R'EV'olution on the Riviera
by Remy Chevalier
Prince Albert of Monte Carlo racing an Electric Kart
Philippe Wamberque, driving a Toyota RAV4 EV,
wins the 98 Monte-Carlo Rally
Each member of the Electrifying Times team parted ways at the end of EVS-15. I took the TGV to Paris and then to Monte-Carlo where the "4th Rally International de la Voiture Electrique" was being held in Monaco. A word of warning to foreigners in France. Don't get caught inside an automated bathroom! As I was letting nature take its course in the St Raphael train station bathroom, the lights suddenly went out, and water started gushing everywhere all over the floor. Desperately looking for a way out, hanging on to all my luggage with one hand and knocking on the door like wild man with the other, I finally felt a button to push which released me to daylight with my zipper down in front of 2000 laughing students on strike and the conductor who had only just arrived with the pass key! I don't recommend the experience to anyone. Avoid these tourist traps at all cost!
It was like a scene out of a Tin-Tin comic book! While at EVS-15 in Belgium I stopped in Brussels's comicbook museum, the "Centre Belge de la Bande Dessinee",and showed directors Jan De Pooter and Michel Vandenbergh our ET pin-up gal drawn by Bill Morrison. Bill does the popular character "Roswell" for Bongo comics, the publisher of the Simpsons's books. As it turns out, the museum had just released their first title, a comic strip history of Citroen, the French automobile maker. They gave me a copy of the book and I showed it around at EVS-15. Now there's serious talk of following it up with a history of the electric car in comic book form!
People always ask me what technological hurdles we need to cross to make the electric car just as popular as the internal combustion engine. I tell them it's not a technological problem anymore, it's a marketing problem! In France right now there's a new expression "a la mode" to say: it's "nickel" when something is really cool! All Nickel Metal Hydride battery makers need do is jump on that bandwagon! As was the problem with PVs in the early days of commercialization the folks generally selling EVs are still the engineers that work on them. Too often, all they focus on are the problems left to solve instead of closing a sale. They're not trained for the kill and don't know how to "sell" the product by emphasizing the positive!
That's what Monaco was all about! Unlike EVS which is, face it, a gathering of tech heads, this show is put on for the benefit of the general public and the folks doing the publicity know their business. In Brussels there were a few EVS posters decorating the sides of trolley cars, but on the Riviera, every town up and down the coast had billboards promoting the upcoming event. In Monaco itself, there wasn't a spare space on a wall without a poster plastered on it. All this must cost money but, there's a reason for it. Monaco has the most God awful air in the world! It's nothing but a small harbor town set at the bottom of a funnel of tall cliffs. The only fresh air comes from the sea when the wind is willing. Otherwise smog just sits there, trapped by tall buildings and narrow one way streets, heaven for stinky mopeds and diesel hell. You see, Monaco is like a miniature version of Hong Kong or Singapore, a tax dodge for millionaires who buy apartments left empty 11 months out of the year just to claim residence. So Monaco has no other way to grow but up and out into the sea, which it is doing quite rapidly in both directions.
It's quite a dull place, like being stuck in a Euro Trash duty free zone. There's no real beach, just miles and miles of concrete piled on top of each other with bizarre exotic gardens. It's illegal for actual Monte-Carlo residents to play in the Casinos, so they don't mix with those just passing through. So it makes for a rather stale and frigid lack of culture besides luxury stores and dull conformist nightclubs. The city only reflects the passions of its monarchs, Prince Rainier and his children. Since they have taken a shine to EVs, this ain't such a bad thing.
Prince Albert, was really in his element when he visited the exhibition tents on the harbor. He spent the whole morning talking to people in the booths asking pointed questions. Only a few photographers had the necessary press credentials to shoot his picture and the photo session that was promised for the rest of us never happened. Not one to trust press agents, I snuck a quick shot while he was talking with the Toyota folks before his body guards came after me with a Halloween look. The Prince also spent a lot of time with a fellow royal, Prince Ebehard von Wurttemberg of Germany, a direct descendant of French kings, who has started his own EV company. He is selling a strange looking crossbreed between a Vespa and a golf cart designed by Christian Albershofer called the Green Bee. This EV took up a great deal of the local daily press space. I did manage to get a copy of ET to their "entourage"!
EVs give the Prince a chance to feel like he's breaking new ground, like his pioneering grandfather did for ocean science. But all this leaves the "real" Auto Club of Monte-Carlo a bit cold. It's a private gentleman's club built on loud and fast race cars, with two annual races with international renown, the Grand Prix and the Rally. EVs are a fly in the ointment. Already last year a Formula One car with regenerative breaking was banned from the Grand-Prix for having an unfair advantage. In other words, don't challenge the oil industry. Never mind that the fuels used in professional racing today are devoid of gasoline, made up mostly of alcohol blends!
EVs are a hard sell just because of that. It will take a long time before an EV car Kulture erupts and challenges the status quo. Toyota, our number one hope for the EV industry, just went into business with Exxon. That's not a good sign. But the Monaco exhibits on the harbor and the EV rally itself attracted a reasonable amount of media and general public attention. Enough in fact that the organizers promised the rally next year will be held in June, at the peak of the summer season, and not in late October when all the tourists have gone home.
Toyota dominated the rally for the third year in a row with a 2 door RAV4 driven by Phillipe Wambergue and Jean-Paul Cottret. No other large automaker came with as many people: engineers, mechanics, sales team, marketing, etc... More than a dozen people all posed for the victory shot. Most of the other challengers were mostly individual efforts, like the Italians Giuliano and Liverani who won the prototypes division but never showed up for the trophy award celebration, probably because it occurred an hour earlier than announced in the lavish color program! Electric boats were a big hit. The French have created a EV boat association, the "Association Française pour le Bateau Electrique" (A.F.R.E.), which really captured the imagination of the show. They even had a picture of Bill Gates riding in an electric boat. At this year's Fort Lauderdale boat show EBs were highly visible. Plans were unveiled for a $3 Billion cruise ship which will run on electricity and hydrogen, the first "green" project of its kind, so large it will be home to dozens of corporate headquarters not limited by geographic location.
In the South of France, the old fishermen boats called "Pointu" have all but vanished. A.F.R.E is hoping to bring them back with an electric model. Most of the fish is gone from the shoreline. The tastiest Mediterranean fish in the world called the "Loup", which could be as big as a Salmon ten years ago, now barely grows larger than a trout! All that because the aquarium at the oceanographic museum released a tropical algae a decade ago which has now taken over everywhere, killing off most of the native fauna. When I visited, there wasn't even one display updating the situation. It's a dirty little secret every environmentalist knows but doesn't gel with the crystallized fantasy of the Disney like pristine fairy tale starring Grace Kelly and Cary Grant. Guilt being what it is, Monte-Carlo has just inaugurated what is probably one of the most advanced facility for nuclear pollution testing of the oceans, the International Atomic Energy Agency's Maritime Environment Laboratory. It's right next door to a Riva dealership on the harbor, the most illustrious wooden speed boat builder in the world. The contrast between the two signs on the doors is chilling, as if we're witnessing the lifestyle of the rich and famous destroyed by the poisons their wealth has unleashed, finally swimming back upstream to the source of the palace gates!
Detroit's Big Three, four years in a row, have missed a golden opportunity to challenge Toyota in Monte-Carlo as the sole bearer of the EV torch. Neither GM, Chrysler or Ford were there to showcase their wares or enter a car in the rally. The EV-1 is really the only car that could challenge the RAV4 Toyota built special for the event. The French on the other hand of course were well represented, much better than they were at EVS-15. They've given up on the international market, focusing instead on holding on to their sales at home. Both Citroen and Renault's utility vehicles have a solid fleet base, having already sold in excess of 2500 vehicles each, but everyone is complaining that their strategy of "renting" the battery packs to consumers makes them prohibitive for the general public, intentionally so! I spoke with the executive vice-president, Jacques Roger-Machart, of the EV program for the EDF, the French nationalized electric utility "Electricite de France" not the Environmental Defense Fund, which prides itself with a 90% nuclear reliance. I informed him that today in California and Vermont deregulation has given Americans private green utilities who can sell clean power like buying cable TV services. He got really angry at me, saying there was no way they could guarantee their power didn't come from nukes! I'm afraid this conversation prompted the press conference a week later by our own nuclear industry challenging the claim these green power companies are making.
But Europe is changing. Germany now has a green prime minister, Joseph Martin Fischer, who promises to shut down all nuclear power plants in his country. France is feeling the political pressure. It's own environmental minister was the head of the French green party before she took office. Without nuclear power France would be caught with its pants down, having never seriously invested in alternatives. Monaco's utility SMEG, like its postal service, is totally independent from France. You can't mail a letter in Monte-Carlo with a French stamp on it, and vice versa. Monaco's utility and its postal service share the 85 EVs owned by the municipality. The royals have planted a seed of progressive change only the French city of La Rochelle comes remotely close to. The programs are successful and Monaco, by inviting representatives from all the European countries to give an account of their own EV programs, is urging the rest of the world to follow their lead. Problem is the subsidy Monaco gives its EV program in a desperate hope to reduce the stagnating smog cloud choking their gambling resort actually works against developing genuine public enthusiasm. Few Monaco residents are becoming proud owners of electric cars for their own sake.
A few exhibitors in Monaco had the right idea, notably a custom builder called Varnagallo from Torino, Italy (That's me standing next to his car in the picture) who modifies Citroen EVs to address a beach resort market. There's also the really savvy visionaries of the City Car project in Switzerland. a cute looking tiny taxi with a Global Positioning System. (That's a model standing next to it in the picture. She wouldn't give me her address and I forgot her name!!!) With City Car, they are putting into practice what others have only talked about doing, such as the shelved Peugeot Tulip prototype. These vehicles address a specific need, both in marketing and design, in affluent markets who seldom work in "price" into their urge to buy. Why else would hundreds of people around the world today pay an extra $20.000 to have their brand new VW Bug customized into a convertible because VW isn't ready yet to provide a soft top model? It's about "cost effectiveness"! EV companies who can zero in on a particular niche of the affluent market will reward our industry with across the board price reductions due to an economy of scale.
The celebrities that showed up for the VIP rally were all unknown to me, mostly Italian TV and sports personalities. I got to ride the mini-van with their girlfriends while they drove the electric cars provided for them by the organizers. They all spoke Italian so I learned nothing from the experience, except that these women weren’t very impressed, gawking instead at the occasional Ferrari zooming by. Nothing changes! Not until we have EVs that can challenge these old time roadsters on their own turf will we win the hearts of those who ultimately decide what is hot and what is not!
I left Monaco with a strange sense this event is like a double edged sword. It does showcase EVs to the world, but under a light of exclusivity and privilege which also hurts the spread of EV Kulture through the masses. Only in America are EVs really taking hold with a network of hobbyists and enthusiasts who have given life to the EV lifestyle now being capitalized on by some courageous automakers. In Europe EVs, although plentiful, are still institutionalized in their expansion and victim of a much too narrow field of governmental commerce. The French utilities and the French automakers will not likely develop an EV Kulture in France unless the Americans and the Japanese show them the way.
There's now talk of a French edition of "Electrifying Times" which we hope will help in this direction. French speaking countries are not limited to France, but include Quebec. Our isolationist neighbor to the North is taking over US utilities nuke shutdowns slack by damming more of the St Lawrence River. This has potential catastrophic ecological consequences. Other French territory also includes a slew of Polynesian islands and perpetually under developing African countries which have suddenly become gold mines for PV companies in light of the information revolution. The introduction of EVs into these markets is inevitable and imminent, but only if actively pursued by an education campaign to match. If the "Electrifying Times" talks with French publishers work out, we might spring into action on a global scale!
EVs got a lot of mainstream media coverage in Europe in the last two months with EVS-15 in Belgium, the TransEuropean race, the Mondial Auto Show in Paris and the rally in Monaco. Will this translate into increased construction and commercial activity? That is yet to be seen. It is really up to all those involved to capitalize on these events and develop adequate follow-up materials. It's also important for organizers of events both in the US and Europe to interact and share experiences. Little, if any of that is going on at this time. I expect our website will help fill that void with help from our readers. So do your "forward" email attachment file thing! It won't happen by itself. We have to move it along a bit... firstname.lastname@example.org
© Remy Chevalier