March 28, 2004, Sunday Late Edition - Final

Section 12 Page 1 Column 1 Desk: Automobiles Length:1539 words

Carmakers Pull Plug On Electric Vehicles



FIVE to 10 years ago, when the future seemed to belong to electriccars -- and California clean-air rules forced reluctant automakers tooffer them -- a small but enthusiastic group of optimists andenvironmentalists signed on as pioneers. While a few bought electricsoutright, most signed leases that obliged them to return the vehiclesafter a few years.

Regulators and auto manufacturers have since pinned their hopes onnewer technologies, like hybrid gasoline-electric vehicles and,further in the future, hydrogen cars. Electric autos have becomeorphans, abandoned in favor of more promising offspring.

Parental neglect has, in fact, turned into infanticide. GeneralMotors and Ford are taking back electric vehicles when the leasesexpire -- not to resell them, but in many cases to crush them. Thecompanies have refused to sell them to leaseholders, saying there arenot enough on the road to justify the maintenance costs, and theywant to avoid liability for any problems that might arise. They seeelectric cars as an interesting but failed experiment that taughtvaluable lessons for the future.

But some drivers, upset at losing their cheap-running,zero-emission cars even as gasoline prices jump, are fighting back.

One Ford lessee, William Korthof, has hired a Los Angeles civilrights lawyer, Nora Quinn, to press his case. She says she may file aclass-action lawsuit against G.M. and Ford on behalf of lessees.

''I am personally, morally offended by the idea that they woulddestroy these functional vehicles that have such a positiveenvironmental impact,'' Ms. Quinn said.

Ray Levinson of San Francisco says he may also retain Ms. Quinn.Not only does he drive a Ford Ranger EV pickup, he has compiled along, green résumé as an environmental programs managerfor the United States Postal Service on the West Coast. In 2000, heorganized an initiative that put 500 electric Ranger-based postaltrucks on Southern California streets; he later oversaw a hugesolar-power installation.

Although Mr. Levinson's lease ran out on Feb. 25, he has refusedto return his 2000-model truck. He said that before the leaseexpired, he sought to buy the truck for the $7,000 residual valueindicated on his contract. ''The next day,'' he said, ''I got a callback that said, nope, no option, turn it in.''

Ford's response is similar to that of G.M., which has quietlyreclaimed most of its ground-breaking EV-1 electric cars, from some800 lessees, since production ended in 2000. G.M. has crushed many ofthe cars, undeterred by rallies and mock funerals organized by theEV-1's devoted fans.

After $1 billion to develop the bullet-shaped electric speedster,G.M. canceled the EV-1 after building about 1,000 cars. DaveBarthmuss, a G.M. environmental manager, said that although manylessees loved the EV-1, it didn't make enough money and cost too muchto keep on the road.

"But we've learned a heck of a lot from the EV-1 in terms oftechnology transfer and what is necessary to sell advanced vehicleslike hybrids and fuel cells,'' he said.

Mr. Barthmuss added that although many cars were crushed -- heprefers ''recycled'' -- vital parts were retained for the 100 or sothat remain in private hands until all leases end in August. OtherEV-1's will live on in museums or as research vehicles.

Ford, too, is quietly reclaiming its electric trucks. Most of the1,500 Ranger EV's went to commercial fleets, but Ford also leasedabout 200 to individuals and sold a few. Only 180 or so remain infleets; about a dozen are still in private hands.

Several Californians who leased Rangers, including Mr. Korthof ofPomona, who installs solar panels, and Dave Raboy, a rancher inCatheys Valley, near Yosemite, received letters from Ford offering tolet them buy their vehicles when the leases expired. But they saidthat when they tried to exercise this option, they were turned down.

In December, Mr. Korthof retained Ms. Quinn. She cited severalgrounds for a possible lawsuit, asserting that contrary to Ford'sassertions, several lessees were not told they couldn't buy theirRangers when the leases ended. She said Ranger and EV-1 drivers hadno other options if they wished to drive electric vehicles. And sheasserted that EV-1 lessees were being required to pay for wear andtear on crushed cars.

Mr. Barthmass said that wear and tear charges were not unusual forleased cars, and that not all EV-1's were being crushed.

While battery-powered vehicles made barely a ripple in themarketplace, they inspired near-religious zeal among many of thosewho bought or leased them. The impetus to sell electrics inCalifornia came in 1990 with a state mandate that 2 percent ofautomakers' sales had to be zero-emission vehicles, called ZEV's, by1998. The mandate was to rise to 10 percent by 2003.

Automakers bitterly fought the requirement, arguing that itunreasonably manipulated the marketplace and forced consumers to buyvehicles for which they had shown relatively little appetite. In2003, facing the prospect of prolonged litigation with G.M.,regulators altered the ZEV mandate to include hybrids and hydrogenvehicles.

Mr. Korthof said his Ranger was a perfect match for hissolar-panel business, since he can charge it using his own panels.

Mr. Raboy, whose lease expires in April, also charges his vehiclewith panels on his ranch. ''We're just trying to do our part,'' hesaid, ''Not use gas, protect the environment and help with foreignoil in a small way.''

Mr. Korthof said that when his lease ended in December, he refusedto return the truck but continued to make the $480 monthly leasepayments. After what he described as several angry calls from thecompany, his lawyer, Ms. Quinn, contacted Ford. She said Ford wouldnot agree to let her client keep the truck even if he signed a waiveragreeing to assume responsibility for its upkeep. But Ford has sinceleft Mr. Korthof alone and is accepting his payments.

In contrast to G.M. and Ford, Toyota has allowed lessees to buyits remaining RAV4 EV's, and the company will continue to servicethem. ''We offered these up for purchase, and when we did that weknew that we had a commitment from that point forward,'' NancyHubbell, a company spokeswoman, said.

Honda, which produced about 300 EV-Plus cars, allowed lessees tokeep the cars so long as they do not require new batteries,unavailable parts or expensive service.

Ms. Quinn said she saw no reason Ford or G.M. could not sell thecars with titles that would indicate that the vehicles were no longerbe supported by the manufacturers.

But this is not how Ford wants to do business, said Philip Chizek,the company's marketing manager for sustainable mobility, particuarlywith a technology that he said was never intended to be on the roadfor more than three to five years.

''Once the vehicle gets in the hands of the owner, they can makemodifications that wouldn't be proper,'' he said. ''They may not beup to Ford's standards in terms of preventative maintenance.

''Once you hand off the keys to someone with that type ofunlimited liability, it puts Ford in a bad position. And that's notthe type of customer relationship that we want.''

Mr. Chizek said that when the trucks were leased, ''we told themupfront that this was a limited lease and that the probability ofthem extending the lease is very slim because the technology would beoutdated.''

Less than two years after Mr. Levinson recommended that Fordreceive the electric postal truck contract, the company pulled thevehicles out of service, saying batteries were not available, andsubstituted gasoline-powered Windstar vans. Had he known that hishoped-for 12-year fleet would be gone so soon, another bidder wouldprobably have won the contract.

Today, he said, he just wants Ford to honor a more personalenvironmental commitment. ''It costs me $1.25 to charge the truck toget a 50-mile range,'' he said. ''It's just criminal that in thistime of war for oil and these ridiculous prices for gasoline that Iwould be forced to give up something that's helping clean the air,eliminate our dependence on foreign oil and is just such a greatvehicle to drive.''

Images: Photos: Dave Raboy and his wife, Heather Bernikoff, withsolar panels that charge their electric Ford pickup near CatheysValley, Calif. Other lessees, William Korthof and Bud Raymond,outside a Cerritos, Calif., home where Mr. Korthof's companyinstalled solar panels. (Photo by Tomas Ovalle for The New YorkTimes); (Photo by J. Emilio Flores for The New York Times); Electricmessage on Dave Raboy's plates. (Photo by Tomas Ovalle for The NewYork Times); At lease-end, EV-1's go to the crusher. (Photo by