Rumors of the electric car's demise have been greatly exaggerated.
Michael Pollick - Herald Tribune - August 14, 2006
ZAP's new Zebra car
"Who Killed the Electric Car?" is a documentary now making the national art-movie circuit.
But a California company would like you to know that the rumors of the electric car's demise have been greatly exaggerated.
With gas prices surging to all-time highs and the mess in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, making it likely they won't be coming down anytime soon, a lot of people might be relieved to hear that.
ZAP, a Santa Rosa, Calif.-based company, said the interest has meant its $10,000 plug-in cars are shipping out just as fast as they roll off the ship from China.
Called the Xebra, the new vehicle has three wheels instead of four, weighs under 1,000 pounds and can seat four.
The Xebra travels up to 40 miles on one charge, and whirs along at up to 40 mph.
Florida, always a few months to a few years behind the West Coast in getting its hands on the latest thing, does not have any Xebras yet, and there are no dealerships. (One Sunshine State caveat: Xebras do not have air conditioning).
But ZAP knows of dozens that already have bounded noiselessly out of dealers' lots. Gas prices seem to have gotten people's attention and held on tight.
An Oregon pizza restaurant owner is using one as a backup for making deliveries.
"It's a neat little car and it is a great promotional tool, for sure," said Dave Johnson of Fultano's Pizza in Cannon Beach, Ore.
An Oregon dealer said he is getting calls and selling cars to people from much farther away than you'd expect. Larry Dye said he just got a call from a Florida man who plans to fly out and haul a car back.
"I'm selling them all over the Northwest and the United States, actually," said Dye, owner of Electric Wheels Inc. of Salem, Ore., one of seven businesses that have become Xebra dealers, all in the western United States.
All this is heady stuff for ZAP's chairman, Gary Starr, who came up with his first prototype solar electric car a dozen years ago. In fact, if you watch the new documentary really closely, you will see a clip from another movie in which his first electric concept car appeared: "Naked Gun 21/2," Starr said.
"What we are trying to say is the electric car isn't completely dead. In fact, it turned into a Xebra," Starr deadpanned.
ZAP also is responsible for bringing the first gas-powered 60 mile-per-gallon Smart cars into the U.S. from Europe, where they are a day-to-day presence in city streets. You can buy the Smarts in Florida for $25,000 each if you can find them, hidden behind all the Ferraris at Foreign Affairs Motors in Palm Beach.
But in Europe, they go for more like $12,000 in U.S. money.
Folks here should see them for around that price when DaimlerChrysler AG gets around to importing them directly in a year or so.
Pushing for under $10,000
With the little electric car from China, Starr thinks he has come even closer to one of his original goals in setting up ZAP.
"There are $300,000 prototypes out there, sure," he said. "What we did was say, 'How can we get an electric car to the consumer under $10,000?'"
The answer, he found, was in China, where three-wheeled vehicles are nearly as common as those with four.
"They've got three-wheeled trucks that are so big and heavy, you don't understand how they can go down the road," Starr said.
The reason the Chinese do it is simple: one less wheel, one less set of bearings and one less brake means owners save money and weight.
ZAP spent about a year working with a Beijing-area manufacturer to design the Xebra from the wheels up, and is now ramping up shipments.
The batteries, the heaviest component of the vehicle other than its passengers, are designed to fit into the base of the chassis in a "T shape" so that the center of gravity is very low and right between the wheels.
"We are so used to looking at four wheels, people always ask, 'Where is the other wheel?'" Starr said. "But once you drive it, you understand how stable it is."
Backing up Starr on that view is one of the first independent reviewers who has driven the Xebra, Philip Reed of Edmunds.com, a company that has been in the car-reviewing game for 40 years.
"When I got back to Edmunds and told the guys it is a three-wheeled car, they said: 'Oh gosh, it must have been unstable.' But it wasn't. I was going probably between 30 and 40," Reed said.
"It is what I would call an in-between car. It doesn't take the place of a full-size gasoline-powered car, and it is not intended to."
While the Xebra is relatively dorky looking and won't go far on a charge, customers can already can place an order for a sleek electric sports car that will go from zero to 60 in the time it takes for your Starbucks to fall off the dashboard.
The Tesla, also whining this way from California, will cost about $80,000, said Dan Sperling, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California at Davis.
"The long-term future for vehicles is probably a choice between battery electrics and fuel cells, and they are both electric vehicles, of course," Sperling said. "The question is: Will they have batteries or will they use hydrogen?
"It looks like several of the car companies are likely to come out with plug-in hybrids in the not-too-distant future, maybe 2009. There are even rumors that the next version of the Prius will be a plug-in hybrid, but those are just rumors."
Because ZAP is a public stock company, Starr was not free to project sales or orders without disseminating the same information to the rest of the investment world.
But he is free to say that ZAP has an exclusive 10-year contract controlling the output of the plant, and that the plant has the capability of churning out 1,000 vehicles per month.
But ZAP is not stopping there.
Its big-picture plan is to set up a distribution system, which means having hundreds of dealers and dozens of distribution centers, and then to use that growing North American network to float out the latest zero-emission or alternative-fuel vehicles as they are developed.
"Then, as we create demand in the future, costs will come down."
Johnson, the Oregon pizza shop owner, said his biggest issue with the three-wheeler so far is making sure that his drivers don't push the car too hard, which cuts down on the already-limited range.
"If you're just putting your foot down all the way, there can be a big variation," Johnson said, referring to the life of each battery charge.
Starr said mass production will bring down battery prices enough that he can answer that concern.
"Today, you can actually build an electric vehicle that gets 200- to 300-mile range. The only problem is today that vehicle is expensive," he said.
"The batteries exist, but there hasn't been the magnitude of orders to lower the cost."
"I want to sell like 50 to 60 a month. That is my goal," said ZAP dealer S.T. Tripathi, owner of Elizabeth RV and Automotive Center, halfway between Denver and Colorado Springs, Colo.
Tripathi, who sells a variety of scooters and small vehicles alongside $75,000 motor homes, received his first herd of Xebras three weeks ago. He already has sold four of them, and has another five on order from ZAP in California.
The motor home dealer said he is getting requests to use the little critters in parades, already has made it onto a couple of TV shows, and is chatting with Denver officials about adding the cars to the fleet for reading parking meters and water meters.
Dealership requirements vary state by state.
Starr guesstimated that somebody could set one up for about $100,000, compared with $2 million-plus for a conventional new car dealership.
At today's electric utility rates in both Florida and in California, powering a Xebra by plugging it into the wall at night is cheaper by far than buying gasoline for any production model car, even the highly touted Toyota Prius hybrid.
Today's Xebras can get a full charge from a 110-volt electric outlet in about six hours.
At less than one kilowatt of charging power for six hours, that works out to 2 or 3 cents per mile, or about $1 per charge.
One dollar divided by 40 miles of range equals 2.5 cents per mile.