Ward, a resident of Garfield Township, is the proud owner of an electric vehicle a Corbin Sparrow. People dont realize I move down the road for a penny a mile, and the only thing I have to do is plug it in and fill the windshield fluid, he says.
The three-wheeled, one-seater Sparrow looks like it drove straight out of a Pixar movie. It doesnt burn a drop of oil. It can travel 40 miles on one charge, reach speeds of 80 miles per hour, and go from 0 to 60 mph in less than 10 seconds. It fits two bags of groceries. And its quiet. You hear the tires on the ground and the brakes. Theres nothing else to listen to, Ward says.
His Sparrow can be recharged at any electrical outlet. Everyones porch becomes a gas station, he says. When he charges his car at home, his energy comes largely from a wind turbine in his backyard.
The cars a real conversation starter. The profile of it coming down the street really stops people. When I go for a loaf of bread, I better plan at least an hour, Ward says.
Made by Corbin Motors in California, 285 Sparrows were manufactured and put on the road between 1999 and 2002. Ward paid $9,000 used, for his car. Today, Corbin Motors has gone under; Myers Motors has adopted the design, but the vehicles, now called NmGs, will set you back $24,900.
If you want to buy an electric car in America, your options are limited. Today, it seems, electric vehicles are either an elitist commodity or little more than a golf cart.
If you only need your car to travel short distances at moderate speeds, you could look at a Neighborhood Electric Vehicle, known as an NV. According to the Electric Drive Transportation Association, estimates showed that up to 76,000 low-speed, battery-powered vehicles were in use in the U.S., up from about 56,000 in 2004. While they may be great for in-town drives, their 40-mile range and top speed of 35 (regulated to only 25 in most states, including Michigan) limits their feasibility.
There are electric cars that go faster and farther, but theyre a lot more expensive. Besides the NmG, two options are currently on the market in America. A Tesla, which has a top speed of over 130 miles per hour, and a range of 200 miles, costs $100,000. The ultra-narrow Commutercar Tango, which can reach 150 miles per hour and go 160 miles before a recharge, will set you back $105,000.
What practicality is that for me, the common homeowner? asks Ward. Theyre overbuilding it for the one guy who can afford it. Today, the electric cars on the market are sleek and glittering vehicles that focus on acceleration and speed, not the needs--and pocketbooks--of average Americans, he says.
WHY SO RARE?
Electric cars are nothing new in America. They may look and sound futuristic, but 100 years ago, there were more electric cars than gas-powered cars on the road. With the advent of automatic starters, cheaper oil, and mass production, the internal combustion engine eclipsed the electric car in the 1920s.
In 1990, California passed the Zero Emissions Act, which required two percent of vehicles sold in 1998 and 10 percent of vehicles sold in 2003 to be zero emission vehicles. Automakers began to produce electric cars aimed at the average consumer. General Motors EV1, released in 1997 and 1999, could travel 75-150 miles on one charge and reach speeds of up to 80
miles per hour.
Other vehicles were introduced: the Ford Th!nk, Honda EV Plus, Toyota RAV4 EV, Ford Ranger EV, and Nissan Altra EV.
In 2002, however, carmakers sued the state of California, which repealed the Zero Emissions Act. They removed all these cars from the market, and concentrated their resources instead on developing hybrids and fuel cell technology.
Auto companies say there was not enough demand for the vehicles, and that they were too expensive to produce. People wanted a car that could travel an unlimited distance, they claimed.
Safety is also a concern. The Tesla has airbags, as did all of the cars introduced in the late 90s, but discontinued when the Zero Emissions Act was repealed. However, many electric vehicles, including Wards Sparrow, do not (technically, its not a car.). And automakers have yet to create an electric vehicle that can be used year-round in cold climates. During the winter months, Wards Sparrow waits for the snow to melt.
Critics of electric vehicles also argue that 55% of Americas electricity comes from dirty, coal-fired power plants, which means electric vehicles are not truly zero-emission vehicles.
However, many people -- Ward included -- believe that automakers are wary to invest in electric cars because the alternative technology could dramatically reduce their profits -- not to mention the profits of every other facet of the auto industry, including parts manufacturers, mechanics, and the oil industry.
What about the guy who fixes the transmission? What about the guy who pumps the gas? Ward asks. If everyone that could, drove one of these, it would drive Michigan into an economic slump it could probably never recover from.
Although he lives in the auto state, Ward had trouble finding an electric car that would meet his needs; his only options were NVs or do-it-yourself kits. When he heard about a Sparrow for sale in Washington state, he drove all the way across the country to
pick it up.
Americans want electric vehicles, but they want more practical options, says Ward. Theres no support out there for it because people look at this car and say, Gee, I dont want to go 40 miles; I want to go 200 miles, he says. Theyre gonna want it to haul their families to Sacramento and back in a weekend at 100 miles per hour.
The auto industry shouldnt feel threatened, he says, because electric cars will never replace all our transportation needs. Just because we invented the car doesnt mean we shot every horse, he says. Just because we invented the electric car does not mean all the gas guzzlers will go away. Petroleum-powered cars will still be needed to transport heavy loads.
But, he says, People have sports cars they just use on weekends. People have different ties for different days. I dont see why people dont have different cars for different purposes.
If we put our resources into developing electric vehicles, he says, we could offer practical and affordable alternatives to conventional cars, but petroleum-based technology pushes electric cars to the back burner. The reality of moving cars down the road without gas is right in front of
For more information about the rise and fall of the EV1, check out the documentary Who Killed the Electric Car?