Friday, April 18, 2008

Chrysler's low-speed GEM car slowly generates buzz

DAVID P. WILLIS, Asbury Park (N.J.) Press

An all-electric GEM car, made by Chrysler's Global Electric Motorcars unit, sits outside of the Red Bank (N.J.) Municipal Building. by Keith J. Woods/Asbury Park (N.J.) Press)

Chris Cole's ride to work is fueled by electrons, not gasoline.

In warmer weather, Cole uses his all-electric GEM car to ride the mile or so to his office in Red Bank, N.J., or to go other places around town.

You can't call the car a speed demon. The GEM car, made by Chrysler's Global Electric Motorcars unit, is in a class of cars that travel no faster than 25 mph. Called low-speed vehicles, by law they can only travel on roads where the posted speed limit is 35 mph or less.

About 50,000 low-speed electric vehicles are in use worldwide. About 36,000 GEM vehicles, which sell for $7,500 to $13,500, are on the road in the U.S, according to Lawrence J. Oswald, chief executive officer at Global Electric Motorcars.

Low-speed vehicles are sold mostly for fleets, purchased for use by companies, municipalities and universities, says Jennifer Watts, a spokeswoman for the Electric Drive Transportation Association.

But as people become more concerned about high gasoline prices and the effects of global warming, low-speed vehicles, also called neighborhood electric vehicles, are an attractive alternative for some environmentally conscious individuals.

"I think the average American is really trying to figure out what they can do to positively affect the environment," says Ian Clifford, founder and CEO of Zenn Motor Co., maker of the ZENN car, which stands for Zero Emission No Noise. Since the Toronto company started selling them a year ago, it has shipped about 300 cars to the U.S.

It's important to understand what a low-speed vehicle is - and what it isn't.

It's not a golf cart, says Remsen Straub, owner of Remsen Dodge in Hazlet, N.J., a dealer that also sells low-speed vehicles.

Low-speed vehicles must have seat belts, automotive windshield glass, automotive brakes, a parking brake, headlights, turn signals and rear-view mirrors. They must travel at least 20 mph and are legal to drive on public streets in 40 states.

Golf carts, on the other hand, have a maximum speed of 12 mph, Straub says. Plus, carts cannot be driven on the road, only on private property and, of course, golf courses.

The looks of low-speed vehicles vary. For instance, a GEM car is available with or without doors. But both a ZENN car and a Miles Electric Vehicle look like a small car. Some come with options such as stereo systems and air conditioning.

A GEM car's battery can be recharged in six to eight hours by plugging the car into an electric outlet. An owner is estimated to spend $90 on electricity over a 3-year period driving 3,600 miles, the company says.

A low-speed vehicle isn't a replacement for a regular car. It is designed for short trips in settings such as a university campus or a gated community, says Al McDougall, Global Electric Motorcars' regional sales manager for the Northeast.

For example, the police department of Belmar, N.J., uses them to patrol the borough's marina. Meter readers in Red Bank ride in GEM cars to enforce rules in the borough's parking lots and streets.

Besides cutting down on gasoline use, low-speed vehicle have environmental benefits.

Electric cars have no tail pipe, so they don't produce emissions. Even when the pollution from electricity generation is counted, an electric car still has less of an impact on the environment than a traditional car does, says Paul Scott, a founder of Plug in America, an advocacy group.

Cole says he drives his GEM car to help the environment: "I know I'm not burning any fossil fuels and it's a clean way to get to work."

In Red Bank, GEM cars replaced three-wheeled noisy vehicles powered by gasoline.

"These are silent. They'll sneak up on you," says parking authority employee Audrey Berardo.

What do people say when they see them? "They're cute," Berardo says.

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