We are late getting on board in America, says Ella Cooper, the vice president of ecompany. When you go to Japan, an electric vehicle is not an oddity.
Cooper and president Martin Lagina launched their business on May 15. Theyve got a fleet of nine: six two-seaters, and three that fit a family of four.
The vehicles, which are about half the size of a conventional car, are known as neighborhood electric vehicles, or NVs, because theyre designed for city driving they have a top speed of 25 miles per hour and can travel 35-40 miles on a set of fully-charged batteries.
They run on standard electricity, and you can recharge by plugging the vehicles into any household outlet. They cost less than two cents per mile to driveabout five times less than a fuel-efficient SUVand take eight hours to charge completely. Ecompanys charging stations are powered entirely by renewable energy, largely solar energy thats been harvested on-site.
People who invest in an NV may actually save money, Cooper says. Once you purchase an NV, which costs $9,800 to $13,800, you wont have to fill your gas tankand empty your walletevery couple of days. NVs have fewer moving parts
to be replaced. Because they travel at slower speeds, theres less wear-and-tear on the tires. They dont need oil. Batteries last about six years, and cost a mere $100 to replace.
She believes that ecompanys location in Northern Michigan is ideal. Traverse City is quite removed from the metropolitan mecca, yet its quite forward in its thinking. Its not your sort of backwoods areatheres some nice vision going on here, she says.
And if we dont do something now, she cautions, Northern Michigan may not always be the pristine environment its residents treasure and protect. People move to Traverse City because of its natural beauty, Cooper says. If we continue to pump emissions into the air, we cant necessarily control that for the future.
Ecompany is targeting both tourists and residents. Tourists may need a way to get around the city, and a fun and novel NV could be just the thing, Cooper says.
She also hopes that locals will embrace NVs as a practical, economical and green way to get around town. The average American drives 29 miles per day, often entirely within city limits.
Everyone who lives here should come and try one of these vehicles, Cooper says. Who knows? Maybe one in ten would find this meets their needs. Maybe people would realize, Four days out of seven, I dont leave the city limits. Maybe with a little forethought, I can reduce the emissions I put out and embrace this new technology.
Ecompany also rents to people in other towns in the region; so far theyve shipped NVs out to Bay View and Bay Harbor.
Traverse City resident Shari Chouinard has rented an NV three or four times. She uses it to commute to work, run errands and pay bills, hoping to reduce her carbon footprint.
Does she recommend it? Definitely, she says. Most places that I need to go are right within the city limits, or at least within the speed zone. Its got a really sleek look to it, its fun to drive.
An NV is definitely a conversation starter, Chouinard says. Every single time that I have parked the car, there have been people who have asked questions, and its all had a very positive response.
Would she buy one? Chouinard is thinking about it. She needs another car for out-of-town ventures, but says, This is something I would consider having on a longer term.
Cooper agrees that because of its limited range, an NV would best function as a second vehicle. Were basically a two-car population, Cooper points out; people could have one in-city car and one out-of-town car. An NV could also be a good choice for businesses that drive a lot locally: pizza deliveries, mail carriers, meter readers, dry cleaners, and even ice cream trucks.
In addition to being cost-efficient, environmentally friendly, and low-maintenance, electric vehicles are quiet. They have regenerative braking--as you apply the brakes, energy flows back into the battery. In Traverse City, NVs can park for free, although theyre still subject to time limits. And they qualify for substantial tax credit.
NVs are not without their drawbacks. Because many people live on the outskirts of town, the 35-40 mile speed limit is often not enough. And although NVs can easily be modified to reach speeds of 35 miles per hour, Michigan law prevents them from driving fast-er than 25mph because they dont have airbags. This means they can only be used on roads with speed limits of 35 miles per hour or less.
Critics of electric vehicles also argue that 55% of Americas electricity comes from dirty, coal-fired power plants, which means electric vehicles are not as emissions-free as they appear. Still, an electric vehicle can travel farther than a gas-powered car for the energy burned, and can be charged from renewable sources.
The vehicles lack a few creature comforts like air conditioning, but they have removable roofs and wind-down windows. Weve come to expect air conditioning in vehicles, but to lessen the environmental impact of your vehicle you need to take pause and say, What is essential? Cooper says.
The cars do come with stereos, and theyre Bluetooth-enabled, which means you can plug in an iPod or cell phone. They have window wipers and headlights. And you can fit six bags of groceries in the trunk.
FAIR WEATHER FRIENDS
What about the winter? NVs are essentially fair-weather vehicles; although they have heating, its not strong enough to defrost a snow-covered car. But how many convertibles do we drive up in Northern Michigan in the winter? Cooper asks. Were willing to make concessions when were driving our convertible Mustangswe dont take that out in the winter either.
Embracing electric car technology will finance research to improve batteries, increase vehicle scale and speed, lengthen range, and add more features for passengers, she says. I think the technology is here to stay. We need to enhance its application, or be a little bit more creative in the way we apply it.
Ecompany offers a short-circuit program, geared to tourists or people who just want to give the cars a try, for $25. A two-seater costs $75 to rent for a day, or $375 per week; the four-person vehicles are $90 and $450. To inquire about monthly or seasonal rates, purchasing, or for more information, call (231) 947-1277, visit www.ecocarstc.com, or stop by the Traverse City train station.
New Ways to Get Around
Gas prices may top $4 a gallon by the end of the summer. Americas addiction to foreign oil has entangled us in the Middle East, drained the national budget and cost many lives. And the effects of global warming can no longer be denied, even by many of the staunchest skeptics. Everyone agrees: its time for America to do something about fuel.
But what can you do about it? As it turns out, plenty.
This summer, Northern Express features a series on alternative modes of transport. From driving a novel and fun electric vehicle to simply hopping on a bike, theres a way for all of us to cut down on our carbon emissions and perhaps put a bit of gas money back into our pockets, too.