Noe Valley Voice June 1999

Noe Valley's Electric Car Club

By Steve Steinberg

The automobile of the future has come to Noe Valley. Silent, emission-free, battery-operated electric cars are humming along neighborhood streets, their proud owners thumbing their noses at skyrocketing gas prices.

At least five of the new electric cars are tooling around the Valley. Three of them -- two GM cars and a Honda -- are owned by guys named Steve, who all agree that saving the environment is their top reason for driving an e-car.

"I have taken a step to show that we can do something to help the environment," says Steve Dibner, who lives on Cesar Chavez Street.

"We feel like pioneers," says Castro Street resident Steve Oddo. "I see this as the only way to stem our smog problems."

Both Oddo and Dibner lease the 1998 model EV1. The car is put out by General Motors and available through Saturn dealers. Dibner, a bassoonist with the San Francisco Symphony, and Oddo, an engineer with Dolby Laboratories, picked up their cars on Treasure Island on March 31, 1998, the first day the EV1 was available in Northern California. (The car had been introduced in Southern California and Arizona the previous year.)

The March 31 debut was something of a media event, with CNN providing coverage. Dibner called the day "one of the most exciting of my whole life." He had test-driven a prototype of the EV1 back in 1994 and had eagerly anticipated the moment when he could take one home.

Steve Braunstein, who lives on Jersey Street, and who, coincidentally, is also a bassoonist with the San Francisco Symphony, got a little bit of a jump on Oddo and Dibner with his Honda EV+, having leased his car at the end of February 1998.

GM's Car Has a 'Wow' Dash

Braunstein's Honda looks pretty much like a smallish minivan, with no great design surprises in either the interior or exterior. The GM EV1 is a completely different story. Teardrop in shape, the car resembles a Citroen of the 1950s and '60s. The rear wheels are partially covered by the frame and are not parallel to the front wheels, which makes the car extremely aerodynamic, says Dibner.

But the big treat is inside the two-seater, where space-age design prevails. The car has keyless ignition -- just punch in a code and hit "Run."

When you turn the engine on, the dashboard, looking like a cockpit in Star Wars, lights up. Curving around the base of the front window and all but invisible when the motor is off, the board is loaded with futuristic gauges. Dibner calls it the "Wow!" board, because that's what most people say the first time they see it.

The EV1 also has several other state-of-the-art features not found in regular cars: A climate control switch lets the driver precondition the cabin. A horn beeps when the car backs up. And because the car is so quiet, it comes with a special horn and light system the driver can use to warn pedestrians.

Braunstein's Honda is even quieter than the EV1, especially when it's idling. Asked to turn on his engine for a test drive, Braunstein exclaims, "It's on, it's on!"

Both models come with a special regenerative feature, which allows the car to partially recharge its batteries while coasting.

Available for Lease Only

All the bells and whistles aside, the cars go a long way in the fight against air pollution. Their gasoline-free engines make them 97 percent cleaner than conventionally powered vehicles.

Neither the EV1 nor the EV+ can be purchased by consumers at this time. The manufacturers will only lease them, because they want to maintain control of this emerging technology. Customers may not even be able to renew their current three-year leases once they expire, since GM and Honda may want to disassemble the cars to see how they held up.

Though the cars can't be bought, GM's list price for the EV1 is about $34,000. The Honda, which is handmade in Japan by the company's most elite workers, goes for $54,000. The three Steves pay between $399 and $450 a month to lease their vehicles.

The lease includes all maintenance, even though there is almost nothing to maintain. The first scheduled maintenance for the cars is a tire rotation at 5,000 miles. (Replacement tires are also included in the lease.)

The cars require no oil changes, no tune-ups. They have no transmissions, no clutches, and no water pumps. And their brakes last a lot longer than those in regular cars. Under the hood there is very little to see: a couple of reservoirs for windshield washer fluid and power brake fluid, and a covered electric motor.

The heart of each car is a series of battery packs, located under and around the seats. The batteries provide the car's energy. (Honda has 24 of the packs, GM 26.)

Speed: 0 to 60 in 9 Seconds

Braunstein says that when people find out he's driving an electric car, invariably their first question is, "How far can you go?" Well, that depends on how you drive the car.

Officially, the GM car will go 50 to 70 miles between charges, and the Honda anywhere from 75 to 120. The difference in range between the two cars has to do with their batteries. The GM uses a conventional lead-acid battery pack, while the Honda has a more advanced nickel-metal hydride battery, similar to the batteries used in computers.

As for "real world" mileage, Braunstein reports an average of 60 to 80 miles between charges in his Honda, but says he could do better if he didn't have to contend with San Francisco's hills. Oddo says he recently drove to Martinez and back, about 70 miles round trip, and still had some charge remaining.

Dibner prefers not to reveal his actual mileage, conceding that he drives his car pretty hard. "I drive the fastest, sexiest car on the road," he says. He is proud of the fact that his EV1 will do zero to 60 in under nine seconds, and although it has a factory-set speed limit of 80 miles per hour, it has been clocked, he says, on the test track at 183 miles per hour.

Braunstein's Honda is no slouch in the acceleration department either. "It's as peppy a car as I've ever owned," he says, "even when it's carrying four adults."

Because there are no gears, both e-cars accelerate smoothly and silently. As the car speeds up, driver and passengers feel the same kind of G forces they'd feel in an airplane.

Each car comes equipped with its own battery recharging unit, which can be plugged in at special stations. GM maintains about 65 public charging stations in Northern California, with far more in Southern California. Honda has about 30. You generally find them at shopping malls, airports, and hotels. In San Francisco, there are stations at Fisherman's Wharf and at Costco on 10th Street.

Nevertheless, the three Steves opted to have their own personal charging stations installed in their garages -- at a cost of between $800 and $1,600.

Plug the Car into a Wall

A complete recharge takes about three hours, notes Dibner, although a basic charge can be attained in one. The cars also come with a portable charging unit, so that if you're not near a charging station, you can literally plug the car into a wall. (It takes a lot longer to do it this way, however.)

If you really get stranded -- you're not near a station and you're totally out of power -- GM and Honda will provide free towing. Honda also gives its customers coupons for free car washes.

And what is all this battery-charging doing to the PG&E bills of e-car owners? Not much, say the three Steves.

Dibner and Braunstein report an almost imperceptible increase in their bills. Oddo says his bill has gone up maybe $30 a month. But the owners make it a point to recharge only during off-peak billing hours.

Braunstein figures it costs him about three cents a mile to operate his car. "I couldn't help chuckling the day gas prices started going up," he says. (That's despite the fact that, like Dibner and Oddo, he owns a regular, gas-operated car, too.)

The Future of E-Cars

Still, all three Steves are committed to the e-car era. They've been fascinated by the technology for over a decade. Ten years ago, Braunstein considered electrifying his old VW Rabbit. The plan went by the wayside, but "I had the bug in my ear." Oddo actually planned to start his own conversion business a few years ago, but decided to drop the idea because of the expense.

Dibner has a family connection that has given him a unique insight into the electric car industry. His stepfather is an inventor, who has been working with General Motors in Michigan to produce the nickel-metal hydride battery. Dibner says that even though GM was one of the first car manufacturers to come out with an e-car, the company "would like the whole thing to go down the drain." He claims that GM has too many links to Big Oil to want the e-car to succeed.

Braunstein points out that the only reason electric cars are on the road at all is because the California Air Resources Board mandated that by 1998 two percent of all cars sold in California had to be emission-free. The mandate didn't stipulate the method manufacturers had to use, Braunstein says, but e-cars were really the only solution. The Air Resources Board later pushed back by five years (to 2003) the deadline for cleaner cars, and raised the requisite number to 10 percent, but by then the e-cars were already in production.

Honda produced 300 EV+s for California last year, while GM made about 600 of the EV1s. Toyota, Nissan, and Chrysler also make e-cars, but according to Braunstein, they are only available to fleet customers.

So what about the future of electric vehicles? Oddo says a better battery will make all the difference: "Batteries are the single biggest obstacle to achieving widespread acceptance."

And conveniently, it looks as if newer, longer-lasting batteries are on the way. Dibner and Oddo note that the 1999 GM models of the EV1, due out in a few months, will come equipped with an improved nickel-metal battery. The new cars should fully recharge in about an hour. And, says Oddo, they will run for 120 to 200 miles between charges. Both Dibner and Oddo say they plan to trade up to the '99 model.

Dibner and Braunstein think that another "logical next step" in electric car technology will be a hybrid, combining battery and gas-powered components. (Honda announced in late April that it would soon come out with such a hybrid. At the same time, the car manufacturer said it would be discontinuing the EV+, citing a lack of consumer response.)

Whatever that next step is, everyone agrees it has to be better than paying $1.77 a gallon at the pump.