Saturday, August 14, 2010


"Three wheels, six batteries, one extension cord, no gas tank!" That's what I say when asked about my pickup truck. A lot of people think it's "cool," and some, mainly my sons, find endless ways to make fun of me because of it. Even grandson Jake calls it the motorcycle with training wheels.
It's not a very practical vehicle in a number of ways: goes about 20 miles on a full charge, it's a rough ride (especially on Portland's rough streets), it has no vent/fan or air conditioning (it's close to 100 F today), and needless to say, I don't want to think about how it would do in an interaction with a normal car, SUV or truck.

One colleague remarked that I must have a lot of self confidence - this was when I pulled into a job site next to all the big rigs driven by contractors.

So why did I buy it, and why do I drive it? Part of it is certainly image - I like to be a bit quirky in the face of normalcy (hence the hybrid recumbent bicycle with a small red and black propellor thingy I added on the front). But a large part of it is trying to do something logical and practical in an otherwise very strange world.

Let me explain. My wife and I moved into a very urban neighborhood 9 years ago from a semi-suburban part of the city. We sold one vehicle and became a one car family; I bought a bike and started riding the 5 miles to work every day. We walk a lot in our neighborhood to all the shops, restaurants, pubs, theaters, etc. I signed up for Zip car and used one for times when I had to go to a meeting farther than biking distance, or needed to carry lots of stuff, or had back-to-back meetings with no time in between to bike to the next one. This worked very well.

But I kept looking at the electric car concept, and liked the idea. I saw the Zap cars at a local dealer a couple of years ago and test drove a sedan and "truck," but the prices were high for something I didn't absolutely need. However, I liked the idea, so I kept looking for a good deal on a used one. I finally found my Zap PK (the pickup model) this year, and bought it from a very nice guy who had bought it new and improved it with some important add-ons.

The Zap has worked out well; it's useful for carrying large objects, gets me almost everywhere I need to go in the city, and I guess makes a statement about cars, energy and etc. I don't yet have a good "story" to tell about the sustainability and green footprint of my Zap. It doesn't directly produce harmful emissions, doesn't use petroleum, and presents less danger to others compared to a larger vehicle. But I can only imagine the environmental and social harm done by the manufacturing of a Zap (it's made in China), and the lead acid batteries will need to be recycled properly (I can get a lithium ion battery pack for more than I paid for the Zap!). I just bought a meter to measure how much electricity it takes to charge my Zap, and electricity is produced somewhere and by various methods.

The most important aspect of driving the Zap, however, is the different mind set I have developed. First, I have to plan my trips carefully to be certain I can get home or somewhere else where I can plug it in before running out of juice. This is truly different from having a gasoline vehicle in which I can ignore distance and simply pull into a gas station when I'm getting low on fuel. I don't think many drivers normally plan their trips carefully before leaving home.

Second, driving the tiny Zap gives me a different view of the world of motor vehicles - there are a lot of huge vehicles on the road, and drivers like to drive fast. I can go 45 mph in the Zap, but that's top speed, and I rarely do it (uses a lot of battery power).

Third, if you've ever driven a hybrid car, you know the light bulb moment when you realize that the machine turns off at red lights, waiting in line at the drive-in restaurant, etc. I'm sure there are statistics for how much fuel is consumed and how many tons of emissions are spewed by gas-powered vehicles that aren't moving, and the numbers are certainly large.

Driving the Zap has given me a new vision of urban planning. In this vision, those who want or need a vehicle have small electric cars and trucks to get around the urban area, and only these vehicles are allowed on most streets. Key arterial roads are designated for larger gas-powered vehicles, and these are mostly for service vehicles and travelers going between urban areas (I won't discuss the need for lots more trains and buses here). Strategically located parking garages are on these arterials, and people can park their small electric there when they need their larger vehicle. Life in the city would be slower, quieter, and much more sustainable.

I'm glad to see the major car manufacturers coming out with electric vehicles (EVs); although I don't understand the logic of building electric cars that cost $40,000 like the Chevy Volt. This prices most people out of the market, particularly those who could benefit most from owning an EV.

So if you see me driving by (you won't hear me), flag me down and I'll give you a ride. The Zap is a lot of fun, and I always have a smile on my face when I'm in it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Bravo, someone who understands the purpose of the Xebra. I drove mine back and forth to work today and always contemplate being one of the only electric car drivers out on the road. Part of of the fun for me is the hope it will challenge others to consider what they are driving. Some will resist but I am always encouraged discovering more moving in this direction. Best to you and your Xebra...

~ Alex Campbell, ZAP,