California, reason--and electric vehicles--will prevail. "Hell, the facts are there," he said. "You can't put the genie back in the bottle."