Honda's Forgotten Electric Car

The Honda Insight -- the first hybrid electric/gasoline-powered car to be sold in America -- arrives in dealer showrooms early this year, following a flurry of advance praise from environmentalists and fawning reviews from the automotive press. The buzz is understandable: Honda designed the Insight for super fuel efficiency and gave it a consumer-friendly $20,000 price tag. But even as Honda revved up to market the environmental friendliness of its new hybrid technology, the company quietly pulled the plug on a promising zero-emissions electric vehicle, a car that some industry analysts believe Honda never wanted to succeed.When Honda announced last April that the last of its electric EV Pluses had rolled off the production line (only 300 cars were ever made -- the minimum required by a California law mandating that auto-makers place zero-emissions vehicles on the market), the company defended the move claiming that the EV Plus was a car that no one wanted. True, even with a high price tag that scared off many consumers, everyone agreed that electric cars were losing car companies money. But as competitors GM, Toyota, and Ford were fulfilling orders for thousands of all-electric vehicles, Honda says it couldn't spark much consumer interest. "Demand was very, very tepid," says Robert Bienenfeld, advanced environmental vehicle marketing manager for American Honda. "We never had a waiting list of customers."But Honda did have a waiting list of government agencies and public utilities which wanted electric vehicles to use in fleets. Honda purposefully shunned many fleet customers, arguing that retail consumers would generate richer data on the day-to-day function of battery technology. But the Honda Civic GX, an ultra-low emission natural gas car, is being sold solely to fleets in order to encourage the development of natural gas stations. And manufacturers like Ford and Toyota say fleet customers do provide the kind of rich data Honda wants. "With fleet customers you get a lot of mileage in a short amount of time," says Toyota spokesman Jeremy Barnes. "We get a lot of feedback for extended research and development." By marketing only to fleets, Toyota had leased 507 of its SUV-like RAV4 EVs in less than the time it took Honda to place its 300 vehicles, of which only 150 went to fleets.Even as Honda turned away fleet customers for the EV Plus, it played pick-and-choose as to whom it considered an acceptable retail consumer. "If there are more customers than vehicles," Honda advised potential drivers, "we will select customers on the basis of our research program goals." The company established a tedious application procedure that disqualified many interested customers (as many as 50 percent at one Sacramento dealership). Specifically, Honda screened out applicants who did not own a private home or garage, reasoning they could not install an electric charging station. But GM, which has leased 600 of its EV1s to retail customers alone, has found ways to set up charging facilities for its apartment-dwelling customers.Why would Honda neglect a budding market for a radically-different full-electric vehicles, and push hybrid technology instead? The answer, according to Thad Malesh, senior analyst and alternate-fuels specialist at J.D. Power and Associates is simple: "Nobody wants to give up this huge investment in the combustion engine," he says.Honda, in particular, has an impressive record on low-emissions gasoline-powered cars, and the Insight is direct extension of that extensive research and development. For all the buzz about its innovative hybrid design, the Insight is essentially still powered by a conventional combustion engine: only 6 percent of its power comes from battery technology. And much of the Insight's remarkable fuel efficiency -- more than 70 miles to the gallon -- is the product not of the hybrid engine but of lower body weight and improved aerodynamics.Honda argues that selling thousands of the ultra-low-emissions hybrid electric/gasoline cars will do more for the environment than the leasing of a few hundred zero-emissions electric cars. "Ninety-nine percent of cars are gas, so for the biggest bang, we have to solve that problem," says Bienenfeld. And many environmentalist have embraced Honda's philosophy in the hopes that a well-selling hybrid will ring in a new era of alternatative-fuel cars."If there are thousands of the hybrids, they'll clean up the environment." reasons John Huetter, Director of a WestStart-CALSTART program to advance alternative transportation technologies."The hybrid could be a bridge to greater number of electric drive vehicles," explains David Hawkins, senior scientist with the Nation Resources Defense Council. "We don't see it as the end point of vehicle technology, but it overcomes the barrier that a lot of consumer have about electric technology."And the Sierra Club has added its weight to the issue. Dan Becker, Director of the Sierra Club's Global Warming and Energy Program, says, "Really clean emission-free electric vehicles that nobody buys aren't going to do a lot to clean up the environment, compared to thousands of hybrid vehicles that are dramatically cleaner than anything else on the road. They are a very substantial step forward."But critics claim that the introduction of hybrid technology may be aimed at getting California to lower or drop its strict zero-emissions quotas. Indeed, the state has already agreed to allow manufacturers to count hybrids as partial credit towards its zero-emissions quota. And Roland Hwang, Transportation Program Director for the Union of Concerned Scientists, expects auto makers will start a media campaign this year aimed at ending zero-emissions requirements altogether when they come up for review this September.Hwang says that even though electric cars pollute indirectly by consuming electricity, battery power from California's pro-environment mix of electricity is still about 98 percent cleaner than the Honda Insight. "The Insight is a high-fuel economy, but that doesn't mean anything about how much it will pollute," says Hwang. "Hybrids can be a step forward as long as we keep eye on prize, which is zero emissions. The gold standard for environmental performance is still the battery or hydrogen cell vehicle."And EPA Senior Policy Adviser Jim McCargar cautions that hybrids will do little to benefit the environment if the battery technology continues to be used as an add-on to gasoline engines. "Will hybrid technology prompt manufacturers to downsize engines and translate that into fuel-efficiency gains," McCargar asks, "or will they use the hybrid technology to get even more performance than we've had in the past?"

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