By Terry Parkhurst
Electric cars have been called “the next big thing” many times in the past, thanks to their quiet motors, clean (nonexistent) exhaust, and the ubiquity of electric power in every other part of our lives.
Remember how executives at General Motors, back in 1980, were predicting that by 1990, fully 10% of that company’s product line would be powered solely by electric power? A decade later, GM built a state-of-the-art electric car, the EV-1, to meet the mandates of CARB (California Air Resources Board). Later, they literally destroyed the EV-1, allowing a few to survive in places such as the Peterson Museum in Los Angeles.
Chrysler Corporation, for its part, built a rather cleverly engineered electric minivan starting in 1993; most were sold to utilities and other fleets, but some were also sold to individuals. Many people managed to buy a Chrysler electric minivan (“TEVan”) second-hand, at auction, and rolled around in quiet style for years afterwards, because the NiCad batteries in early models could be replaced with new units (an automatic watering system kept the batteries alive for around 100,000 miles, after which they could be recycled). A later version, called EPIC, was sold starting in 1997; it had double the voltage of the first one, extending the range past 50 miles, and switched to an advanced lead-acid battery pack. Chrysler had also worked on electric cars back in the 1970s, producing (in cooperation with Jet) a four-passenger electric city car, which were purchased by some organizations but apparently never officially sold. Likewise, the Neon was originally to be sold in diesel and electric versions.
Even more prescient, or at least more determined, was the Tag 2 group in Livonia, Michigan, a group of engineers that produced their first electric vehicle in 1992. Mike Hofer, a North Dakota businessman, recognized the potential of the little car, and assembled a group of investors. He then purchased the company and moved the entire operation to Fargo in December of 1997. The result was GEM, or Global Electric Motorcar, which is still being built in Fargo, North Dakota, as what is a wholly owned subsidiary of Chrysler LLC.
The Fargo factory manufactured its first vehicle in April 1998. The 48-volt GEM could accommodate two passengers and had a top speed of just 20 miles per hour; however, less than two months later, a breakthrough in market conditions occurred when NHTSA (National Traffic Safety Administration) designated a new class of motor vehicles: the low speed vehicle called the neighborhood electric vehicle.
While a neighborhood electric vehicle didn’t have to go faster than 35 mph, the NHSTA did require some things: a safety glass windshield, turn signals, mirrors, windshield wipers, headlights, taillights, and seat belts. The idea behind the neighborhood vehicle was to address both air pollution and urban sprawl; the latter was based on the theory that if you increased density in the city, there’d be less of the population going outside of the city to live. Those living in the denser environs of the city would probably want transportation other than the bus sometimes. That’s where neighborhood electric vehicles would come into play.
In November of 1998, the first utility version of the GEM was produced. These became part of the fleet of utility vehicles at Luke Air Force based, the largest fighter pilot training facility in the world, near Phoenix, Arizona; as of 2001, there were 100 GEM vehicles in service at Luke, out of a fleet of 831 vehicles.
By the end of 1999, total production reached 1,826 vehicles; and by the end of June 2000, the monthly output had surpassed 500 vehicles. By the end of December 2000, total production had hit 5,000 vehicles.
At that time, a past Chrysler executive joined up with a competing electric-car company. Some claim it was out of spite that DaimlerChrysler quickly acquired GEM; others claim that it was, as DaimlerChrysler said, a matter of building zero-emission vehicles to supplement the slow, expensive research into hydrogen power. By then, no less than 37 states had accepted NHTSA’s ruling on low speed vehicles as legal of city streets.
By 2001, the GEM line of vehicles included both two and four passenger electric vehicles, as well as two utility vehicles with short and long boxes. The curb weight of the two passenger machine was just 1,100 pounds, including batteries; while the curb weight of the long box utility vehicle was just 140 pounds more.
Power was the same for the GEM fleet: a 72 volt shunt General Electric motor and six, industrial 12-volt batteries. But the major selling point was the proprietary 72-volt DC on-board charger, which employed the standard 110-volt AC house current.
GEM Motorcars LLC held an Environmental Solutions Summit in Anaheim, California in 2001. Larry Oswald, who was then CEO of GEM as well as a PhD in aerospace engineering, said that he saw his company’s vehicles as “the early stages of a long range view towards a fuel cell future.”
At that time, we drove the GEM cars at a ride-and-drive event. They had plenty of torque, a hallmark of electric vehicles, and good handling, partly because of the independent front suspension and rear trailing-arm suspension. Rack and pinion steering gave a precise feel; having the batteries close to the ground probably helped the stable feel. The width of just 55 inches was akin to – well, a golf cart. The range of these vehicles was about 30 to 35 miles, dependent upon ambient temperature and terrain, enough for local grocery shopping or even typical commuting; when stopped, the GEMs consume barely any power, so stop and go traffic is not a problem.
The rise of the price of oil has only helped GEM. As of July of this year, shipments have jumped 30% from last year's second quarter, with some of its 150 dealerships around the country tripling their sales, according to the Wall Street Journal.
While the vehicles still look essentially the same, there have been some major improvements since Larry Oswald’s presentation. Oswald himself has retired, and Bruce Coventry is now the chief operating officer of GEM Motorcars LLC. Rick Kasper has since replaced Ken Montler, GEM’s President; he holds a degree in electronic engineering technology from the University of Washington.
The battery pack in the current GEM vehicles is the gelatin type, with low maintenance. The steering geometry has been reworked to allow even more precise steering; and the responsive of the electric motor is better. There are even performance upgrades for GEM cars and utility vehicles. The 7 horsepower performance package – yes, “performance” package – includes scoops, a heat sink, and chrome emblems.
Pricing now ranges from $6,795 for a basic two seater to a high of $17,995 for a six passenger vehicle with a truck that looks akin to something such as the add-ons you might see on a vintage motorcar of the 1920s or 1930s.
Mike Nickoloff, commercial fleet and GEM sales manager for Star Chrysler Jeep & GEM in Glendale, CA said, “The demand has generally been more steady, with no big spike. But this summer, we saw a 50% increase. Orange County and San Francisco, places that are friendlier to electric cars, have done even better. There’s a 12 month unlimited warranty; and an additional service contract buys a person another 36 months of (warranty) service. The nice thing is you can call the manufacturer up in Fargo. It’s a lot easier than trying to connect with a zone service rep for Chrysler.
“I sell maybe three or four GEM cars a month; and I usually ship them on a flatbed to my clients. In fact, I’m taking one over to San Marino, the high rent district, tomorrow.”
If you’re wondering what the next step is for urban transportation, this may be it. But that’s not to say there aren’t hurdles to overcome.
“We need infrastructure, “ admitted Joan Michelson, spokesperson for GEM, in a recent phone interview. While there is still a proprietary on-board charger for GEM cars, they do, after all, have to plug into something. “We need charging stations as ubiquitous as gas stations.”
Utilities appear happy with cars like the GEM, since they even out their demand (indeed, the Edison companies were proponents of electric cars in the early 1900s). Normally, utilities see peak demand during the day, and they need to have extra powerplants to fill that demand; but those plants often sit idle at night, an apparently needless expense. The ideal would be to either have less demand during the day (prime air conditioning, industrial use, and computer use times), or more at night. Overnight GEM recharging would provide additional utility revenue without additional capital expense.
The newest GEM line is the Peapod, designed to have an iPod appearance along with integrated iPod and iPhone controls; this model was introduced in 2008 and is a substantial upgrade to the past line.
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