Arts » Arts Etc.

THE FUTURE IS OPEN

"Doctor's appointment in 10 minutes," he said. "I hurt my neck. Where's your breaker box?" I introduced myself, and got him to pause long enough to shake my hand. "Breaker box," he repeated. "You're going to need a 220 breaker."

He opened the trunk of the two-seater, a bottle-green car shaped the way comic book artists of the 1950s imagined personal rocket ships. The chrome nameplate read "EV1."

California is full of car crazies, of course. This one had read an article I'd written for Wired magazine about a hydrogen-powered car GM is hoping to introduce in about a decade. "Hydrogen isn't the thing," the man had said on the phone. "Plug-in is the thing.

"GM has a great one on the road right now, and they're killing the project."

"I want you to keep it for two weeks," he said now, wrenching open the electrical panel on the side of my house. Working feverishly inside the panel without so much as switching off the current first, he installed what looked like a big outlet.

It looked dangerous. I tried to protest. "I'm not sure I want ..."

"Just a minute," he snapped. "I'm in a little bit of a hurry here." He began unspooling an extension cord fat as a firehose and running it around the back of the house to the driveway. An unintroduced woman I took to be his wife, meanwhile, was rolling some kind of device that looked like R2-D2 into the garage. The man connected it to the power cord. Then he hefted what appeared to be a black rubber ping-pong paddle, which was connected to R2-D2 by a cable.

"Gotta run," he panted, "but basically, this goes in here." He shoved the paddle into a slot on the car's hood. "That'll charge it up in about four hours."

"I have a 9-year-old..." I said, probably sounding a little distressed.

"It's safe, stop worrying," the wife barked over her shoulder as she hastened back to their other car. "You could charge the car under water if you wanted. It's inductive, not conductive."

"Drive it all you want; the codes are on the dashboard," the man said, jogging backward toward his car. "Let anybody drive it who wants to. I want as many people mad at GM as possible. You can wreck it, for all I care, because General Motors is taking it back in December and going to crush it, along with all the others."

With one leg in his wife's car, he paused, thank goodness. I was full of questions about how to operate a fully electric car. Was it fast enough for the freeway? How far could I go before charging? Codes?

"There's a little flip-up cover over the charging part that you have to be sure to close before driving," he said. "Otherwise, you'll look like a dork."

The EV1, which GM introduced in 1997, is indeed being withdrawn. GM did not sell the car, but leased about 1,200 of them to a select group of enthusiasts around the country for $571 per month. California stepped in and offered to subsidize $200 of that, and sweetened the deal by making both tolls and parking free for an EV1 anywhere in the state. By all accounts, the people who have them love them: since the hydrogen-car article ran I've heard from several.

GM executives, though, say there isn't a big enough market for a car that can only go 120 miles before needing a four-hour charge. The EVistas mutter darkly of a Detroit/Big Oil conspiracy to kill the car. Look at Toyota, they say, which this year began offering a $42,000 plug in RAV-4 SUV.

But Toyota may have no more faith than GM that it will earn a direct profit from plug-ins. All automakers are required under California law to make 2 percent of their cars zero-emission vehicles, and Toyota's RAV-4 EV qualifies. GM's response to the law has been to file suit against it.

In truth, nickel-metal hydride battery technology simply didn't progress as far as everyone had hoped. It takes a lot of sales to justify an auto plant, and it's hard to imagine enough people willing to buy — even as a second car — an expensive vehicle they know will not be able to go on a weekend trip but can only be used for commuting. The EVistas say they've offered to sign any kind of paper GM likes — indemnifying the company against any manner of future malfunction or mishap — if only the automaker will relent and let them buy their existing cars outright. GM won't budge. CEO Rick Wagoner told me when we were talking about the hydrogen car that GM can't afford to have 1,200 cars out there whose technology GM isn't willing to support. Therefore, all the EV1s go back to GM in December.

The EV1 has no key. I punch a code into the numeric keypad beside the door and it unlocks. A keypad beside the gearshift takes a second code. I punch it, the digital dashboard lights up and the car — silently — is ready to roll. I put the shift into reverse, take my foot off the brake, and silently slide backwards, nearly killing the unsuspecting cat.

On my way to the freeway I take it easy, noticing that there is no transmission shifting, just smooth acceleration. At speed there is a high-pitched whistle; it sounds like I'm sitting in an airline seat at cruising altitude. In all other respects, it feels just like any other GM car: same lousy radio, same scratchy seats.

It's on the entrance ramp to Highway 1, though, that I feel the difference. I punch the accelerator, and nearly break my neck. The car shoots forward like an F-16; I can practically feel my face peeling back.

GM says the EV1 goes from zero to 60 in 8.5 seconds, but this feels much faster than that. I once owned a 1969 Pontiac GTO with a 400 cubic-inch engine — no slouch — and it was nowhere near this fast off the line. Part of the thrill is that smooth, shiftless acceleration. Gauges on the dash show me how much charge I have left and how much power I'm currently drawing. One reads my current driving style and tells me how many miles I can expect to go. (As I accelerate, it tells me I have only 40 miles left; as soon as I settle into cruising it changes its mind and says I have 100.) The car not only goes from zero to 60 fast, it zips from 65 to 80 with equal zip, which is delightful for passing.

No wonder its owner wants me to lend it to as many people as possible. One drive and it's hard not to be completely hooked. The EV1 is silent, stylish, and terrific fun to drive. You can run errands all day long without the slightest pang of eco-guilt. It gets those crucial second glances at stop lights and in parking lots. (It can be time consuming, having to stop and explain the car to everybody who asks about it.) If all you need to do is drive less than 60 miles each way (or if there is a charger at work), an electric would be the car to drive.

But this, alas, is America. Freedom to go anywhere at any time in one's own car is practically enshrined in the Constitution. The best technology doesn't always win; witness Apple computers and Betamax video. Adlai Stevenson once said that in a democracy the people get the government they deserve. Same is true of technology. We don't get this clean, efficient, and delightful little car because we have demonstrated, through our market preferences, that we simply don't deserve it.

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