Friday, April 04, 2008

Zap!ped out

A while ago, I actually wanted to write a post about this seemingly up-and-coming electric car maker. I saw one of their imported vehicles at the Santa Monica Alternative Fuel Expo back in October:

I also got to sit in one at the Street Smart event I volunteered for in May of last year (which I never had a chance to blog about).

When I first saw it at the Street Smart event, I was wholly unimpressed. That's not fair, actually: I was very excited to see an all-electric vehicle in the flesh but it looked cheaper than an old Beetle. It was very light, had very little structural support that could be seen, and an interior that defined "spartan." It was ugly, cheap-looking, and was missing a wheel (intentionally). Regardless, it was neat to see.

Some clarification is needed here. The car posted above is actually made by a company called Xebra. They make all-electric vehicles in China and Zap! is the company that brings them over here. People pay money to become distributors and, theoretically, are authorized to sell the green vehicles imported through Zap!'s relationships with various companies here and overseas.

Zap! has enjoyed quite a bit of press over the years because it seemed like they were one of the few companies that was actually doing something and importing these vehicles. I mean, just breeze through a few of these stories... they sound like they're really moving!

From AutoBlog Green:

Hybrid Plug-In system
Possible Smart Car importer
Saving an electric car manufacturer

Sounds great but, apparently, this company is all about the hype and nothing more.

I read a fantastic article on Wired detailing their stock manipulations, press release whirlwind, and their broken promises. The article is here and well worth the long read. Quick snippet:

He was hardly alone. Over the years, Zap! has taken millions from investors and dealers eager to see the company's line of green cars hit the road. But that line has never materialized. Of nearly a dozen groundbreaking eco-vehicles Zap! has promised in public announcements and on its Web site, only the Xebra and its sibling, a truck version, have ever made it to market. As a result, fans of electric cars have grown disillusioned, while individuals like Youssef have been financially devastated. What's more, investment firms around the country have become cautious about financing electric vehicles after being repeatedly misled by one of the industry's most visible companies.

I have two reactions to this:

First, I think it's horrible when people use altruistic vehicles to take advantage of others. Mis-appropriating charity money, stealing from a church, suckering people over the phone or via email using a fake cause... I think it's about as bad as karma comes. It's about the same as using a fake death to get out of something: it's just terrible.

Second, it feels like a punch in the stomach when I read about people spending all their savings on a scam. I'll be the first to laugh a bit when someone gets caught up in the email "We need your information to release to you the 1.24Million USD dollars that is in your name" scam but it still makes me sad because you KNOW that was their nest egg or college savings or something similarly depressing.

But, third, I take it as a great sign that scammers exist in this industry. Here's what I mean...

Let's say I'm looking for a payday, however I can, using whatever means available to me. I'm going to look for the place with the most money that is the most easily accessible. The "green industry" is, nowadays, the perfect spot to take in suckers. You have a community of people who are generally kind and committed to making a difference. They're used to fighting uphill, sacrificing, and, at times, spending more for what is important to them. Plus, there is a fairly recent influx of investment capital and massive public attention which means free publicity.

This whole Zap! thing is terrible and I wish the worst anyone who would run their company the way this one has been. At the same time, I'm smiling slightly to think that this green thing finally "getting there."

Because, hey, you're no one unless you have a few copycats, thieves, and n'er-do-wells hanging around, right?

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