Electric vehicles ride the wave of the future
When Nancie Hamlett drives by, heads turn. People point and shout. Camera phones take pictures and children wave. “People roll down their windows at stop lights to ask questions,” says Hamlett. What’s all the fuss? That would be Hamlett’s ZAP Xebra sedan—a three-wheel electric vehicle (EV).
Hamlett purchased the car in May 2007 for environmental reasons. “My goal was to drive it to work daily thereby reducing one gallon of gas a day’s worth of carbon emissions.” The car needs to be plugged in to charge up on a regular basis, but because Hamlett uses Xcel Energy’s “windsource,” all of her electricity comes from wind power. “I often think I should have a bumper sticker for my Xebra that says ‘Powered by Wind,’ ” says Hamlett.
Gary Hoover, who owns a ZAP Xebra pickup, also chose alternative transportation for environmental reasons. “I looked at my kids and realized they were going to have to live with the pollutants I was spewing into the environment from my car,” he says. Hoover switched to pedal-power: For eight years he used a cargo trike with attached trailer to get around town. But age caught up with him and he needed something that didn’t cause so much strain. He decided, “The next best thing to pedaling and walking is electric vehicles.” Hoover made the switch to electric in January 2008.
Hamlett is getting used to a few things that are different about driving an EV. “It helps me to slow the pace of my life to not be driving on the freeway. And I have found some beautiful back ways to get to work, around the lakes and through Wirth Park. I arrive very calm and ready to start my work day.” The Xebra goes up to 40 miles per hour and has a range of 20 to 25 miles per charge (less in colder weather). The batteries are fully recharged in six to eight hours, but they can get a “boost” in an hour or two. “Because I have limited range without recharging, it also helps me to ‘think before I drive’ to make sure the trip is necessary and that I am consolidating errands rather than running out for every little thing,” explains Hamlett.
Carl Gulbronson, owner of The Electric Vehicle Store, points to batteries as one of the biggest problems with electric vehicles. Gulbronson says, “What’s killing electric vehicles is battery technology. If there was an inexpensive and durable battery there would be a lot of companies making electric vehicles. Lithium ion batteries were a big breakthrough, but they cost five times as much.”
The Electric Vehicle Store is the only ZAP dealer in Minnesota. Gulbronson has been selling ZAP vehicles, and a variety of other EVs, for 18 months. Gulbronson explains that ZAP (maker of the Xebra) is one of the few companies in the world delivering EVs. “Many of the vehicles you hear about are ‘vapor vehicles,’ “ Gulbronson says. “These are vehicles that don’t really exist but companies are marketing them. For example, we’ve been hearing about the Chevy Volt for two years but it won’t be available for two more years.”
Gulbronson’s hope for the future is that battery technology will improve and more manufacturers will start making the vehicles so he can sell them to people who want to lower their carbon footprint, operate a vehicle with minimal environmental impact, and save a lot of money.
Hamlett explains how an electric vehicle can save you money. “It costs about 35 cents per charge, so if your car gets 20-25mpg, divide gas price per gallon by 35 cents and you’ll get an idea of the Xebra equivalent. For example, when gas was $3.50 and I was paying 35 cents per charge, instead of getting 20-25 mpg, I was getting 200-250 mpg equivalent.”
Although there is no oil to be changed, transmission to deal with, or any of the usual upkeep or problems associated with internal combustion engines, there is still a lot of work to be done with EVs. “The earlier ZAP models (’06 and ’07) were made for people who aren’t afraid to tinker and get under the hood. The later models are touted as ‘more together’ and would be OK for people who don’t want to work on them. But whether that is true remains to be seen,” Hoover explains.
Hoover and Hamlett have both done their share of work on their vehicles.
Hamlett has done several upgrades to keep up the performance of her batteries. She’s also had to replace the charger, old fuses, and do some other work. She notes that some EV owners save money here because they know more about cars and electrical systems and can do the work themselves. Hoover says if you own and operate an electric vehicle, that sort of makes you a mechanic. Hoover has had a great year with his vehicle but is a little disappointed that he wasn’t able to put as much time and money into improving his car as he wanted. He had to put that energy into just keeping the car going. Hoover explains, “Right now the vehicles are made in China and some of the parts aren’t put together well. If ZAP is able to build these in the U.S. and there is better quality control the vehicles should really improve.” ZAP is currently building a plant in Kentucky.
If you are interested in owning an electric vehicle, Hamlett has this advice: “Know what you need regarding comfort and mechanical know-how (or where you can get it). Talk with folks who own the vehicle you are most interested in. If you’re looking at a Xebra, read the Xebra Yahoo Group entries over various time periods. Talk with a reputable dealer who owns and knows that particular vehicle.” The Xebra Yahoo Group is a great place to go for advice about different problems and solutions. “There are a couple of dealers and other “Xebra-buffs” who even put videos on the site of how to replace various components, step by step,” says Hamlett.
The world of electric vehicles is much larger than just ZAP of course. There are also “neighborhood electric vehicles,” such as the Zenn car, which tops out at 25 miles per hour, and there are also many people converting gas cars to electric. You can see and test drive some of the options at The Electric Vehicle Store (www.plugin-mn.com). It is currently open 24 hours a day, seven days a week by appointment only. Contact Gulbronson for an appointment: 952-929-0313.
Gulbronson notes, “Gas prices will drive demand for these vehicles. When it’s over $3 a gallon, people start looking for other options. When it’s over $4, people are required to look for other options. Smart people are planning ahead now.”