The Register-Guard
October 15, 1999

Electric commuting: Manufacturers, including a home-grown company, test the market with electric cars.
The Register-Guard

When Paul Clevenger's wife went to work, the family needed a second car - but he just couldn't imagine spending another $20,000 that way.

He considered commuting by bus, but his job as maintenance man at Williams Bakery often called him to work ahead of the buses, so he tried bicycling.

"It's different riding a bike out there at 2 a.m.," he said. "There are different people out there - especially on the bike path."

After a couple of months he was thinking "car" again, when by chance he stopped at the Eugene Water & Electric Board to pay a bill and saw the funky white bubble of the Gizmo, a Eugene-made electric vehicle.

The Gizmo is faster than a speeding bike, easier to manage than a fist full of bus schedules and able to outrun a gasoline-powered car for the first 20 feet - and the price tag is $7,950.

"I'll buy it," Clevenger said, putting an order in on that April day two years go. He's commuted by Gizmo ever since.

Automotive manufacturers are betting that the average American isn't that much different than Clevenger.

Honda and Toyota will roll out hybrid electric cars designed to appeal to the masses. They'll be available here in the coming months. NEVCO, maker of the Gizmo, is gearing up for a-vehicle-a-day production by January.

Widespread use of small, zippy electric cars would ease traffic jams, parking shortages and air pollution. That's appealing in Eugene-Springfield, where the government's 15-year transportation plan forecasts a 78 percent increase in congestion as a best-case scenario.

A 30-year effort to get Eugene residents out of cars and onto bicycles hasn't made a dent in car traffic, largely because bicycles don't fit in with complicated lifestyles that require a lot of extra trips each day.

Now, some think electric cars are part of the answer. They go fast. They allow for constant errand running, yet they don't pollute or take up much of the roadway

People are going to buy the new electric idea, said Ken Kurani, a research engineer at the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis.

"The optimists are saying within five years," he said. "The pessimists are saying 10 years. Everybody is saying it can and will happen."

Why now?

Electric car technology has been around for a century. Henry Ford's wife drove an electric-powered Detroit. So why would electrics make a claim on the auto market now?

The 1990s brought a rapid evolution in technology, said Bill Van Amburg, vice president of the California-based WestStart, a nonprofit organization that nurtures new transportation technologies.

Concerns about urban air pollution and global warming led to a demand for greener cars. California is requiring that 10 percent of new cars sold be pollution-free by 2003.

That alone creates a 160,000-car market for electric cars.

Pushed by the federal government, three top automakers invested more than $1 billion in joint research during the past six years.

The end of the Cold War freed a lot of bright defense-industry engineers to work on civilian technical problems, Van Amburg said. Revolution in computing and electronics also spilled over to auto manufacturing, allowing for smaller and cheaper vehicle control systems.

Now, car companies are preparing to roll out a new generation of electric cars, called hybrids. They use electric power at low speeds and a boost from a small gasoline engine at higher speeds.

The hybrids get twice the miles per gallon and produce half the air pollution as the average U.S. car, and drivers don't have to fuss with plugging them in because they recharge themselves.

The Honda version, called Insight, is scheduled to hit Eugene-Springfield dealerships in mid-December. The Toyota's hybrid, Prius, will be here in July - after having sold more than 30,000 in Japan.

Ford and DaimlerChrysler are investing in a succeeding generation of electric cars - powered by electricity from chemical actions in fuel cells instead of batteries. Fuel cell cars are expected by 2004.

"The technology has reached the point you can make real functional vehicles," Van Amburg said, "now the question is getting them into the marketplace."

PC commuting

Mass acceptance of electric cars will require a dramatic change of taste and/or attitude on the part of American car buyers.

The trend in the '90s has been toward bigger, heavier and less-efficient vehicles - from vans, to big trucks, to sport utility vehicles to Humvees. Half of all vehicles sold in the United States today fall into this super-charged category.

Similarly, small, light-weight and super-efficient electric cars aren't selling. General Motors brought out its electric EV1 in the United States three years ago. The EV1 was heralded as a cute, peppy two-seater, but only about 600 consumers opted for the cars through a leasing program.

But people will change their preferences as the population grows and the cities become more choked with cars, like downtown Los Angeles or New York, analysts say.

"Where are we going to put all these cars? How are we going to move them around the city?" said Carl Watkins, president of NEVCO, the Gizmo maker.

Electric cars, on the whole, are smaller than their gasoline-burning cousins. You can park four Gizmos in one standard parking spot - if 10 percent of Eugene residents drove a Gizmo a decade from now, the city would have 37,000 extra parking spots, Watkins said.

Some scientists believe oil companies will soon reach their peak oil production. In the future, demand will increase while supplies dwindle - and the price of a gallon of gas will skyrocket.

"Whether you care or not, sooner or later we're going to have to grapple with global warming," Van Amburg said. "People are going to have to care, because we cannot deal with the changes we are making on our planet."

These trends, so far, haven't registered with the car-buying public. "It's like dying," said Mark Murphy, design director at the 5-year-old NEVCO located at 4th Avenue and Lincoln Street. "You know it's coming, but don't want to think about it."

But awareness seems higher in certain U.S. communities, especially in cities with colleges that teach environmental studies. In college towns such as Eugene and Davis, Calif., a higher percentage of the population commutes by bicycle, according to U.S. Census reports.

Kurani tested the acceptance of electric cars among Davis residents, some of whom found the opportunity a relief. "They said, `I don't feel bad about taking this rather than riding my bike,' " he said.

Little cars

In the future, Van Amburg said, people will buy their cars the way they've learned to buy their tennis shoes - a pair for cross-training, a pair for walking and a pair for jogging.

They'll walk into a dealership and describe their main purpose for the car, what kind of daily distance they drive, what they need to carry, how much room they have for parking and how much money they can spend.

In Eugene-Springfield, 75 percent of trips are less than 25 miles long and involve a person driving alone in a car. "You might go in and say, `I need a commute/errand vehicle,' " Van Amburg said. "For certain options, the battery-powered electric car makes the most sense."

For Paul Clevenger, the 47-year-old bakery mechanic, the Gizmo has been ideal. He zooms six miles east on 13th Avenue in the morning, and returns west on 11th Avenue in the afternoon.

The Gizmo accelerates like a rocket, but reaches a top cruising speed of only 35 to 43 mph, Still, that's enough to get Clevenger to work in 10 minutes.

If the Gizmo's four automobile batteries are depleted, it takes three hours to charge them up - but Clevenger constantly tops them off by plugging in at work and at home.

The three-wheel Gizmo carries a single passenger, who sits in a fiberglass bubble with zipped canvas and plastic windows. The driver steers the Gizmo with a pair of long joy sticks and stops it with a pair of motorcycle-type hand brakes.

The Gizmo has no heater - too big of a drain on the batteries - so Clevenger must wear a coat in the winter. He said he's rarely cold and never wet. The Gizmo has a shoulder strap and seat belt, but no air bags.

He said he just likes to get in it and go, and his odometer backs the story up with 4,550 miles. "I'm not environmental," he said. "I just like it."

Kurani, who performed a five-year study of consumer acceptance, doesn't believe tiny vehicles such as the Gizmo will catch fire with the public. The 18-mile range is too limited; the market starts at 50 miles, he said.

To capture the masses, the cars must carry more people. "A one-person vehicle just isn't useful," he said. "The market for two seaters in the U.S. has historically been tiny. It doesn't matter what kind of vehicle."

Not so, say Gizmo enthusiasts. Drivers will see the wisdom in owning a Gizmo for commuting, and they'll rent a minivan or pick-up truck for visitors, moving or trips.

"Most households need one and one-half cars," said Don Kahle, a Eugene publisher and Gizmo driver. "This is half a car."

Hard sell?

Gizmo's makers, however, are the first to admit that fuel efficiency and emissions performance are pretty lame selling points in today's car market. People want a car that makes them feel good.

"That's why we made Gizmo cute. It's got this sort of pony, Irish setter appeal," said Murphy, the designer.

It's a rolling scavenger hunt - with weed-eater handles for steering, motorcycle mirrors, trailer tires and, in early versions, a tug-to-retract vacuum cleaner cord for recharging. "The genius of it is the humility of it," Kahle said.

You can consider Gizmo as the 21st century thinking person's muscle car, "sort of a reverse status symbol," Murphy said. "It makes a statement."

"I'm comfortable with who I am," Watkins said.

"I can take this," Murphy said.

So far, they've made about a dozen Gizmos, but have orders for 35 more.


NEVCO Gizmo:

Power: All electric
Size: One passenger
Range per charge: 18 miles
Recharge time: 3 hours (if depleted)
Weight: 600 pounds
Efficiency: 7 cents a mile (includes periodic battery purchase)
Price: $7,950 (minus state tax credit of $750)
Available: January

Honda Insight:

Power: Hybrid gasoline/electric
Size: Two doors, two passengers
Range per fill up: 700 miles
Recharge time: Zero (self-charging)
Weight: 1,856 pounds
Efficiency: 61 mpg city, 70 mpg highway
Price: Less than $20,000
Available: Mid-December

Toyota Prius:

Power: Hybrid gasoline/electric
Size: Four door, five passengers
Range per fill up: 600 miles
Recharge time: Zero (self-charging)
Weight: 2,728 pounds
Efficiency: 55 mpg city/highway
Price: In the low $20,000s
Available: July
Average car:
Power: Gasoline
Size: Four or five passengers
Range per fill up: 250 to 300 miles
Recharge time: None
Weight: 3,000 pounds
Efficiency: 25 mpg
Price: About $20,000

Photo: DAVID FRIEDMAN / The Register-Guard
Caption: Paul Clevenger drives a Gizmo, an electric car, along 11th Avenue on his commute home from work one recent afternoon.

WEB EDITOR'S NOTE: The posted version of this story was edited Oct. 16, 1999, to include a correction.

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