Green Light


By Andrew Tilin  |  

I didn’t expect to find tranquillity in a right-turn lane. But there I was, just outside Santa Cruz, California, on a bright, sunny afternoon, feeling surprisingly at peace with the world as I waited at a stoplight. I wasn’t relaxing in a passenger seat, and I wasn’t headed out on a summer vacation. On the contrary, I was just another driver trying to get somewhere for work. My satisfaction instead came from what I was driving: an electric vehicle. Specifically, an innovative Jetsons-style battery-powered motorcycle.

Sitting at that stoplight, I regarded the gasoline-powered cars around me —the mechanical cacophony generated by their engines, the greenhouse gases coming from their quivering exhaust pipes, the vibrations sent to the pavement from their whirring motor belts. My tailpipe-less, oil-free vehicle, on the other hand, was as still and quiet as a yogi seated in a perfect Lotus Pose.

The light turned green, and the road ahead called. That’s where I would form
my lasting opinions not only about a particular ma–chine but about an Earth-friendly technology that many argue will be central to the next generation of personal transportation.

Less is More

The commuter-oriented motorcycle I test-drove, called the Zero S, is made by the small start-up company Zero Motorcycles, a four-year-old business located near Santa Cruz in the quiet city of Scotts Valley. It is one of many companies —from major automobile manufacturers to a social-networking business whose members rent cars from each other —convinced that the time has come to redefine motorized personal transportation. These visionary companies believe that vast numbers of drivers are beginning to call their driving habits (not to mention the internal-combustion machinery parked in their garages) into question.

Just before test-driving the Zero S, while driving to Scotts Valley in my own gas-burning sedan, I reviewed the potential negatives that I’d heard about the coming wave of electric vehicles, or “EVs.” EVs are pricey. They’re heavy and slow. Unlike the hundreds of thousands of gas-electric hybrids sold each year, when an EV’s rechargeable battery runs out of energy —after anywhere from 40 to 120 miles —the vehicle stops. And you can’t just steer it into any gas station for recharging. In fact, transportation experts have coined the term range anxiety to characterize the worry that EV drivers endure, wondering if the car will keep rolling until they can
reach an outlet.

But, like alternating currents, sunnier perspectives on electric vehicles also ran through my head. While hybrid cars, like the Prius, are a positive step toward truly green transportation, they still use fossil fuels and produce emissions. EVs might be thought of as the next step: They require electricity to be charged, but they have no tail-pipe emissions. “I first went to electric about 15 years ago, a converted van. I had to do what I could for the planet,” Thomas Greither had told me. Greither, who owns and operates Flora, the socially and environmentally progressive company in the Pacific Northwest that makes Bija teas as well as Udo’s Oil and other supplements, comes from a family of alternative-thinking doctors and entrepreneurs. In 1913, his grandfather opened the health food store in Munich that would evolve into Flora. Today, Greither drives a wildly narrow two-person electric car called the Tango, built by the Commuter Cars company, in Spokane, Washington. “I didn’t buy it as some sort of statement vehicle,” he’d insisted over the phone. “It’s a fantastic everyday car.”

The folks at Zero had given me more reason for optimism, hinting that they might have the answers to the many questions surrounding EVs. Neal Saiki, Zero’s 44-year-old founder, believes that any person who throws a leg over one of his motorcycles, or for that matter subscribes to any form of eco-transportation, will gain a heightened consciousness of how we tread on this world.
“Awareness is a cornerstone of meditation and yoga, and
it’s a part of riding our bikes,” Saiki, an aeronautical engineer and a student of Zen Buddhism, had said over the phone. “Driving an electric vehicle is, at a certain level, about being self-aware.”

My many years of practicing yoga, and my wife the yoga teacher, have taught me all about the importance of awareness. Since yoga practitioners like us already aspire to be aware of our breath, bodies, and diet, it’s natural that we would also be conscious of our impact on the environment, right down to the vehicles we drive. For some in the yoga community, having such awareness makes the decision to buy an electric vehicle a no-brainer. Anusara Yoga teacher (and this issue’s cover model) Amy Ippoliti test-drove a Tesla last fall, and now plans to trade in her gas-electric hybrid be–cause, she says, the EV is an expression of what’s possible. “An electric car feels like optimism,” she says. “Humans are creators, and divine, and with electric vehicles we’ve made something with no emissions —something really elegant.” Embracing important concepts like ahimsa (doing no harm) and brahmacharya (avoiding excessiveness and overindulgence), others in our community mind their impact on the planet by driving older cars or gas-electric hybrid vehicles. Still others rely on bicycles, public transportation, and their own two feet.

But while we would all like to see the bike racks at yoga studios packed fuller than the parking lots, many of us face daily realities like having to commute to work and haul around our kids and their gear. Electric vehicles might well be the best solution, allowing us to get around while helping to lighten our nation’s heavy energy footprint. The United States represents less than 5 percent of the world’s population, yet uses approximately 20 percent of the world’s energy resources. After China, America generates more carbon dioxide emissions than any other country in the world.

“We probably can’t turn back the clock to before there was an automobile. But perhaps we can wean ourselves from using an auto every day,” suggests Chris Chapple, a founding member of the Green Yoga Association and a professor of comparative theology at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. “Or rethink
the cars we own and drive.”

For me, reconsidering personal transportation is not an easy decision. I confess to being a mat-toting hypocrite —a nature lover, intermittent yoga practitioner, and longtime cyclist who’s also a sucker for fast, beautifully engineered vehicles. I know that I won’t easily surrender my eight-year-old German sports car, even though sometimes I can’t believe I own it.

But last year’s horrific Gulf of Mexico oil spill made me think that perhaps someday I could pry my fingers off a sporty steering wheel. During that crisis, I kept wondering if other gasoline users felt like I did: I only needed to look in my garage to know that I was, in a way, partially to blame for that tragedy. Indeed, America is the biggest global consumer of oil. In 2008, we burned nearly 19.5 million barrels of petroleum per day. As I drove my car to the headquarters of Zero Motorcycles, I remembered one other sobering statistic: More than 70 percent of the oil we use goes to fuel our modes of transportation.

Get On Board

At Zero, Neal Saiki quickly makes me feel that our driving future could be brighter. “One of our big goals,” he says, sitting astride a white, blue, and black Zero S parked in the company’s modest garage space, “is to bring the experience of the electric vehicle to the everyday person.”

Saiki, who has had a varied engineering career —he’s designed airplane wings for NASA and gear for hard-core rock climbers —walks me around the motorcycle. The battery is a square block that tucks into the space normally occupied by an engine. A small electric motor hangs beneath it. The motorcycle has no gas tank, no clutch, and no gears.

Saiki is particularly proud of the motorcycle’s low weight of 270 pounds, which he says runs counter to the belief that electric vehicles are necessarily heavy because of the dense batteries that power them. The frame he designed for the Zero S is a rigid shell of aircraft-quality aluminum that weighs 18 pounds. (The battery alone is five times as heavy.)

Other transportation companies are building what they feel are better battery-powered mousetraps, too. By the time you read this, Nissan’s compact five-door, all-electric Leaf will have been introduced in several states and is scheduled for a nationwide rollout by the end of this year. The Chevrolet Volt sedan, which can run
for hundreds of miles on a small gasoline-powered generator that provides electricity for the car when the batteries run out, has also debuted in a few states and will soon sell in select markets nationwide. Car companies from BMW to Volkswagen have promised to deliver electric vehicles, too.

Why all the EVs now? Continuous advances in the lithium-ion batteries that virtually every new electric vehicle will use have finally made the cars durable and dependable. Chevrolet’s Volt, for instance, comes with an eight-year/100,000-mile warranty. Early adopters like Greither, who for years soldiered on in a primitive plug-in van that required recharging every 20 miles or so, have been on board with the electric-car movement all along. But for the rest of us, the technology has finally caught up with the vision, making the electric car a more practical option. “The lithium-ion batteries change everything,” Greither says.

Not long after Saiki and I finish our conversation, I hop onto one of the Zero S bikes. It doesn’t so much start as it boots up: I press the “On” button with my right hand, and a small data panel next to the speedometer flashes to life. Without rumble or clatter, the motorcycle is ready to go. I drive a short, scenic loop close to Zero’s headquarters. The Zero S feels fast, because electric motors have impressive initial acceleration, and it’s even more noticeable on a light machine like this one. The only sounds as I drive are the whirr of the Zero’s chain and the motor’s retro-futuristic whine. But the most memorable aspect of driving the Zero is the public response to its muted disposition. A truck driver gives me a thumbs-up, as does a cyclist. I stop at one corner, and a bearded man walking in the crosswalk asks me if the motorcycle is electric.

I nod. He grins, and I immediately feel like a proud ambassador for an entire movement. How often is such goodwill created between driver and pedestrian? When do two such people even strike up a conversation? “Pretty neat,” says the guy, giving the motorcycle the once-over as he crosses in front of me. I have to agree.

Hit the Road

Ready to kick tires? Keep in mind that, because of their cutting-edge technology, electric vehicles are —at first glance, anyway —expensive. The Chevrolet Volt’s pricing starts at $40,280, the Nissan Leaf costs nearly $34,000, and the Zero S motorcycle is almost $10,000. An optional home charging unit for an electric car may also require professional installation, which, with the necessary hardware, can cost thousands of dollars (the Zero’s battery plugs straight into a wall outlet).

State and federal government tax incentives, however, can drastically reduce the
cost of the vehicles —by up to $7,500 for cars, and between $1,000 and $6,000 for a Zero motorcycle. Over time, you’ll make back even more of your investment. Zero claims that its motorcycles cost a penny per mile to fuel. Fueling the average gas-burning motorcycle costs five times as much. Meanwhile, a car that gets
20 miles per gallon can easily cost 15 cents per mile in gas. A battery-driven car’s fuel needs can run as little as 3 cents per mile. As for how far you can go on a charge, Saiki said that the criticism of electric vehicles’ limited range is overblown, and he’s got a point. Statistically speaking, almost half of Americans drive less than 20 miles per weekday, and that fraction increases to more than two-thirds of us on weekend days.

And solutions are around the bend for the EV driver who wants to travel farther. Last year, installation of publicly accessible charging stations began in four western states, and Texas, Tennessee, and Washington, D.C. Within a few years, approximately 15,000 charging stations will likely open nationwide. One Silicon Valley start-up called Better Place hopes to popularize “battery switch stations,” where customers drive into a service bay to have discharged batteries exchanged for fully charged ones. The switch should take about the same amount of time it takes to fill a conventional car’s gas tank.

Greither, who stops to answer people’s questions all the time about his smog-free, diminutive Tango (which, at just 39 inches wide, is less than two-thirds the width of a Mini Cooper), becomes philosophical when asked what it’s like to give up the convenience of a gas-guzzling car for something radically different —whether it’s on two wheels or four.

“Fear often holds people back from doing something different. Humans love the status quo,” he says. “But really, the hardest enemies we face aren’t cars. They’re ourselves. The question is, can we change?”

While driving the electric Zero S motorcycle, I asked myself that very thing, several times. On my final ride, I took a pretty road west out of Scotts Valley. As I powered over the hills, I noticed the quiet. I enjoyed the bike’s responsiveness. And I felt I was on a mindful path. In other words, I experienced the thrill of the ride, a sense of enlightenment, and hope —that even a motor head like me really could switch gears.

Andrew Tilin, a writer based in Oakland, California, is working on a book about middle age and the pursuit of youth.