Electric-Powered VehiclesBy Ethan Kelley
For the driver climbing into the cab, the truck resembles dozens of compact
pickups cruising Island roads. The bench seat, radio and heater prepare the
rider for the usual hum of a gasoline engine and the whir of an exhaust pipe.
But turn the key, and there is silence.
An electricity gauge is the only sign that the Ford Ranger is on, with an
instrument needle revealing the power level of a bank of 39 batteries slung
under the body. Although the driver shifts a lever into forward gear, the truck
has no transmission; an electric motor between the rear suspension bars delivers
speed directly to the wheels.
The pickup accelerates smoothly, and a gentle buzz is the only sound from the
high-voltage power converter under the hood. An economy gear offers the
sacrifice of performance for range; under normal conditions in the regular drive
gear, the truck travels around 60 miles between three-hour recharge cycles. The
electro hydraulic steering is responsive and forgiving, and the regenerative
braking system brings the Ranger to a quick stop, while converting kinetic
energy into extra power for the battery pack.
The truck is not an experimental prototype, but a 1999 production model, one
of several electric vehicles brought to the Island by the Department of
Environmental Protection (DEP) Alternative Fuels Program for a Tuesday
demonstration and test-drive session in the high school parking lot.
Proving that electric vehicles work in the rain, the afternoon fair put close
to 100 business people, public officials and curious citizens in the seats of
trucks and neighborhood carts, with a bicycle and skateboard-scooter available
as well. According to program representatives, the Island may soon be the first
community in Massachusetts to take part in a pilot project to bring electric
vehicles into everyday use in a summer vacation area.
"The Vineyard is ideal for electric vehicles," says Kristin MacFadyen of the
DEP program. "Our primary goal is cleaning up air quality through reducing
mobile pollution. The Vineyard's compact size, lower speed limits and narrow
roads make it a good environment for this, and the range issues with electric
vehicles aren't as extreme here."
A federal grant announced this week is expected to jump-start the pilot
project, says Miss MacFadyen, and along with funding from long-time supporter
Boston Edison and donations from manufacturers, a test fleet of electric
vehicles may be on Vineyard streets for much of the coming summer. Pending
Island and state approval, up to 10 neighborhood vehicles, three bicycles and
one demonstration moped could be in the hands of rental outfits and public
officials as soon as this August.
"We would be providing the vehicles at no cost for the season," she says. "We
would work to establish a screening process for tourists to rent the vehicles.
What we'd like is to share them among the towns and the rental companies, since
both expressed interest in trying them out. We're hoping businesses and towns
might seek their own in the future."
The sight of neighborhood electric vehicles already has stirred excitement
among roadside spectators, who looked on with enthusiasm as one of the vividly
colored carts rolled onto the ferry as they were leaving the Island. Made by
Global Electric Motor Cars and Bombardier Motor Corporation, the vehicles' design
certainly catches the eye, with a bubble-like canopy enclosing a cockpit
resembling a sophisticated golf cart.
The neighborhood vehicles behave much like their turf-going counterparts, but
are equipped with strong motors and safety features that permit travel of 25
miles per hour on public ways. Both companies' carts accelerate rapidly and are
easy to steer, and come with rear compartments for groceries, luggage and other
The electric bicycle at this week's presentation is a product of Zap Power
Systems. The rider first pedals to get the bike up to speed, then presses a
throttle switch that kicks in an electric motor. The battery gives the bike a
cruising speed of around 12 miles per hour, and is small enough for the rider to
carry a spare.