Viva la R-EV-olución!
By Bill Moore
All revolutions start small. This one began with a bicycle.
As directed by His Honor Marcelo Ebrard. the mayor of Mexico City, the head of the Secretaria de Desarrollo Social (Department of Social Development) rode his bicycle to work along with hundreds of other city employees. Attired in a snappy dark blue pin-stripe suit and yellow silk tie, Marti Batres is one of the leading progressives in the Ebrard administration that some three months ago ordered all senior city officials to park their cars and ride bicycles to their jobs in downtown Mexico City the first Monday of every month.
There was the expected grousing, but supported by loyal officials like Batres, the mayor stood firm and said that if his senior managers weren't willing to follow his example and ride their bikes too, they would no longer be considered a part of his administration. The mass of executives and secretaries peddling into the Zocalo, the historic central plaza of the city, resembles a Tour de France peloton.
But on this Monday, Marti, as he's popularly known (it is speculated that he could be the next mayor of the city), left his cyclist's helmet in his office and with a trusted advisor, got behind the wheel of a freshly repainted 1997 Nissan Tsuru (called Sentra in the United States) and headed out of the basement parking garage of the municipal building and south along an expressway toward a favorite neighbor restaurant for lunch. But unlike the tens of thousands of Tsurus owned by the Federal District, which encompasses Greater Mexico City and its 22 million inhabitants, this one is unique. It is all-electric.
The story behind this unusual car goes back more than a year when a local businessman named Victor Juarez G. got tired of waiting for someone to develop an affordable electric car. $100,000 electric sports cars weren't going to cut it in Mexico, except for a very few of the very wealthy. What was needed was someone to figure out a way to convert thousands of already existing vehicles to electric and Mexico City's fleet of tireless Tsurus seemed the ideal candidate.
So, Juarez G. began having discussions with senior officials like Batres, the Transportation Secretary Amando Quintero and Fernando Menendez, the mayor's advisor and a former World Bank executive, who proudly showed off to me the Brompton folding bike he rides to work the first Monday of each month. With their encouragement, Juarez G. began a year-long search for companies who could economically convert a Tsuru.
To prevent the project from getting bogged down in bureaucracy and red tape, Juarez G. decided to keep it in private hands. He enlisted the aid of six long-time friends and business associates who formed Electro Autos Eficaces de Mexico or EAE. [See exclusive EV World video of early test drive].
Three of the partners were already in the automobile business, two upgraded their client's expensive luxury cars and SUVs with bullet-proof armor and glass. The third catered to wealthy clients looking to restore or repair expensive luxury and sports cars. Others are in real estate, public relations and information technology. All are driven by a common vision, do something about global warming and the city's notorious air pollution, which affects the health of rich and poor alike.
Theirs is a bold and innovative concept. For the program to be meaningful in terms of its environmental and political impact, they set their goal on converting 1000 (mil in Spanish) municipal government vehicles from gasoline engine-powered to pure-electrics. Additionally, ordering a legion of EVs would allow EAE sufficient scale to negotiate the ultimate price of each system, which includes the electric drive system and the battery pack, down to a target price of around $10,000 each. The goal is to basically pay for the conversion from the money the city would save in maintenance and fuel costs over the life of the vehicle. City employees siphon off 10-15% of the government's gasoline for use in their personal vehicles each day, so converting to electric would put an immediate stop to that 'fringe' benefit.
The project also envisioned having the added economic stimulus of ultimately employing as many as 40,000 workers spread across all 16 of the Federal District's sub-districts. Independent conversion shops initially would turn out a car a week and with experience, eventually one a day. Together the government, EAE and scores of participating shops would create the largest electric car conversion fleet in the world, in one of the most populated and polluted cities on the planet, setting the stage for thrusting Mexico into the forefront of electric vehicle manufacturing and operation.
But for the dream to become a reality, Juarez G. and his colleagues had to find companies who could deliver a proven, affordable, simple but reliable electric drive. The search would take Juarez G. from Canada to California, Florida to Oregon. I would bump into him at the EDTA conference in Washington D.C. in 2006 and a few weeks later at the AltCar Expo in Santa Monica, where he brought along two of EAE's founding partners.
Their search narrowed down to three companies, but the first to deliver a working vehicle was Vancouver, BC-based Azure Dynamics. It was their conversion -- based on the upgraded Solectria AC24 motor and DMOC 44 control system with adjustable regenerative braking originally developed in the 1990s for a Chevy Geo conversion call the Force -- that EAE debuted for Mayor Ebrard and Transportation Secretary Quintero in a large conference room of the Sheraton Centro Historica in downtown Mexico City on Tuesday, May 8, 2007.
While Victor Juarez G. is clearly the "godfather" of the program and the six EAE partners are the proud parents, one of the key people who has helped make it all possible is Azure Dynamics VP for Engineering Ricardo Espinosa.
Born in Ecuador and educated in the United States, Espinosa speaks fluent Spanish. Having spent three days with him starting at Herman Fuch's restoration shop near the National University of Mexico, and then in the car with him while he patiently answered questions from both Batres and Menendez while they drove around downtown Mexico City, it became very clear that this former Solectria employee (Azure Dynamics bought the company in early 2005) is one of the main reasons why his company was first to deliver a vehicle, which gives them an enormous advantage in the competition and opens up the door to other, even more promising projects including converting to electric or hybrid drives many of the 35,000 privately owned and operated Ruta 30-passenger transit buses that crisscross the city.
The program is so important to Azure Dynamics that both its Chairman, Cam Deacons and its new CEO Scott Harrison flew to Mexico City to participate in the EV Forum that EAE organized as the event at which the converted and repainted 1997 Tsuru would make its debut, rolling out on its quiet, clean electric power from behind a curtain opened by two lovely "senoritas." It crossed in front of the audience of some 100 or so dignitaries and half-a-hundred television, radio and print reporters, something you'd be loath to do with its gasoline sibling in an enclosed space.
The car's electric drive system, which is rated at 20kW continuous output, is energized by 15 Genesis 70XE Enersys lead-acid batteries (180 volts, 9kW at 1C 50 amp rate) positioned in the front, under the hood and in the trunk. Azure Dynamics took pains to install aluminum battery boxes in the rear and mounting them so there is some useable trunk space, about as much as you'd find in a typical natural gas or propane conversion. The vehicle is just 180 pounds over the original OEM curb weight. Range is between 50-65 miles and the top speed (using a direct drive AT1200 gearbox at a 12 to 1 ratio) is 100km/hr (63 mph).
By Senor Juarez G's estimation there may be as many as a million Nissan Tsurus in Mexico and the municipal government of Mexico City, which provides services to some 22 million inhabitants and employes upwards of 200,000 people, has many thousands of them in its fleet. The local taxi fleets in Mexico City also utilize thousands of them, along with what seems a variable swarm of green and white VW Beetles -- the original models, which have had the front passenger seat removed to better accommodate passenger egress.
With the Mayor pretty much officially signing-off on the program while literally engulfed in media shoving microphones, recorders and cameras in His Honor's face, EAE partners already have a well-thought-out strategy in place to move the program forward at just as accelerated pace as getting the car developed and organizing the May 8, 2007 EV Forum. Their two other prototype conversions should arrive by early summer and begin undergoing comparative evaluation. In the meantime, two of the partners with automotive facilities -- one in the north of the city and the other in the south -- will begin holding training sessions for businesses interested in becoming conversion shops. And because it may take 3-4 months for the city to reimburse the shop owners for each vehicle they convert, EAE has also established a line of credit with local banks to help the shops finance the conversions.
EAE and Azure Dynamics have also begun discussions with Ruta bus operators and they are even beginning dialogue on building solar charging stations around the city, most of whose electric power comes for oil-fired steam generators.
Meanwhile siting in the shop near the University is a late model black Ford Mustang that EAE plans to also convert to electric; not as a government commuter, but as a performance car that, like its electric drag-racing counterparts north of the border, will blow the doors off the competition; the objective being to show the public in Mexico just how exciting electric drive vehicles can be.
The obvious question is, What ultimately will be the outcome of this bold plan? Azure Dynamics' Scott Harrison indicated when asked about the possibility of manufacturing their drive systems in Mexico that given a sufficient volume of orders, it only made sense to consider building those thousands of drives in Mexico.
Could descendants of the electric car driven by Secretary Batres and Senor Menendez on May 7th begin to find their way both north and south? Given the deliberate and aggressive energy with which Victor Juarez G. and his colleagues are moving, it would seem a pretty good bet. Mexico someday could find itself the EV manufacturing center of the Western Hemisphere.
Recuerde, todo el comienzo de las revoluciones pequeño.
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