EDTA Ride & Drive: Scene Stealers
By Joseph Lado
The forecast was for it to be cloudy and one television station even said that it might rain a little in the afternoon. All of the stations were predicting it would be cold in Washington, DC that day. So, as I made my way out of the Chinatown subway station, I was surprised to see a glorious blue sky and sun. I turned west from the station entrance, the large ornate Chinese arch that marks Washington’s Chinatown behind me. I passed the noodle shops and the gold colored porcelain cats waving at me from shop windows. I made my way through the canyon like walls of the city until I reached a clearing of sorts. There I found a parking lot bisected by an elevated path that had what looked like an arcade of leaning art covered billboard signs. On the other side of the arcade I could see vehicles, news cameras and people mulling about. When I arrived at the far side of the lot past the arcade of art I found the capable Electric Drive Transportation Association (EDTA) staff attending to a local news reporter who was being filmed as she test drove the vehicles for this morning’s news broadcast. I was there to help as an Electric Vehicle Association/DC (EVA/DC) volunteer with the Ride and Drive.
If you don’t know what a Ride and Drive is, it is where patrons attending the EDTA conference get a chance to ride in or drive some of the vehicles that are displayed at the conference. My job as volunteer that morning was to be the person that directed the Ride and Drive vehicles in and out of the parking lot. It was from this vantage point that I got to see the vehicles approach, brake, turn, go over a hump in the road, merge into traffic and return to the lot. There were two courses that the vehicles could take, one inside the parking lot and another around the outside on the city streets. By going out on the street drivers could get a quick sense of what the vehicles were like to drive in city traffic and the traffic around the lot was very much typical city traffic for Washington, DC.
The first vehicle out of the lot was Global Electric Motor’s (GEM) e2, its two seat Neighborhood Electric Vehicle (NEV). The GEM was peppy as it came across the parking lot towards the exit. The driver had no trouble controlling the vehicle and stopping it next to me for instructions. He did have trouble figuring out how to open the window and we ended up talking through a slightly opened door. NEVs are almost ideal for city driving where the 25 mile an hour regulated top speed is often well above the average road speed. Here in downtown Washington, DC the average speed is somewhere around 15 miles an hour. This model had doors which I thought were a good choice for this part of the country, especially in winter. The day was sunny and clear, but the air was cold. Doors to protect the driver from the chilly wind are an option I know that I would have added to the vehicle if I were to buy one for use here.
The next vehicle to come by my station was the Columbia ParCar Mega model NEV truck. It didn’t leave the safety of the parking lot, however, though the vehicle seemed fully capable of doing so. The novice driver on board, without the advantage of an accompanying company representative to give them instructions on how to drive the vehicle, managed very well anyway. As the test drives went on through the day some of the Mega drivers testing the vehicles did take them out on the streets. Given that they did not have pained looks on their faces when they returned and given that the company representative did not leap out of the car to kiss the ground after the run lead me to believe that these vehicles proved easy to drive and did well on city streets. As the vehicles got bigger however, this wouldn’t be the case.
Azure Dynamics brought a hybrid step van to the Ride and Drive. A step van is the kind of vehicle typically used for newspaper or bakery deliveries. Azure Dynamics wisely choose not to have participants drive the vehicle. It wasn’t a problem with what Azure did with the vehicle that made a pro-driver a wise choice, but rather the need for experience with driving these types of vehicles since they are hard to see out of and difficult to maneuver in tight city traffic. The vehicle’s operation as a parallel hybrid seemed to work flawlessly. From my vantage point there was no discernable difference between this vehicle and others pure fuel powered vehicles just like it. The professional driver hired to drive the vehicle for this event wasn’t fully briefed on the operation of the vehicle, confessing to another volunteer that he was confused by the fuel engine turning on and off at the beginning. He thought the vehicle was stalling out at first, something to think about when providing instructions to fleet managers on these vehicles. Azure Dynamic’s test vehicle offered electric-launch assist, would shut off the engine at idle and had regenerative braking. Features that when used together offered improvements to fuel economy and reduced emissions.
DUECO, Incorporated brought what looked to me like a big diesel bucket truck. It had all the usual sounds associated with a typical truck of its type. On the side of the vehicle it clearly stated hybrid, but from my vantage point I couldn’t see any difference between that vehicle and all the other bucket trucks I have seen on the road over the years. It was only afterwards during a presentation about the vehicles from DUECO that I realized that their advantages wouldn’t really shine in a Ride and Drive. I won’t talk about all the advantages of the truck here; however, the main advantage of the truck is how it uses energy. This truck charges a large set of batteries while its engine is on during travel. The batteries use their electricity for operating the machinery on the vehicle when the engine is off. The diesel engine was mainly used for moving the vehicle to and from the designated work site, after that the vehicle operated off the batteries making the vehicle much quieter and much less polluting. I learned that a significant portion of fuel was used by the standard types of these vehicles in idling and generating electricity to operate the bucket apparatus. I was impressed how a little “out of the box” thinking was able to do so much to improve this vehicles environmental footprint, while saving the owners money on fuel costs too, a win for everyone.
General Motors brought a Saturn Vue 2 mode hybrid to the Ride and Drive. The car was black with dark gray lettering that read “HYBRID” emblazoned on the sides. GM has come a long way in automobile styling and what struck me most about the vehicle was how truly beautiful it looked. The way their visual design team integrated the wording “hybrid” tastefully into the vehicle’s color pallet, leads me to believe that GM now understands the importance of these things as a part of marketing a vehicle. If I hadn’t already committed myself fully to purchasing a plug-in vehicle as my next car, the Saturn Vue 2 mode hybrid would definitely be a vehicle I might consider on looks alone. If the Saturn brand survives to where GM actually comes out with the Saturn Vue “plug-in” 2 mode hybrid, they would have a ready and willing customer with me. After having said that, the specialness that standard hybrids once held for me just isn’t there any more, so to catch my eye GM is going to have to do better than just a hybrid.
A Lexus hybrid and a regular Prius followed. Prius hybrids are so common in the Washington area and in Northern Virginia in particular you are likely to often see several parked together in a parking lot or be facing two or more vehicles at a stop. They are a known commodity at this point and as a reporter trying to report my impressions from the vantage point of traffic control I couldn’t shed any new light on these vehicles. At the show, however, I was singularly unimpressed with the mileage numbers that were posted by Lexus for their hybrids. They need to do much better in mileage if they hope to get serious well-to-do greenies to look at these cars.
Miles Electric Vehicles brought a little NEV flatbed and a little NEV 4 door to the showing. All I can say is cute, cute, cute. Werres Corporation had an almost identical offering, however. Maybe these two companies battling it out for the same market would bring some benefit for consumers in the long run, but I wondered if the market for these types of vehicles is too small to be occupied by two players. Only time will tell. For me, the offering of these diminutive vehicles makes me want to put my palm to the roof of them and push them back and forth while saying, “varoom.” I am looking forward to the day when children don’t associate noises such as “varoom” with vehicles like I do. After today I now know that noise and vehicles are a very strong part of my minds programming, which needn’t be there. Electric vehicles don’t go “varoom.”
This leads me to Smith Electric Vehicles. In my mind big trucks mean noise, and every time the big green truck from Smith Electric Vehicles would exit and enter the parking lot my mind would assign a noise to it. I didn’t know this was happening until two workmen began grinding metal across the street and my mind assigned the loudest sound it heard to the truck. I thought there must be something wrong with the truck it was making an awful metal grinding noise and immediately realized seeing the two men across the street that it wasn’t the truck at all. The electric truck’s sounds were far below the ambient noise found in the city. It was very quiet. The signals from my eyes of a big truck and signals from my ears of silence compared to the surrounding sounds didn’t jive in my brain somehow. So, my brain took sounds that were happening elsewhere on the street and assigned them to the truck. I realized then that my brain had been taking sounds such as that from a diesel generator being used by a road crew behind me and attaching it to the truck. What this experience also made me realize is that we are inundated with sounds in a city environment. The roar of trucks, busses and cars, mixed together with jackhammers, men grinding metal, horns honking make for a constant assault on our ear drums and senses. How, much more pleasant city living would be if the great majority of the cause for all that noise, the internal combustion engine, were eliminated. I think it would profoundly change our experience of city living for the better.
Smith also had another offering, an all electric Ford van very similar in look to the Dodge Sprinter vans. Sprinter vans are those very tall narrow vans that have all sorts of uses. Smith’s van was all electric that could be built to match its customers range needs. The example that they had there at the show had a 100 mile range on a charge and I was told that the range could be extended much farther since there was plenty of room for batteries in the vehicle. Seeing that van made me envision major delivery companies, such as FedEx and UPS, using them and protecting themselves from the possibility of liquid fuel prices driving their cost through the roof unexpectedly. I could see warehouses investing in solar panels and charging these vehicles from sunshine fixing those fuel costs for decades into the future, all the while not releasing carbon molecules into the air. I was very excited by this offering. I remember thinking that this could be the very vehicle that Plug-In Partners, an organization committed to organizing demand for plug-in fleet vehicles, has been looking for. With FedEx’s fleet at around 86 thousand vehicles, and UPS’ north of that, Smith looks well positioned to provide a majority of van fleet managers what they need to kick their organizations personal oil addiction.
There was only one fuel cell offering that I remember. Toyota brought its FCHV (Fuel Cell Hybrid Vehicle) prototype. The hydrogen powered FCHV is based on the Highlander platform and uses the Synergy Drive hybrid technology used in the Prius. Nickel-metal hydride batteries supplement the fuel cell electric output with more electricity to the motors during acceleration, an improvement sorely needed to perk up the anemic acceleration of former fuel cell prototypes. The FCHV Highlander seemed to function well, operating very near the calming quiet associated with battery electric vehicles. However, the fuel cell vehicles were not as exciting as the battery and plug-in vehicles at the show. Mitsubishi’s entrant was the best example of that.
Last, but in no way least was the Mitsubishi iMIEV, which was by far the most popular car of the ride and drive. To give you an example of how popular getting a ride or driving the iMIEV was, the Ride and Drive was supposed to be over at 2 pm, but was extended to 2:30 pm so that we could fit in the last remaining conference attendees waiting for a chance at driving or riding in the show vehicles. By 2:30 pm the parking lot was empty of people waiting for vehicles except for a line that continued at the iMIEV. The car is small, almost like a SMART car only stretched to be a four door, four passenger vehicle. Similar in size as an NEVs the iMIEV, however, is a fully highway capable car. There was no getting around it, the car had that special something that made everyone gravitate towards it. The reporters in the early morning focused on it, the drivers there to test the vehicles gravitated towards it and I wanted to stick it in my pocket and take it home with me. For me it represented perfection as a city car. I could go highway speeds if I needed it to, could carry 4 passengers if needed, had a range of about 100 miles on a charge, more than I need for daily driving with enough left over to drive around town without worrying that I would run out of a charge. It was small making it easy to park and easy to maneuver in the often crowded city streets. The iMIEV definitely gets a thumbs up from me.
As the Ride and Drive came to a close I headed with the rest of the volunteers to the convention center where the rest of the conference was taking place. The proceedings of the morning went well, and electric vehicles, mainly NEVs were by far the dominant vehicle for the Ride and Drive. I looked forward to the rest of the conference with anticipation of what I was to see and learn in the coming days.
blog comments powered by Disqus