November 2004, San Francisco Autoshow -- ZAP with Smart Car, and Code Pink climbing on Hummers

reikiman's picture

What am I doing going to an "auto show"? Aren't the typical "auto show" for gas guzzling gearheads? Yup they are, as this altar to the almighty Internal Combustion Engine attests.


But this time I went for two reasons. First, ZAP promised to unveil their "Americanized" SMART CAR to the public. I wanted to touch it, see it for myself, and talk with them about a theory of what I believe they're planning to do, but more on that later. Second, I wanted to look at the hybrid vehicles, especially the Ford Escape. Lastly, I wanted to do a bit to document the state of affairs in automobiles, and the limited choice consumers have in the type of vehicles available to them.

(A note to modern readers - this posting was written in 2004; ZAP was about to embark on an ill-fated journey in importing SMART cars to the U.S.; etc..)

Let's start with the last first. You may think there's a huge choice in vehicles, after all there are several car makers each making a whole wide range of vehicles. But, you know what? Your choice is limited in one crucial way. The vehicles you can buy will be, no choices allowed, burning some kind of liquid derived from fossillized oil created several million years ago. Think about it, can you buy an electric vehicle today? Before you say "hybrid", let me remind you that the electricity used in the hybrids to drive the electric motor comes from gasoline, and none of these hybrids allow you to plug in the battery pack to charge it independantly of the gasoline. The only real alternative is if you beg hard enough you can find one of the few models that burn natural gas, big whoop. Otherwise your choice is one of two poisins: Gasoline or Diesel.

And yes, I do own a gasoline burning car. I am doing the best I can to limit my use of it, but I'm limited in the vehicles I can buy on the market and as a result am having to build an electric motorcycle. In the meantime I have an electric bicycle, and several sizes of electric scooter, and I use them as much as I am able.

Now that I've established my point of view, let's begin talking about the show.

First, obviously, the overwhelming majority of the vehicles were gasoline burning. The SUV is still represented strongly as if the $2.30 per gallon we pay for gasoline is illusory, the $50 per barrel of oil is temporary, and that the invasion of Iraq was soley to liberate the Iraqi's from their hated dictator. Let me say that the American people are in denial, and I do not mean the River in Egypt.


The few, the proud, the Hybrids

The first, and almost only, hybrid I found was the Ford Escape. This is an SUV, not the humongous sized SUV like the Expidition (a car so big it's a major expidition to go from one end to the other) and not as small as my SUV (a Chevy Tracker), but somewhere in the middle. It gets 36 miles/gallon on the highway, which is awfully damned good. That's better than my Tracker (28mpg), which I'd chosen largely because of it's "high" gasoline mileage.


While gandering at the Escape I was approached by a camera crew. Two guys, one with a microphone, the other with a camera. The microphone guy asked if they could talk with me, I said "yes" though I wasn't sure who they were with and how what I had to say would be accepted. Anyway, we started in with the questions and answers. They turned out to be with a local news station, and I'm assuming what I had to say will be on the TV show tonight, but let me share with you approximately what I had to say:

What are you looking for? Well, I'm most interested in the hybrid vehicles. I'd be especially interested in a proper electric vehicle, and I already own a few small ones.

The EPA recently declared Ford has the worst gasoline mileage of them all, what do you think of that? First, I don't know that for sure, as I've not looked at the numbers. But if true, that's very alarming.

Why alarming? It's clear that this war in Iraq is about the oil more than anything. The more oil we as a country use, the more desparately we need to do things like invade Iraq.

What's the most important thing we, consumers, can do? Remember the 1970's and the oil problems then. (I saw the cameraman nodding in agreement his head at this point) Think about how in 1970 the U.S. imported only 35% of its oil, and today the U.S. imports around 60%. The more oil we use, the higher that percentage is, the more control OPEC has over this country.

I saw few of the other hybrids that I know are on the market. The only other hybrid vehicle present was the Honda Accord Hybrid. All I could think of seeing the Accord Hybrid was an advertisement from Honda back when they made an EV.

A car with a cord, sounds like a Honda

Get it? Honda A Cord? Okay, maybe that's more of an example of the lame marketing that went into the big car company's abysmal attempt at selling electric vehicles.

In any case, where was the Toyota Prius, the Honda Insight, the Honda Civic Hybrid and the other hybrids? This is the San Francisco Bay Area, with more tree hugging granola crunchers (or so the stereotype goes) per square mile than anywhere else. You'd think the local people would want to see some ecologically friendly cars? And therefore that the car companies might have a clue as to who the local market is, and bring out some ecologically friendly cars? Nope.

The singular, the prouder, the Electric

Remember I wanted to see ZAP? You might or might not know that the companies name is an acronym, that means "Zero Air Pollution". The company Chairman, Gary Starr, had formerly run an Electric Car company (Solar Electric, which later became US Electricar), and the company has, over the years, sold a line of small EV's. More lately they've been pursuing a plan of selling a line of NEV's, building up a dealership network to sell their Neighborhood Electric Vehicles (NEV).

The most interesting thing is two recent moves. First they have completed the "americanization" of the SMART car, and are now selling them in the United States. This is a tiny two-seater car that gets 60 miles per gallon and is very popular in Europe. But it hasn't been imported to the U.S. presumably because we're too wedded to SUV's and the SMART car just is completely the opposite of an SUV. The second recent move is an investment in a Chinese company that makes lithium batteries.

I saw these two moves and put a couple thoughts together. First, they have a car that is DOT crash tested and approved for highway speeds. If they can import a "glider" (engineless) version of that car, it could easily be electrified, and with the high energy density of lithium batteries they could have a 300 mile (maybe) range. This is the theory I wanted to verify with the company, whether that's their intent or not.

I am happy to report this is exactly their intent. I talked with two company executives, one at length, and learned that their plans are to be selling an electric SMART (a SMART-E maybe?) in 2-3 years. In the meantime they are looking to build their dealer network, and rebuild the company (they were on the brink of bankruptcy a couple years ago). With a dealer network and with a strengthened company, they should be able to make a significant play to get electric vehicles onto the market.

I've since learned that the importation and "americanization" is being done by G&K Auto (, a company that specializes in this work. What's happening is that a G&K representative, Thomas Heidemann, has launched "Smart Automobiles LLC", and is buying SMART cars at retail in Germany and then importing them to the U.S. G&K then does the conversion (americanization) and provides these SMART's to ZAP's dealer network (if ZAP's dealer network ever gets going). (more details here)


Wasn't there an incident a few months ago of some SUV's being crushed by a tree falling in the forest? This advertisement turns that story on its head, with a SMART parked in that situation surviving unscathed while the SUV's get crushed.


This last is a picture of their most recent Personal Electric Vehicle, the Zappy3. The original Zappy was a hit on the market, which ZAP then flubbed when they went to mass production. Nowadays ZAP is no longer in the business of designing their own vehicles, but buying designs from others, sticking their branding on it, and selling the result. The Zappy3 is one of these, and in this vehicle they are trying to ride Segway's coattails.

It's a fun scooter, but it's no Segway. It has a very small turning radius, but it's no Segway. It also costs $4000 less than the Segway, as they repeatedly pointed out.

The Mini

The next car I want to mention is The Mini. While it's a gasoline burning car, the Mini represents what ZAP could do with the SMART car.

The Mini and the SMART are both about the same size. They both were designed for the European market, a region where gasoline prices are not kept artificially low by the government, and a region with highly dense urban areas in which tiny cars fit much better than do enourmous SUV's.

The Mini has been very popular with people calling them "cute" etc. The fact is, the Mini is only 2-3 feet longer than the SMART (I think). This says that with the right marketing, the SMART could sell as well as the Mini.

Speaking about the Mini, it is truly an interesting car. It represents everything my head says would be a move towards sustainability, while still owning an automobile. Its small size means a small amount of material used to build it. The small size should also result in very good gas mileage. And it is cute, and no doubt fun to drive.

The Hummer, and the protesters

The last thing I saw at the show was the Hummer exhibit. This car represents every unsustainable thing you could think of about the modern vehicles in America. It is tremendously big, very poor gas mileage, and uses several tons of material to build.

What drew me there was the protesters. From off in the distance I heard some raised voices, and overheard someone talking about people on top of the cars. Ambling over that way it came clear that people were on top of the HUMMER's, chanting some slogans. I began to make out "Hybrids not Hummers" and other slogans. Breaking into a faster pace, this is what I saw:


What I learned is that Medea Benjamin, Code Pink, and The Raging Grannies had teamed up to wage protest against the HUMMER's. The crowd, as you might expect of HUMMER oglers, did not appreciate this message being shoved into their faces.


Pretty soon after I arrived, they were forced to leave the exhibit and escorted out of the Moscone center by both Security Guards and a San Francisco policeman.


I followed them outside, remembering the day in March 2003 when I found myself watching a group of demonstrators being arrested. This time, as then, I felt compelled to observe as a protection against things turning ugly. Fortunately Medea Benjamin and the others were careful to stay from engrangeful acts, and everything was resolved peacefully.


This was the closest there was to any force employed by the policeman present. I don't remember why he had his hand on the womans arm, but he did. This was an important point in the negotiations that ensued, for some of the people were going to claim police brutality. I actually thought the police officer and security guards were very respectful, while at the same time threatening arrest.

UPDATE: I see the above picture actually records the incident that supported what they were going to claim as police brutality. It's a fine line of boundary setting to be sure, but they were saying "hey, wait a minute, didn't the police officer put his hand on my arm, isn't that crossing the line, isn't that technically police brutality unless there is cause for the officer to touch me". And, there you see the officer's hand on one persons arm. Hmm.. Looks so innocent doesn't it, or does it look like the officer was about the wrest her to the ground? That's not what happened but if it had I'm sure I'd have had some interesting pictures to follow this.


Here the protesters said "Okay, if you're going to arrest us, then get on with it" and sat down as a group in the classical non-violence manner.


Being faced down by officialdom.


Raging Grannies, a Palo Alto based group, had a few representatives in the group.

In the background you see Medea Benjamin negotiating with a HUMMER representative. The main claim HUMMER had was damage to the vehicle they stood on while protesting. They also claimed that forcing them to climb down from the vehicle was for safety, though that doesn't explain why they were forced to leave the building. Well, other than the obvious that chanting "Gas-Guzzling is Un-Patriotic" is not compatible with the sales of gas-guzzling vehicles.

As if four 100-pound skinny people (women or not) could hurt a HUMMER.

Interestingly, a couple days after this I learned of a Defense Department project to design a hybrid-electric humvee. This is the military version, the HUMVEE, rather than the civilian HUMMER. Still, the Defense Department likes the quietness and low heat-profile of an electric drive vehicle.

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