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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

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.

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February 2011

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