AltCar Expo 08
Santa Monica, CA
Text and Photos by Noel Adams

October 2nd 2008

Each year the city of Santa Monica hosts the Alternative Energy & Transportation Expo and this year the show was held on September 26 and September 27 at the Civic Auditorium in downtown Santa Monica.

This is the first year that the event has been held at the Civic Center and it attracted a huge crowd eager to see what the latest developments in alternative fuel vehicles were.  The main exhibition floor was so crowded when I was there, and I went early in the morning to miss the crowds, that it became extremely difficult to get good photographs.

The big excitement at this year’s event was that GM had the production version of the Chevy Volt on display to the public for the first time in the US.  The production version was shown for the first time at GM’s 100 year anniversary celebration earlier this month so getting it to this event was quite a coup.

I must say that I really like the Chevy Volt which does look a little like the Prius but has a lower coefficient of drag.  The car is a little smaller than the original prototype and has a battery tunnel that runs up the middle of the car so there is only room to seat two in the rear.  If GM can meet the specifications they have given and can build a quality vehicle, I expect them to sell out their first year production run of 10,000 easily even at a price rumored to be between $35,000 and $40,000.

The Chevy Volt was displayed at the Petersen Automotive Museum stand and sitting next to it was the GM EV1.  I still think that failing to develop and market the EV1 was one of the biggest mistakes in the history of GM.  Bob Lutz has already admitted that crushing them was a huge blunder, greatly tarnishing their corporate image.

One of the things considered necessary for electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles is the need for infrastructure.  This is even more important for those of us who live in apartment buildings, condominiums, or houses that require parking on the street.  Coulomb Technologies is trying to answer this need.  They were showing two of the range of chargers that they are currently developing.  One of these attaches to an existing lamp post which makes it relatively cheap to install. 

Coulomb’s plan is to set up chargers that require a card or RFID key fob (small hardware device with built-in authentication mechanism) to activate them. The EV driver to be charged only for the electricity that they use.  It should be noted that the charging station is really an interface into the grid not a true charger, the actual charger will still be carried on the vehicle itself.

I asked them if the charger interface would meet the standard that is currently being developed by the California Air Resource Board (CARB).  They told me that they would be compliant once CARB published the standard.

The next EV I came across was the new ZAP Xebra Sedan.  ZAP launched the Xebra in 2006 and at that time the quality left much to be desired.  Part of this was due to the use of fiberglass in body construction but the electrical systems exhibited poor quality and workmanship.  ZAP have been steadily improving quality and the new sedan continues this trend.  The body is now made of steel which allows for much better fit and finish although the show car still had gaps around the doors so they have a lot more work to do.  In addition the car has been redesigned as a 5 door (hatchback) which adds greatly to the utility of the vehicle.

Near the Xebra I found Electric Blue.  Electric Blue is an EV conversion company that will convert a variety of vehicles to electric with a target price that won’t break your bank account.  For example a Toyota Yaris, with a base price of $12, 995, can be purchased fully converted for around $22,995.  The cars have a 144V lead acid pack, 500 amp controller and on board charger.  The claim a top speed of 85mph and a range of 40 miles per charge - though not if you insist on driving at 85mph.

 

At the Vantage Vehicles stand I found a very nice 6 passenger minivan.  This car looks like one of the vehicles built in China and appears similar to the six passenger vehicle being sold by Dymac.  Build quality looked quite good and the van offered plenty of room to chauffer the kids to little league or drop them off at the Mall.  Vantage offer a line of vehicles that come with a 72 volt lead acid pack and can be purchases in a variety of truck and van configurations.  These vehicles register as a NEV so it is limited to a top speed of 25mph unless you live in a Medium Speed Vehicle (MSV) state. 

Talking about MSVs, I stopped by the medium speed vehicle coalition booth to get an update on their efforts to get Medium Speed vehicles made legal on the federal level.  Unfortunately at the time of my visit there was nobody there and I just plain forgot that I needed to go check back with them later – it’s no fun getting old.

There were a few other interesting things to see.  There was a company called GIMM that had a Porsche Boxter converted to run on compressed air.  The car is claimed to get 50 miles per charge and a top speed of 40-45 mph.  I am still quite skeptical about air cars, I just can’t seem to make the physics work.  Jungle Motors was also there showing the LiFePO4 batteries that they sell.  Jungle motors sells Li batteries, battery management systems, and electric motors to EV enthusiasts.

I stopped by the Green Vehicles stand to take a look at the Triac, a three wheel electric vehicle that comes equipped with a liFePO4 batteries that Green Vehicles claim give the car a top speed of 80 mph and a range of 100 miles.  They told me that they are going to begin delivery starting in December to customers who have placed orders, and their plan is to produce 50 cars per month.  Right now the order list is about six weeks long so those who order now should expect delivery in mid January.  The Green Vehicles stand was one of the most crowded in a very crowded exhibition hall so getting good photos was nearly impossible.  They did tell me that they had a Buckshot three wheel electric truck out in the ride and drive area so I headed out there next.

The Buckshot turned out to be a large three wheel truck with a cab that looks similar to the ones you see driving down the roads in India.  The truck is intended for fleet applications where it can be used as a short range delivery vehicle or to haul tools around.  The distinctive look of this truck will draw quite a bit of attention so it should be a good place to put your corporate logo.

The ride and drive proved to be a bit of a bust.  Honda had a Civic GX CNG vehicle out there but didn’t appear to be letting people drive it.  There were a few of the current crop of hybrids around but I figured that since I drove there in a Prius it probably wasn’t worth me taking one for a test drive.  I did think about taking the Saturn View Green Line for a spin around the parking lot but it seemed to disappear right after I went out to the ride and drive area and I never saw it again.

Three electric vehicle companies that were giving rides were AC Propulsion who had two eBoxes in service, Miles who had two ZX40 NEVs that they were letting people drive, and Hybrid Technologies who had an electric Mini.  I had already driven both the Miles and the eBox at previous events so I passed on those, and I am not a big fan of Hybrid Technologies so I gave them a miss.  Hybrid Technologies were not even on the list of exhibitors and the car seemed to be shown by a company called Electrorides. But the car clearly had “Hybrid Technologies” on the side.  I really wanted to drive the Miles Truck but that was away being charged so I never got the chance.

Electric Vehicles of Long Beach were also out on the test track and they had a Dynasty IT and a Hi-Line 4 seat on display.  I asked to drive the Hi-Line but was told that they weren’t giving rides at the moment.  The Hi-line looks a lot like the GEM but has a more streamlined look at the front and a bigger box to hold stuff in the rear.  This vehicle is Chinese made but the build quality looks surprisingly good.

I moved on up to the area where they were giving rides on electric scooters and motorbikes.  There were only three vehicles on the track, two leaning “Zappy Style” three wheel scooters and the Zero X electric Motorcycle.  Paul Scott had told me that on the Friday ride and drive three people had crashed the Zero X because of its powerful acceleration.  The bike can apparently out-accelerate a Tesla Roadster.  The down side to this bike is that it is for off road use so it isn’t road legal.  They were still requiring a Motorcycle license to ride this motorbike and since I don’t have a license I had to pass. 

At this point I decided to head for home.  The Santa Monica event is one of the best EV shows of the year but I felt that this year it just wasn’t as good as in previous years.  The ride and drive in particular has been getting worse and worse each year since they started the show and this year it was particularly bad.  I hope for better things next year as new electric vehicles start to make their appearance.

~ Noel Adams

(From LA the AltCarExpo then moves on to Austin,Texas October 17 &18, 2008. RemyC. ET webed)