Big City Ambitions for Little Electric Car

Low-speed vehicles meant for running neighborhood errands could find a place in the urban market.

Published: 29-Dec-2002

By John O'Dell

The major automakers may have abandoned the full-service, battery-powered electric vehicle as they pursue development of hydrogen-powered cars with fuel cells to produce electricity for power. But battery power isn't completely gone.

It's just that the full-service car or truck designed to carry four or five people and move at freeway speeds for 80 to 100 miles or more between charges has been replaced -- for now -- by the so-called neighborhood electric vehicle, or NEV.

By definition, an NEV is a low-speed electric vehicle that usually looks like a slightly oversize golf cart and is limited to a top speed of 25 mph.

NEVs have two or four seats and are legal only on roads with posted speed limits of 35 mph or less. They are legal in most states, including California.

Prices can run from $6,000 to $14,000.

The vehicles seem to be creating an industry in which small players can compete with giants such as General Motors Corp. and DaimlerChrysler.

At least that's what entrepreneurs such as Ian Clifford are banking on. Clifford is founder and president of a Toronto-based company, Feel Good Cars Inc., that has launched a line of full-bodied, low-speed NEVs under the ZENN brand name. In this case, "full-bodied" means they are vehicles with complete bodies, like regular cars, with roofs and doors and power windows.

Clifford has big plans for Feel Good and ZENN (it stands for Zero Emission No Noise), including a city car capable of speeds of 40 mph that would be fully certified under U.S. and Canadian automotive crash safety standards. (NEVs don't have to meet those standards.)

But back to the ZENN neighborhood car.

Clifford figures that Feel Good can compete with GM and Chrysler because they are selling cart-like vehicles, but the ZENN, at least visually, is a small version of a regular car. Its composite body, in fact, has been used in Europe for 15 years on so-called micro-cars that use small motorcycle engines.

Feel Good has not formally set pricing, but Clifford said it would be about $14,000.

The ZENN neighborhood electric also has locking doors, power windows, air conditioning, a heater, a rear window defroster, a radio with cassette and CD players and a rear cargo area accessible through a van-like door. There's even remote keyless entry. The seats have padded head restraints and a three-point safety belt system, and all four wheels have disc brakes.

"You have to look at what the others are marketing, and you can see that there's a place for us," Clifford said this month at the Electric Drive Transportation Assn. annual trade show in Hollywood, Fla.

"Our car is a car for the urban market," he said. "I've been driving one in downtown Toronto for the past eight months, and we've found that the average speed during business hours is 17 mph. The car isn't at a disadvantage in that kind of slow traffic, and it is small, agile and easy to park."

Range on the ZENN neighborhood car is 30 to 40 miles, and its lead-acid batteries recharge fully in six hours on regular 110-volt household current.

So far, Clifford said, he has not found Southern California to be a receptive market. He figures that the car will win more acceptance in urban centers such as Toronto, Chicago and San Francisco.

Feel Good, he said, can build as many as 10,000 cars a year.

"For GM, that's a failure, but for us it's a $150-million business, and a success," Clifford said.

He expects to begin retail sales in March with 30 dealerships in the U.S., mainly in the Sunbelt, although, he said, "our first signed deal is with a car dealer on the outskirts of Detroit."

Feel Good wasn't the only new NEV builder to show its wares at the electric vehicle trade show: Rivals included ZAP, the Northern California EV and electric scooter firm hoping for a post-Chapter 11 comeback; BigMan E.V. out of Edmond, Okla.; and Dynasty Electric Car Corp. of Vancouver, Canada, which has reorganized after a round of financial troubles.

Of the Big Three, the only one to take NEVs to the Flori- da trade show was DaimlerChrysler, which owns a company in North Dakota called Global Electric Motorcars, or GEM, and is the only major automaker to insist that there is a real market out there for the cars.

General Motors, which canceled its full-size EV program last year and has criticized NEVs as unsafe and unmarketable, does have a contract with a Georgia golf cart maker, Club Car Corp., to supply it with cart-like NEVs.

Ford Motor Co. was building NEVs through its Think Mobility unit but canceled the program in the summer, saying it could not find a viable market. Ford had a big presence at the trade show but was touting its forthcoming Escape gasoline-electric hybrid sport utility vehicle and its research into fuel-cell vehicles.

GM is getting around the issue of marketability by giving away its NEVs to public and private entities through a one-year test program.

GEM has a donation program as well but also sells its NEVs. In the last year, in a program that since has ended, the company moved several thousand models at steeply discounted prices -- the $5,995 two-seater went for $3,995 -- at Costco stores.

GEM also has become the NEV supplier in several master-planned communities and is developing a program to encourage people to use them instead of gasoline-powered cars and trucks for short trips.

NEVs are sold in California -- or given away -- in large part because of the state's Zero Emission Vehicle, or ZEV, mandate, which requires the biggest automakers to provide a certain number of emission-free cars and trucks.

Because of special provisions to encourage early introduction of zero-emission vehicles before the mandate officially kicks in, the NEVs introduced in the last year or so have earned multiple credits as full-sized battery electrics. The result is that several of the major automakers have been relieved of the need to build any other ZEVs until 2007 or so.

Electric truck on tap

Look for a major beverage distribution company to start testing all-electric intra-city delivery trucks in the Los Angeles area next year.

A big, red electric-powered tractor on display at the Elec- tric Drive Transportation Assn. show in Florida was put together for the unidentified company -- believed to be Coca-Cola Co. or Anheuser-Busch Cos. -- by Advanced Vehicle Systems of Chattanooga, Tenn.

The tractor uses a drive system put together by Torrance-based Enova Systems Inc. A 60-kilowatt turbine generator by Capstone Turbine Corp. of Chatsworth provides juice for the electric motor.

Because the turbine burns liquid natural gas, it is not an emission-free vehicle, but Advanced Vehicle Systems says it is cleaner than the new 2007 federal standards for diesel fuel -- which is what such trucks usually run on.

Besides having lower emissions, Enova President Carl Perry said, the electric delivery truck is virtually silent, eliminating that diesel clatter that reverberates through so many city streets.

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