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Star-Bulletin Features

Friday, April 21, 2000

By Ken Ige, Star-Bulletin
Top: GEM of Hawaii's four-seat electric car doesn't have much
in the way of side protection. But you can buy a nicer
surfboard with the money you save on gas.

Watts happenin'

On the 30th anniversary of Earth Day,
we take an eco-friendly car
out for a test drive

Electric car potential
limited by gas habit


By Tim Ryan



DEAR DIARY: Today I am driving home in a golf cart, my new vehicle for the week. VideoGEM of Hawaii, which sells Global Electric MotorCars out of its Queen Street office, loaned the Star-Bulletin a four-seater for a week, not only to commemorate Earth Day but to allow us to experience part of a simpler lifestyle.

We got the Model 825. The first thing you marvel at is the silence. When you turn the key to "On" there's no sound. Only when you depress the accelerator do you hear the whining of an electrical motor.

Then oomph. Although GEM has a top speed of 25 mph -- I did hit 28 a few times going down hill -- it reaches 16 mph in about two seconds, enough to startle first-time passengers.

There are no doors -- canvas ones with a clear window can be purchased as an option -- so you're close to the elements: wind, rain, ground, other cars, dogs in pick-up trucks.

By Ken Ige, Star-Bulletin
No gas required. Plug the car into a standard
electrical outlet to juice it up

On the first day, my route home was Kapiolani Boulevard-Waikiki-Kahala-Kalanianaole Highway during rush hour. In heavy traffic there's no problem keeping up. GEM delivers instant acceleration. But when traffic spreads out -- even if you're in a 25 mph zone -- cars tend to jam up behind you. Still, no one honked at me.

You get used to being crowded driving GEM; people will either drive too fast or pull up alongside you trying to figure out what it is. My vehicle was a bright red and white, attracting lots of attention.

"Everyone of us should be driving one of those," a construction worker in a pick-up yelled to me while flashing a shaka. At a stop light, an elderly woman in the crosswalk grinned widely as she passed by. "Boy, that looks like fun to drive," she said.

Kalanianaole Highway was a bit dicey. I wasn't nervous about being hit but felt guilty slowing down pau hana drivers. Most exceeded the 35 mph speed limit and I had the pedal floored at 25. I moved into the empty bicycle lane so a couple dozen cars could pass me.

When my 14-year-old daughter saw GEM, her reaction was expected, and brutal.

"My God, it's right out of Looney Tunes," she said. "There's no question about it; my parents are dorks."

April 15

I drove GEM to the Aina Haina post office to mail my taxes, taking less time than it would have in my gas-fueled car. Getting in and out of a vehicle without doors is a breeze.

My wife and I then drove to Kaimuki for breakfast, parking in a metered parking space but not paying because electric vehicles are allowed to park free! We talked and talked. In GEM there's lots of time to talk.

We arrived back home with 70-percent battery capacity remaining. I plugged GEM into a regular electric outlet with an extension cord to recharge the battery.

That afternoon, we made more trips to the neighborhood grocery store and our local dog park to exercises the pooches. On the way home, two skateboarders yelled, "Very cool!" as I whined by.
A special video report on
Global Electric Morotcars' GEM vehicle.
By Tim Ryan; video by Ken Ige;
edited by Dean Sensui,
Click on the movie to view Quicktime inline
or Click below for RealVideo or to download. Video Video Essay:
Click here for Quicktime
1.6 meg
Click here for RealVideo
2.4 meg
Quicktime | RealPlayer


April 16

This would be the real test of ego. A buddy and I loaded GEM up with surfboards -- we slid them through the open back window then secured them with the seat belts -- and headed for Diamond Head. Looks of confusion by fellow surfers quickly turned to smiles and curiosity.

"How fast does it go?" "How long do the batteries last?" "How far can you drive?" "How much does it cost?" Then the inevitable: "Can I go for a ride?"

Three women joggers stopped to touch GEM.

"It's really great of you to care so much for the environment that you would put ego aside to drive one of these," one told me.

"Yes, it is," I said, blushing. I gave them a ride.

"My husband would think I'm crazy for jumping into a strange car," one woman said.

I suggested that I could be a serial killer.

"Hell, I could outrun this thing," she said.

GEM became a part of my life. I charged it up each night. I tooted the horn at anyone who shared a smile. The horn is easy to find: it's on the left side of the steering column where the words "Beep Beep" are pasted.

April 19

I've decided to push it. After a day of driving to work and around town, GEM's batteries are down to 50 percent. Around Kapahulu and Kalakaua I noticed GEM's power diminishing: down to 40 percent. As it climbed Monsarrat Avenue, max speed dropped to 12 mph. Near the top of the hill, battery capacity was 15 percent; GEM died.

I had to coast back to a Chevron station where bewildered attendants just stared at GEM and listened to my tale of woe.

"Uh, may I use an outlet for an hour?" I asked. Slowly, they nodded.

I almost made it. Three blocks from home GEM died again, making a high-pitched sound that brought people out of their homes. A resident eyed me suspiciously, asking what I wanted.

"How about a charge," I joked.

She offered me an outlet in her garage.

I walked home, ate dinner, returned an hour later. GEM was alive again.

Having tested the car for a week, I would definitely consider getting one if the price for a four-seater were below $10,000. Currently, a fully equipped two-seat vehicle is $10,300 ($8,495 base) ; a four-seat vehicle runs about $12,300 ($9,995 base). At those prices, most people would not be willing to trade their gas cars for some performance limitations and worries about safety.


Bullet They are a clean way to convert fossil fuels like oil, coal and natural gas to automotive power. The fossil fuels are burned at a power plant to make electricity to recharge the battery rather than in an air-polluting internal-combustion engine. Substances that pollute the air can be controlled more easily at a power plant than at the tailpipes of gasoline-burning cars.

Bullet They are more efficient than gasoline-powered cars. Any energy source can be converted into electricity.

Bullet They don't require new ways of delivering fuel. Electricity is already distributed to homes and businesses. The only new system required is one that charges the batteries. Major automakers are creating a standard system for battery charging.


Bullet Current battery technology limits the distance an electric car can travel before its battery must be recharged to less than 100 miles in most cases, and the batteries take at least three hours to recharge.

Bullet Electric cars are not yet able to accelerate, cruise and climb fast enough to compete with gasoline-powered cars.

Bullet Accessories, such as air conditioning or radios, drain the battery even more quickly.

Bullet Electric cars are generally created by replacing the gasoline engines and fuel tanks of conventional cars with electric motors, batteries, chargers and controllers. The result is heavier and less efficient than a car designed specifically to run on electricity, and more expensive because the manufacturer cannot fully recover the costs of the discarded parts.

By Ken Ige, Star-Bulletin
Another benefit of the electric car? Free custom plates.

Electric car potential
limited by gas habit

By Tim Ryan


Back in the '70s, Volkswagen produced a bare bones gasoline-powered car called "The Thing," basically a box with no door panels, floor mats or accouterments of any kind. The goal was pure function in vehicular simplicity.

On the 30th anniversary of Earth Day, which will be celebrated tomorrow, we're more likely to find image-conscious Americans driving family vans and SUVs than simple vehicles that crawl at the speed of a 56K modem.

Enter the electric car.

General Motors makes the freeway drivable Saturn EV1; Honda, the EV Plus; Toyota this year introduced the hybrid Prius, a combination gas and electric. Several other companies make smaller, cheaper, less powerful electric vehicles for neighborhood and short commutes.

With the cost of recharging a neighborhood electrical vehicle running about a penny a mile, electric cars look like smart choices for a second family vehicle.

According to the federal Department of Transportation, more than 50 percent of all urban trips last less than 10 minutes, usually for shopping, family activities, getting to school or church. In 1990, 58 percent of families owned more than one car; this figure will increase to 65 percent by 2003, the feds estimate.

For every dollar spent on gasoline for a typical car, 85 cents goes up in smoke and heat.

The private automobile is the single largest cause of pollution, from oil exploration, to drilling, to refining, to transportation and spills.

By Ken Ige, Star-Bulletin
Yes, meter parking is free.

While electric cars can't carry as much energy as a tank full of gas, that's pretty much irrelevant. Most of the planet never drives more than 40 miles a day, which is within the range of all electric cars. (The average daily miles traveled by half of all the cars in the United States is less than 28 miles; even in Los Angeles, it's been computed at only 38 miles a day.)

So why doesn't everyone get on the electric bandwagon? In part, it's resistance to the idea of a limited range on a charge.

But some EVs -- like the Honda -- get 80 to 100 miles under ideal conditions, which entail a level road, a warm day and steady 30- to 40-mph driving. Certainly enough for most Hawaii commuters.

Over and above the environmental considerations and costs, smaller electric cars -- like GEM of Hawaii's two- and four-seaters -- are fun to drive. There's an open-air feeling when cruising around the neighborhood; a zippy performance; easy in and out; smiles from other people.

"Let's call it the semi-urban segment where short trips and low speed are all that's necessary because of most people's transportation requirements," said GEM of Hawaii president Mark Snyder. "A two-seat electric vehicle can accommodate about 87 percent of all trips for the average (American) family. Most of the errands today are done with the second or third family car."

Since opening shop last September, Snyder has sold or leased about 40 GEM vehicles -- two- and four-seaters, flat beds and pick ups. The majority of his non-business customers are over 50, although one woman bought a car for her 15-year-old son.

"Some people just want a second car for errands and the GEM is the most practical," Snyder said. "Other customers said they're tired of paying for repairs on gasoline powered cars."

(These neighborhood electric vehicles have a top speed of 25 mph, and require a driver's license.)

The GEM cars have a range of 30 to 45 miles depending on driving conditions. A full charge from nearly drained batteries takes 5 to 8 hours and costs 45 to 65 cents. The six batteries need to be replaced every three to four years, at a cost of $100 each.

So are electric cars the wave of the future, or just a technological blip on the road to somewhere else? Well, the neighborhood electric is here and quite workable. Just keep an extension cord handy in case you drain the batteries.

As for the EV as a long-range commuter, there's room for improvement.

Someone needs to develop a battery that has a much longer range, at least 200 miles; a charging system that can go from empty to full power in minutes, not hours; and they must be sold or leased at or near the same price as gas-powered cars.

Imagine an electric Thing.

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