Kewet: An EV With a Pulse
By Bill Moore
They were exotic. They were beautiful. They had incredible performance for battery-powered passenger cars. But they're dead. All of them, at least in terms of commercial production.
Count 'em. The GM EV1. Dead. The Honda EV Plus. Dead. The Toyota RAV4 EV and Ecom. Dead. Sure, there are a few survivors running about in the hands of a privileged few -- including a handful of Nissan Hyperminis and Th!nk cities, but essentially, there no successors being born to someday replace them. The focus -- right or wrong -- has shifted to the distant dream of fuel cells.
The task of keeping the battery electric car dream alive essentially has been left to a trio of companies who doggedly continue to soldier on after the Big Car Companies bowed out, having met the letter, if not the spirit, of the law. There's now the Reva from India, the struggling Th!nk city program in Norway, and that proletarian wedge of steel and fiberglass called the Kewet, also from Norway.
While only a few hundred Revas and Th!nk cars have been built and sold, according to Louis Weiss, the co-founder of Kewet USA, located in Van Nuyes, California, there are some 1,500 Kewets running around the snow packed streets and highways of Scandinavia, plus an unknown number that were imported into the USA in the 1990s by the now-dormant Green Motor Works of North Hollywood.
The development of the Kewet, which originated in Denmark, goes back to 1988. Weiss explained that a pair of auto mechanics wanted to build a small electric car, so they welded up a tubular steel frame, used many off-the-shelf automotive components including parts from Fiat and Siemens and gave it a rugged fiberglass body. The result was a functional, if not particularly exciting, battery electric car for two, ideal for running errands through the congested urban streets of Denmark.
In 1992, a small Oslo company now known as ElBil Norge (Electric Car Norway) began importing the Kewet. In 1999, it bought the production rights to the car and moved assembly to a warehouse just outside of the capitol, where up to five cars a week can be turned out by a team of four assemblers. Weiss has been to the facility twice, explaining that when the frame arrives from Denmark, along with the fiberglass coachworks, it is mounted on a moveable dolly. As the dolly moves from station--station, components are added to the car, a time-tested assembly method that results in turning out a complete car once a day, which appears enough to keep up with current demand, though recent incentives in Norway could have a positive impact on production.
Weiss told EV World that the Norwegian parliament recently passed legislation that permits electric cars to be driven in lanes that were formerly restricted to transit buses and taxis. It's been speculated that this is one of the reasons the Norwegian Royal Family recently purchased a reconditioned Th!nk city. Aftenpost, the leading paper in Norway, recently ran a story about Crown Prince Haakon using the Th!nk city to commute from his home into the city to avoid Oslo's daily traffic congestion.
Like the Th!nk city -- which was once owned by Ford Motor Company, only to be dumped the very year the company had planned to introduce the newly redesigned and engineered car into North America -- the Kewet can be driven on Norwegian highways where its top speed is 80 km/hr. Weiss, who has ridden in the car on Oslo freeways, admitted its a bit scary to be sharing the road with heavy trucks (lorries) at the American equivalent of 50 mph, but the car does perform acceptably despite its diminutive size and 13kW/16hp shunt-type electric motor.
The car utilizes a 72-volt battery system that weighs 306 kg. The current batteries are zero-maintenance, Hawker sealed lead-acid with a 146 Ah capacity. The car uses a Curtis 1244 programmable controller made in Italy and a Zivan charger that uses standard European 220 volt, 50Hz electric power to recharge the battery pack.
Weiss made a point of praising the car's hill climbing ability, which is typically not a strong point for any electric vehicle. "In Norway you are either going up a hill, or up a hill," Weiss jested. "These little cars just chug right up the hill."
Another interesting characteristic of the Kewet is that does perform in cold weather, which again is a bit unusual for a lead-acid battery powered car. Lead-acid chemistry typically doesn't like cold temperatures and a vehicle's performance deteriorates markedly when the temperature drops below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Weiss also commented that most people who have the car will keep them in a heated garage and that when you buy the car, it comes with a car cover.
While most of the Kewets produced are in Europe, a number have been brought into the United States and occasionally can be found for sale, in various conditions. This is how Weiss bought his first Kewet, a right-hand drive model that had originally been for parking enforcement by Anaheim, California "meter maids".
Eventually, in an effort to restore his machine, he would buy the remaining two vehicles in Green Motor Work's inventory. In time, Weiss contacted Kewet in Europe for advice, developing a relationship that eventually led to the creation of Kewet USA as the official importer of the Kewet in North America.
Although the car is legal to drive on Norway's highways, because it currently doesn't meet US federal motor vehicle safety standards -- meaning it needs an air bag restraint system -- Weiss has approval import them under FMVSS 500, the neighborhood electric vehicle regulation that limits the car to a top speed of 25 mph, half its top speed in Europe. He noted that the original cars brought in by Green Motor Works were given a waiver on the air bag requirement, but that waiver has since lapsed and the US Department of Transportation will not renew it.
His first imported Kewet arrived just before Christmas 2003 and he said that he had no problems bringing it into the country as an NEV.
Of course, classifying the vehicle as a NEV limits the number of customers to whom he can market the car. While there appear to be sufficient numbers of people interested in buying a road-capable EV like the Kewet, especially one that sells for $13,000, the fact that the car has been restricted to 25 mph and operation on city streets with posted speed limits under 35 mph, means that the Kewet is now priced at the upper range of comparable neighborhood electric vehicles.
Weiss' plan is to market the car to residents of gated communities and college campuses who want a vehicle that is a bit more substantial than the more golf car-like offerings currently available from companies like GEM. This also puts the Kewet in competition with companies like Dynasty Motor Cars, Zap and Reva, all of which are seeking to offer more car-like vehicles to this same market.
Given the size of ElBil Norge, it may be sometime before they engineer the car to meet US federal -- and presumably Canadian -- safety standards that would allow them to operate at higher speeds, including the introduction of air bags. But Weiss said the company is gradually upgrading the car. He was instrumental in getting them to change the door locks so the car could be locked from the inside, as well as outside, offering North American drivers a greater sense of security. His sense is that ElBil Norge will eventually introduce air bags, at least for the driver. This should permit the car move out of the restraining NEV classification.
Moving back to the vehicle's operation, Weiss told EV World that the car comes equipped with an electric resistance heater that will "blow you out of the car." It runs off the accessories battery that powers the lights, radio/cassette player, etc. However, if you run it any amount of time, it can dim the driving lights, but it will not impact the range or speed of the car.
I asked Weiss if he'd had a chance to compare the Kewet with the Th!nk and the Reva. He replied that he'd only seen the cars and hadn't driven them. He did comment that the Th!nk city is no longer being manufactured, which is technically true at the moment, but Th!nk Norway has announced they plan to resume limited production later this year. They are currently keeping their staff employed refurbishing cars as they return from various demonstration programs in North America and elsewhere. It is these refurbished cars that ElBil is also selling in Oslo, including the one bought by Crown Prince Haakon.
Weiss sees the Kewet is the ideal errand runner; an inexpensive to own, maintain and operate car that is ideal for driving around the small towns of America. He said he uses his Kewet every day for that purpose. It has storage space behind the seats for groceries and other small items one might need to pickup during the day.
"I plug it in at the end of the day and next morning, it's ready to go."
The Kewet comes with a three-year warranty on the drive system, instruments and chassis, while the electronics and battery pack have a one year warranty. Although Kewet USA has imported only a single car at the time of this writing, Weiss sees a national market for the car, not only in small towns but also in congested urban areas like Manhattan and Philadelphia.
"As far as repair, there isn't very much to repair on them since there is only one moving part," he said. "I think we can induce people who maintain and repair golf carts to extend their businesses into electric vehicles."
While Weiss is willing to sell vehicles directly to consumers, he is focused on setting up dealerships for the car.
Of course, the $64,000 questions is, "Is there really a market for electric cars?" So, I asked Weiss if he thought a market still existed, especially in California since its Zero Emission Vehicle mandate is effectively "comatose."
He replied that he continues to get communications from the State of California that it is still interested in clean air. In addition, the people who once leased cars like the GM EV1, are still interested in owning battery electric cars, as well as all those who were on waiting lists to get the car before GM "pulled the plug" and crushed most of the 1100 cars it had built.
He thinks it is just a matter of time when the world runs out of oil -- he figures it will all be gone by 2097. He believes people need to be made aware of the fact that alternative fuel vehicles like the Kewet are available. Of course, to a nation grown accustomed to ever-larger, more fuel-hungry trucks and sport utility vehicles, convincing them to move down to a diminutive runabout like the Kewet or Reva or Th!nk will not be easy, a challenge he acknowledged.
As one hopeful sign that the tide may finally be turning, Weiss pointed out the fact that more and more of our every day equipment is running on electricity and battery power, including our cellphones, laptop computers, games and cameras. "The people who make batteries are getting better and better at it."
Interestingly, just after our conversation, the National Academies released a block-buster report that takes a critical view of the much hyped hydrogen economy and fuel cell cars, stating that battery electric cars and gasoline/diesel-electric hybrids may make far more sense in the near-term, a conclusion EV World agrees with. If sufficient progress can be made to bring down the cost of advanced battery technology, cars like the Kewet and its successors may become the norm on the streets and highways of the world and not the rare exception.
A lot more of us could be commuting to work or running to the store in a wedge-shaped car for pennies a day.
1. Editor's Note: Puegeot and Citroen in France have built more than 5,000 battery electric vehicles, making them the largest EV builders in the world, but the current status of those programs is unknown. Additionally, the Kewet should not be confused with the US-built, 48-volt Commuta Car from the early 1980s, which bears some resemblance to the Kewet and can be found for sale online at places like Ebay.Com and the DC-branch of the Electric Vehicle Association. Finally, ZAP is seeking to import a Chinese-made battery electric car that looks promising.
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