Resurrecting The Electric Car
From a distance, the little hatchback in the corner looks like a Toyota Yaris, Honda Civic, or any of the other sleek compacts built by big automakers. But step closer and the details suggest it’s a different machine indeed.
Where the gear shift would be, there’s just a switch: forward, neutral, reverse. Open the lid to the gas tank, and where the fuel nozzle would go, there’s a household electrical socket. And there’s no tailpipe.
This is a ZENN car, a “Zero Emissions, No Noise” electric vehicle (EV) built in Quebec. ZENN’s been in the news a lot lately: last November, CBC reporters (and Rick Mercer) skewered Transport Canada for continually delaying approval of the car for use in this country, despite the Harper government’s purported concern about climate change, and the fact the car’s been for sale in the United States since 2006. Embarassed, Ottawa quickly endorsed the ZENN, handing responsibility for regulating it to the provinces. But you can’t buy one in Canada yet, which is why I’m here in Berkeley, California, to take one for a test drive.
“The timing for this has never been better,” ZENN dealer Marc Korchin tells me. No kidding: oil’s hit a $100 a barrel, hydrogen’s just a gas emitted by politicians, and ethanol threatens the food supply. (The Economist recently noted that an SUV gas tank of ethanol contains enough corn to feed one person for an entire year.) Instead, it looks like cars of the future are going to be powered by electricity. As a result, EV dealerships like Korchin’s Go Green Motors have been sprouting across the U.S. like organic broccoli.
But will EVs electrify car buyers? There’s only one way to find out. Korchin hands me the keys. “Have fun,” he says, grinning.
I turn the ignition, but the car remains silent. “No Noise” is right: only when I flip the switch to forward and step on the pedal does the ZENN start to whirr like a forklift. I turn off the driveway and merge into four lanes of traffic. None of the other drivers seem to notice my vehicle, or care.
Perhaps that isn’t surprising, because EVs really aren’t new. Many of the first automobiles were electric, until gasoline stations became widespread. (The Vancouver Electric Vehicle Association runs a 1912 model that was driven around Victoria by a little old lady well into the 1960s.) In the 1980s, local inventor Sarabjit Gandhi created the Gaselle (pictured right), one of the first gas-electric hybrid cars, which he drove from New York to Vancouver for Expo '86. And as the recent documentary Who Killed The Electric Car? points out, hundreds of electric cars and trucks built by General Motors, Ford, Honda and Toyota were on the roads in California until 2003 – when the carmakers got that state’s zero-emission vehicle law overturned, then recalled all the EVs and destroyed them.
Today, the carmakers say those EVs were weak and that consumers didn’t like them, even though the cars could run at highway speeds for up to 200 kilometres on an eight-hour charge, and there were waiting lists of buyers. (More likely is that the companies realized EVs were unprofitable. Electric motors have only one moving part, and often run for decades without pricy dealer servicing.) Since then they’ve focused on trucks and SUVs, leaving the next EVs up to independent developers.
Over a dozen startups around the world are currently working on EVs. Later this year Tesla Motors, a company run by a co-founder of PayPal, is releasing its Tesla Roadster, a $100,000 sports car that can do 200 km/h. The actor George Clooney (left) bought the first Tango, a bobsled-like two-seater being developed in Spokane, Washington that cuts through traffic like a motorcycle. Norway-based TH!NK is working on a car that will sell its batteries’ surplus electricity back to the power grid. But the Canadian ZENN has been the first to hit the road.
Berkeley is a lot like Victoria, a university town with tree-canopied streets, cyclists, seniors, hippies, and no snow. Here, the ZENN seems to be in its element. Weighed down by 300 kilos of batteries, it sticks to the asphalt around a sprinkler-wet turn. It brakes crisply at a school crosswalk. Even though I’m six feet tall, it feels roomier than my Ford Escort.
Its limitations only become obvious when I hit a straightaway. I stamp the pedal to the floor, and the whirr becomes a whine. Top speed: 26 mph, or 40 kilometres per hour.
These numbers have led some to complain that the $14,700 ZENN is little more than a glorified golf cart. But as Korchin tells me back in the showroom, there are lots of urban two-car families that use one vehicle just for picking up groceries and schlepping to and from work, and the ZENN’s fine for that. In the two weeks he’s been open, he’s sold 11 of them.
“I’m selling a paradigm: the right tool for the job,” he says. “You wouldn’t hang a picture with a sledgehammer. But as it is now, we’re all driving sledgehammers.”
That’s the holdup with the new EVs: the formula to make them a must-have consumer hit hasn’t been perfected yet. They’re still too expensive, or odd-looking, or limited in speed and range like the ZENN, which goes about 55 km on a single charge.
“Car buyers have to pay more up front, and they really pay attention to sticker prices. But there is a significant market for EVs,” Tim Lipman says, while giving me a ride back to the subway in his Honda Accord. Lipman, a director of the University of California at Berkeley’s Transportation Sustainability Research Center, says that a few years ago he did an analysis showing that mass-produced EVs would save buyers money when gas hit $2.50 US a gallon. “Now that we’re over $3, it’s much more interesting.”
Another gripe Lipman’s heard about EVs is that they aren’t as green as proponents claim. What about the used batteries? That may be a problem with the lithium-ion supercells being developed by Tesla, but not with the lower-power batteries in the ZENN, which are 98% recyclable. What if the electricity comes from dirty sources? Lipman says that even in California, where 20% of the power comes from coal, the state would still cut its overall greenhouse-gas emissions in half if everyone switched to EVs, because electric motors are six times more energy-efficient than gasoline engines. (In hydro-powered British Columbia, the proportional reductions would be even greater.) And EVs charge mainly at night, so they wouldn’t burden the grid. “You could get a lot of EVs out there without having to build more power plants.”
The math for new EVs may be starting to add up, but governments haven’t necessarily figured that out yet. You can get a $2000 ecoAuto rebate from Transport Canada if you buy a Ford Escape hybrid SUV, but there’s no rebate for a ZENN. Insurers like ICBC charge the same rates for a low-speed EV as a regular car, even though they’re less likely to be involved in catastrophic accidents. Even the speed of EVs is a product of bureaucracy as much as technology: so far, B.C. is the only province with rules allowing low-speed vehicles, which is great, except that – as in California – they’re only permitted on suburban streets (not freeways) if they travel no faster than 40 km/h. The ZENN can do nearly 60 but few laws allow it, so the company has to install speed regulators in its cars.
And more competition is coming. Recongnizing the demand for greater electric power, HyMotion, an Ontario company, is selling kits that convert highway-ready, rebate-friendly hybrids like the Toyta Prius into “plug-in hybrid” vehicles (PHEVs) that charge their batteries off household current and run only on electricity at city speeds. General Motors is already advertising that its own affordable PHEV, the Chevy Volt, will start rolling off the assembly line in 2010. If other carmakers follow suit, the upstart EVs will have a tough fight in the marketplace.
That’s a big If, judging by Detroit’s crappy environmental record. In the meantime, there’s the simple little ZENN. It isn’t perfect, but it’s a step in the right direction. To green Victorians, it just might be the right tool for the job.
PS As a reader has pointed out, despite Transport Canada's recent stamp of approval for the ZENN, the feds seem determined to keep it and other low-speed vehicles off the roads, judging by regulatory notes posted here: "Given the fact that LSVs have no safety performance requirements, occupant safety would be compromised if they were to travel in mixed traffic with other full-size passenger vehicles." It's bullshit. Motorcycles and scooters don't meet those safety requirements either, but no one's banning them.
PPS Talk about EVs would be academic if Detroit drastically cut the weight of its vehicles. A 376-mpg car is possible, as you can read here.
UPDATE (July 1, 2008): With the price of oil pushing $150 a barrel, EVs have quickly become mainstream news, and General Motors has announced that it's ramping up production of the Volt. (The Atlantic Monthly has an extensive article about GM's challenge, which you can read here.) There's only one problem that no one seems to be talking about: the Volt is a freaking sports car. It is doomed to fail. The company that builds a family-friendly electric hatchback is going to clean up – and it ain't going to be GM.