During Lisa Margonelli's "Can Your Car Change The World?" talk at the Green Drive Expo in Richmond, CA on Saturday, an audience member stood up and gave the most amazing testimony. The woman said that she wanted to make a difference in the world, and so bought two Chevy Volts – one for herself and one to give away to a low-income family.
The wheels for this double-Volt purchase were set into motion March 2003, when the U.S. military invaded Iraq. The woman – who wants to remain anonymous and asked that we call her "Sam" – told AutoblogGreen that, "I was devastated, I was distraught. Nobody understands the depths to which I felt the pain of that. I don't read the newspaper, I don't listen to talk radio but for some reason my gut told me it was about oil. March 2003 is so critical to this story, because that's where all my passion comes from. It was killing me."
After the Iraq war started, Sam became fascinated by solar transportation, and her first response was to get an electric scooter, the Zapino. A few years later, she put solar panels on her house and charged the EV that way. The trouble was, the Zapino isn't the most practical vehicle.
"I used to fall off the Zapino all the time, really funny falls," she said. "But this year, I fell good enough that I said, 'That's it.' That got me off the scooter and into the next phase, [buy a plug-in] car and give it away to a family in need and get them off expensive gasoline."
Sam didn't just pick the first family she saw. "I would never just give the car to a family. You've got to demonstrate that you're going to use the technology," she said. She wanted plug-in vehicle technology to actually help a family, which meant finding a family that actually uses it. So, Sam came up with a list of around 15 variables to find the right family to work with: do they like the car? can they all fit in the car? Are they willing to go out of their way to change their habits and make sure the vehicle is plugged in instead of gassed up whenever possible? "It's easy, but that not easy, to find a family," Sam said.
Sam started by looking into giving a Volt to a family member or a co-worker, but didn't want to have any emotional imbalance in her long-term relationships. A family that was friends with a friend, though, turned out to be a good candidate, and they agreed to work with Sam on what she calls her experiment. "I might see them once in a blue moon now, but I'm not enmeshed," she said.
The family, who also wishes to remain unnamed, is made up of five people – three children, ages 12, 10 and 9, and two parents – which almost halted the deal. Sam explained, "When I got my Volt, I looked in the back seat and called the mother immediately and I said, 'I don't think we have a project here.'" But the mother said that 95 percent of the time the five don't ride in one car because the kids are all going to different activities. When they do need to go in one vehicle, the family still has a big SUV. The Volt replaced another SUV, which was sold after the experiment's three-month trial period ended to pay for the mother's dental work. "They are not destitute, but a penny one way or the other makes a huge difference. They are saving more money than they ever dreamed of by using this technology. The only problem was that there was no way they could have afforded this car on their own," Sam said.
Another reason the family seemed like a good fit was that they are very sports-minded people, Sam said. "I saw this very natural ability to compete against the darn efficiency ball, because that's the name of the game. You need to get every mile you can out of every juicing [recharge]. So, that competitive nature was there. Another factor is that they are talkers. I mean, they don't shut up. I think that's extremely important. If they were shy and withdrawn, then that's not going to help this movement at all."
The competitiveness was important because Sam had but one requirement that the family had to meet after everyone agreed on the initial deal: during the first three months of ownership, the family had to get more than 75 miles per gallon equivalent, otherwise the Volt would be given to someone else. "They came in at 146 mpge. I mean, they just completely shattered the challenge. I have a Volt, and I'm at 70 miles to the gallon," she said.
Sam didn't buy a gift Volt because she considers herself green – "I don't have kids," she said, "I don't care what happens to this planet. I'm political. I'm upset" – she just had to do something to alleviate the feelings that had been building up inside her for eight years, ever since the attack on Iraq began.
"I needed relief from that guilt. I can't believe what we did, as a country, to other human beings," she said. Now that the Volt is in the family's hands, "I'm done. I feel at peace. Although I never will forgive or forget what we've done, I can kind of move on now. I needed this."
NOTE: Since we are dealing with an anonymous source here, we called the dealership where Sam said she bought the Volts and they confirmed that a woman did indeed buy two Volts, one for herself and one to give away. This isn't the first Volt tied to charity, but it is the first we've heard about that was so intensely personal.