Jumpstarting The Electric Car by zie20290


									Published on Orato.com (http://www.orato.com)

Jumpstarting The Electric Car
By Robyn Stubbs
Created 09/28/2007 - 10:47

Chelsea Sexton

am the last person in the world that expected to ever be called an activist - though that’s just one of many clubs I
hadn’t expected to join. Average on my best day, I’m an odd combination in so many ways - I’m a Los Angeles
area native, but having lived one of the smallest towns here for more than two decades, I identify more with the
Mayberry atmosphere than the metropolitan surroundings.

My son attends the same elementary school that I did. My professional passion is in clean energy and alternative
fuel cars, but my hometown is named after the oil refinery that forms its southern border. I’m incredibly shy by
nature, but find myself speaking in front of large audiences on a regular basis. And I’m your typical, anonymous,
ponytail and jeans-wearing, Cub Scout den meeting-attending mom next door – except that have found myself in
a feature film, a television series, and three books in the last year. My biggest sacrifices have brought my best
adventures, and the contradictions that used to punctuate my life have seemingly come to define it.

The funny thing is I’ve done nothing that I’d consider remarkable; I tend to live like nobody is watching - even
though I’ve spent a lot of time trying to get people to pay attention to something. I’ve never had a plan. Indeed,
my path, when seen from the beginning, would probably be too daunting to take. It started innocuously enough:
At age 17, I bought my first car and wound up taking a job for Saturn to pay my own way through college in
order to satisfy what my mother has come to describe as a nearly pathological mission of self-sufficiency.

Turned out, I really liked cars - and the business that went with it. A geek by nature, I loved the technology and
everything about America’s collective love for the automobile resonated, too. So, when General Motors
launched an electric vehicle in 1996 that promised to shift this country’s paradigm of personal transportation, I
knew I’d found a home, and all but demanded to be a part of the program.

The EV1 was the first mass-produced modern electric car and GM’s bid to meet a California law that mandated
that the largest automakers offer a small number of non-polluting cars in order to keep doing business here. It
was sleek and smooth, a sporty little two-seater that had a range of up to 140 miles per charge and would take a
Porsche off the line with the slightest encouragement. It was one of a half dozen electric vehicle models of its
generation, joined by SUVs, pick-up trucks and station wagons. What even its most ardent protagonists didn’t
expect, however, was that the EV1 would actually challenge the status quo of the biggest industries in the world,
and that fact would hasten its demise.

Today, there is not a single EV1 in customer hands. There was no lack of interest; every single vehicle of each
electric vehicle model made available was leased or sold, and there were waiting lists for more. But for
automakers who found their status quo threatened, such enthusiasm was a liability. In an unprecedented move,
one car company after another started collecting electric vehicles from happy drivers and sending them to remote
locations to be destroyed.

Even those of us on the inside of the program couldn’t believe such a popular program was ending, and we
subversively dug in our heels to keep it going, believing that the executives back in snowy Detroit just didn’t
understand the public passion for these vehicles. The drivers themselves, who had shown unprecedented
enthusiasm and loyalty not only for the car but the company that created it, were both mystified and intensely
frustrated. Many consulted lawyers and made cash offers, but GM refused to even consider leaving the cars on

                                                       1 of 3
the road as long as they worked. Anonymously sent pictures of crushed cars stacked on top of each other brutally
confirmed what we knew was happening out in the Arizona desert.

Even more confounding, we couldn’t get anyone to cover the story; there was no media attention at all. In a last
ditch effort to muster some press coverage, we actually held a funeral for the EV1, complete with rabbi, eulogies
and a flower-draped procession through the Hollywood Forever cemetery. When the story was covered with
breezy headlines like “Electric Car Drivers Bid Fond Farewell” and “Get Ready for the Hydrogen Future”, one
of those very drivers, Chris Paine, decided to tell the story himself. He spent the next three years making a
documentary, while others took to the streets, continuing to try to change the story’s end.

Over the course of a year, we launched four campaigns to save different electric vehicles, and thus began my
unlikely role as an activist. Each one was deliberately constructed after multiple attempts to work with the car
companies. Given my background in the industry, I often played the role of intermediary between automakers
and advocates, and interpreter for the press. What hadn’t occurred to me was the human interest element - that
anyone would catch on that a former employee was one of the people taking part in such public campaigns, let
alone that it would become part of the story. The fascination was enhanced by the fact that along the way I’d met
and married an EV1 technician, and our son became the program’s unofficial mascot. My passion had become a
family project, and never again would anyone believe I was once the quiet one.

Activism comes with its own set of contradictions. Many people admire it, even though they’d never dream of
taking part in it. Indeed, I was one of those people until an issue appealed to me on such an instinctual level that
I couldn’t not respond. I agreed with Margaret Mead’s sentiment about small groups of people changing the
world, but I simply couldn’t see myself as one of those people, let alone that it would involve carrying a protest
sign on a street corner. For many others though, “activism” has become such a pejorative term, and one in
complete opposition to its core verb in connotation.

To be “active” brings to mind all sorts of healthy images these days, but for a huge segment of the population,
“activist” suggests slightly unstable, bullhorn-wielding, Hummer-burning people on the fringe of society, and
that association marginalizes the issue at hand more often than not. To be sure, there are extremists in every
group (and to be clear, I do not advocate violence against people or property in the name of activism), but an
idea is not responsible for the people who believe in it. If anything, because most people want various sorts of
change but aren’t willing take a stand to make it happen, those who do live in such fidelity to their beliefs
deserve that much more of our collective respect. More company in the effort is always welcome, too.

While we won three campaigns and saved approximately 1,000 electric vehicles that continue to be used daily,
we lost the EV1s after a month-long vigil that ended dramatically with two arrests and an interstate truck chase.
We did, however, finally get some press to the story, making the front page of the Washington Post and raising
awareness of the benefits of electric drive technology in the national conversation.

Chris Paine’s documentary cameras were rolling the whole time too, though at the time we were still convinced
that our biggest audience would be our own parents. We couldn’t have imagined at the time that our story would
make it to theaters, let alone that the resulting film Who Killed the Electric Car? would become the third most
popular documentary of 2006. Even better, the movie, whose best quality is the fact that it inspires as much as it
entertains, continues to spread through word of mouth and public screenings. After 10 years of struggling to get
this story told when it seemed no one wanted to hear it, the enthusiasm continues to amaze us.

Most importantly, the collective persistence of our movement is bringing tangible results. In the wake of the
film, several automakers have realized that they have to start building cars that people want to buy, and that
plug-in vehicles are in that category. A few have realized just how much consumer loyalty they squandered by
ending their electric vehicle programs so destructively, and are making an effort (albeit sometimes clumsily) to
win it back - General Motors most prominent among them.

In the last year, GM has announced two plug-in vehicles for production: The Chevy Volt, and a plug-in hybrid
version of the Saturn VUE. No fewer than a dozen different employees have told us that these cars are a direct
result of the film and our actions. For the first time that I know of, consumer interest and grassroots effort is

                                                        2 of 3
responsible for a car program, a fact which in turn puts the responsibility back on consumers to continue to ask
for the cleaner, more efficient plug-in vehicles that we want.

There is still a lot of work to be done, but it’s an empowering cycle and one whose power increases
exponentially with every new person that gets involved. It takes a lot of Davids to reach the ear of Goliath, but
it’s the call to that kind of challenge that most attracts the human spirit. It’s most certainly what attracted mine.

To learn more about plug-in vehicles, buy a copy of Who Killed the Electric Car? or get involved in the
movement, visit www.pluginamerica.org [2].

Anonymously sent pictures of crushed cars stacked on top of each other brutally confirmed what we knew was
happening out in the Arizona desert.

When writer/director Chris Paine's documentary feature film Who Killed the Electric Car? premiered at the
Sundance Film Festival in 2006, it was an instant hit. Investigating the events leading to the quiet destruction of
thousands of new, radically efficient electric vehicles, the film paints a picture of an industrial culture whose
aversion to change and reliance on oil may be deeper then its ability to embrace ready solutions. Chelsea Sexton
was employed by GM to promote the EV1 to Californian consumers and watched as beloved EV1s began
disappearing from California roads. Now a full time advocate of electric cars at Plug In America, she’s fighting
to bring back something that should never have disappeared in the first place. Here is her story.

Source URL: http://www.orato.com/podium/2007/09/28/jumpstarting-electric-car
[1] http://www.pluginamerica.org
[2] http://www.pluginamerica.org

                                                         3 of 3

To top