Monday, March 05, 2012

Electric Cool: The Rise of the Geek Machines

When you see the phrase "electric vehicle," what's the first thing that comes to mind?  Is it "environmental responsibility?"

"Small carbon footprint?"

"Ed Begley Jr.?"

My guess is that whatever thoughts or images the phrase "electric vehicle" conjured up for you, they had little to do with the sort of essential mating ritual-related stuff that has made the automobile such an  important aspect of American Cool. That's because the rationale and motivation behind developing electric cars has for far too long focused on important, socially responsible, practical stuff like reducing  greenhouse gases and ending our fossil fuel addiction. Those are unquestionably worthwhile goals. But in order to achieve those goals people actually have to buy and drive electric cars. And so far, appealing to  consumers' sense of social responsibility isn't working.

This headline from a storyin the Cleveland Plain Dealer says a tankful:
Consumers need to see a personal benefit to driving electric cars, auto experts say

According to that article, the experts at the Center for Automotive Research cite one big, overriding challenge: "Persuading consumers to give up driving cars that use petroleum because doing so benefits society, not necessarily the individual."

Increasing gas prices. Soaring oil company profits. Messy petro-based global political entanglements with countries that like American dollars but hate America. Add all that to the fact that the air quality around any freeway at rush hour will do to your ability to breathe what diving head-first into an empty swimming pool will do to your ability to do simple math. You'd think that would be enough to convince anyone to give an electric vehicle serious consideration.

But that hasn't happened, apparently. So a different strategy is in order. If electric vehicles are going to really take off, the focus has to shift from selling social responsibility to selling the more personal benefit of  getting from Point A to Point B with sufficient style and cool that the last 10 feet of that journey is littered with hastily removed lingerie.

If you want to convince a guy to buy an electric car, you have to convince him that owning one will make him more like James Bond or Batman or Jason Bourne, rather than like Ed Begley Jr. The electric car has to be positioned as a chick magnet. Car companies have been doing that for decades, so what's the problem now? While the experts at the Center for Automotive Research are trying to figure that out, there are others, dedicated electric vehicle enthusiasts and start-ups among them,, who have taken the issue beyond social responsibility and are actively demonstrating the sex appeal of electric cars by going back to the basics of speed and styling, with a healthy dose of modern geek cred to bring driving into the twenty-first century.

One group engaged in that effort is the National Electric Drag Racing Association (NEDRA), a chapter of the Electric Auto Association. NEDRA is dedicated to increasing public awareness of electric vehicle  performance and encouraging advances in electric vehicle technology through competition.

NEDRA's flagship vehicles are the White Shadow, John "Plasma Boy" Wayland's lithium battery powered 1972 Datsun 1200 Sedan, and Bill Dubé's record-breaking, lithium battery powered KillaCycle

KillacycleDriver Scotty Pollacheck riding KillaCycle

If you're searching IMDB looking for all the Bond movies that featured a '72 Datsun, you can stop. But while the White Zombie isn't an Aston Martin, it goes from zero to sixty in less time than it takes to say "zero to sixty," and regularly blows the doors of off cooler-looking cars that burn dinosaur juice.

Unlike typical dragsters, which can be loud enough to liquefy your brain, the White Zombie and the KillaCycle make almost no motor sounds. What you'll hear in the videos below is mostly squealing tires -- and  something that sounds like a large, cordless electric drill.

[You can follow KillaCycle's exploits on Facebook.]

In the style department, Tesla Motors produces the hot-looking Roadster two-seater, and the sleek and stylish Model S four-door. You can own the Roadster today -- if you have $109k you're not planning on spending on lunch. The company is taking advanced orders on the Model S, at a very reasonable $49,000 base price that includes a $7500 federal tax credit.

Of course, before you shell out the $109k for the Roadster, you might want to watch the following video, in which the White Zombie eats the Roadster's lunch in the quarter mile.

But before you write off the Tesla Roadster as a pansy basket, check out the following video, in which a Roadster tames a Mustang.

While the Tesla models score high marks for demonstrating EV cool and style,  other new companies are taking EV style out of the box and into the future.

The three-wheeled Alias from ZAP(Zero Air Pollution) is a three-wheeler that oozes scifi cool. The Alias is the latest design from ZAP, which also produces a more utilitarian line of EVs. The Alias is available for pre-order at $35k.

Looking to the future, at least two way cool prototypes offer a glimpse of the EV cool to come.

The TZero from AC Propulision is a hand-built two-seater that has all the sporty cool and performance a dude could want, along with the extreme geek appeal of being powered by 7000 laptop batteries. The TZero's bulider claims a zero-to-sixty time of 3.6 seconds. Check out the video to see the TZero smoke a 500hp Dodge Viper.

The eight-wheeled Eliica is another wildly futuristic design. Created by a team led by Prof. Hiroshi Shimizu at Japan's Keio University, the Eliica reportedly has a zero-to-sixty time of four seconds and has hit 230 mph.

Of course, we have to give good old General Motors its due. Style-wise, the Chevy Volt, GM's re-entry into the EV field, is likely to make Prius owners envious. The Volt uses a gas-powered generator to charge its batteries or run it's electric power train. So while it's still dependent on fossil fuel, it's a big step in the right direction. With a base price of $33.5k, the Volt is affordable and cool enough to make social responsibility a bonus.

"What about the Nissan Leaf?" you ask. Yes, it's an EV. And yes, it's base price is well under $30k. But style-wise the Leaf is very much like Ed Begley, Jr. Nice, but not
likely to inspire the shedding of lingerie.

Today's generation of grade-school kids is already familiar with electric vehicles. When those kids come of age, they're not going to be resistant to the idea, but they are going to want what every other generation of drivers has wanted, a car that offers an ego boost, a style upgrade, a cool injection. Based on what's happening in the EV world now, it looks like they're going to get what they want.

End Note
Sadly, one of the of the coolest-looking EVs has already bitten the dust. The company behind the wildy futuristic Aperta three-wheeler recently anounced its demise [See: Aptera: A Brief Chronology Of The Collapse  ]. Too bad.

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