MARK PHELAN: Electric car killer?
Don't blame GM, Toyota exec says
December 20, 2006
BY MARK PHELAN
FREE PRESS COLUMNIST
GM got a raw deal.
It's the kind of thing you hear over dinner every week in Detroit, but it comes as a surprise when a top executive with Toyota leans across the table to make the point.
"The movie 'Who Killed the Electric Car?' was terribly one-sided," Ernest Bastien, Toyota Motor Sales vice president for vehicle operations, said intensely. "It was not balanced at all."
We were talking in Charlotte, N.C., a couple of weeks ago. I was there to drive Toyota's new 2007 Tundra pickup, and the change in topic was completely unexpected.
If it's not surprising enough to hear Toyota defending GM, try this on for size: The film's director pretty much agrees.
"We let Toyota off the hook for how they subverted the program" to sell electric cars because GM had a higher profile, director Chris Paine told me over the phone Sunday.
The automakers, of course, don't think they subverted anything.
GM's Saturn EV1 electric car and Toyota's RAV4-EV electric SUV failed for the same reason -- customers didn't want them -- said Bastien, who was point man for Toyota's short-lived effort to sell the RAV4-EV in California.
GM delivered about 800 EV1s to customers from 1996 through 2000, while Toyota delivered 342 RAV4-EVs in 2002-03.
The film, which suggested GM sabotaged a promising technology that could reduce fuel consumption and pollution, caused a furor when it was released earlier this year.
The movie also intentionally ignored Toyota's experience to make its case, Bastien said.
"We shared all our experience with the RAV4-EV," but the filmmakers intentionally omitted it, he said.
He said the movie's suggestion that GM "chose not to make money on a car people wanted to buy in California" is ridiculous.
"They spent a huge amount of money advertising that car in California," Bastien said. "People wouldn't buy them."
Toyota did everything it could to attract buyers to the RAV4-EV, too. It subsidized the price, so customers paid $279 a month -- the same price as the company's hit Prius hybrid. The price included an expensive home charging station.
Toyota used the same savvy Internet-intensive marketing model that fueled the Prius craze. It even gave its dealers a sweetheart deal so they could make twice as much selling a RAV4-EV as a Prius.
To no avail. Toyota sold about 300 RAV4-EVs in 2002, compared with 20,119 Priuses. Buyers waited in line for the hybrid. They avoided the electric car like it was a downed power line and Toyota, like GM, pulled the plug on the project.
"Customers are not willing to compromise on things they need," Bastien said. "They need cruising range. They don't want to worry about running out of fuel, and they don't want to wait five hours to recharge. The movie didn't give any consideration to that fact."
Filmmaker Paine bought a RAV4-EV, but he's not buying Toyota's explanation.
"I don't agree that they made a good-faith effort to sell the car," he said. "Their priority was the Prius. The EV1 and RAV4-EV were never properly marketed.
"Toyota was no better than GM."
Which brings us back to the original question: Why was the movie so much harder on GM?
It made a better target.
"GM handled it so poorly," Paine said.
His crew filmed protesters outside Toyota's offices, but the company's security guards came out and gave them bottled water and Toyota key chains.
GM, Paine said, turned the water sprinklers on protesters. GM insists they were timed sprinklers, and the protesters just happened to be there at the wrong moment.
Whatever the case, the GM footage was more dramatic, entertaining video. It made it into the movie. Toyota wound up on the cutting-room floor."I don't want to say that we picked on GM," Paine said. "The EV1 was the iconic electric vehicle. That's why we focused on GM."
Let me translate that: GM ended up in the crosshairs because it invested the most time and effort into its electric vehicle. The futuristic EV1 was designed from the start to be a revolution. It was the poster child for electric vehicles. The sedate RAV4-EV looked like just another small SUV.
GM declined to comment.
The nail that sticks up will be hammered down, as they say. GM was the nail. "Who Killed the Electric Car?" was the hammer.
And Ernest Bastien deserves credit for sticking up for the truth, regardless of hammers.
Contact MARK PHELAN at 313-222-6731 or email@example.com