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Green Light

The latest wave of eco-friendly transportation technologies gets you where you need to go, without leaving your values behind shift gears.

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.

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February 2011

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