SMALL ELECTRIC VEHICLES IMPROVE
A second generation of Personal Vehicles is being created with performance and range similar to its ancestors, while meeting the priorities of a society re-defining the meaning of community.
SMALL ELECTRIC VEHICLES IMPROVE LIVABILITY
Mark Murphy, Blue Sky Design

SUMMARY

Electric vehicles are said to be only one gas crisis away from the showroom, but for them to be successful they will have to achieve two things;

The first is:

They must function as instruments of social change.

The vehicles we are to drive tomorrow must be designed in the context of a society undergoing profound changes. They must be an important segment of a paradigm shift as "social products" designed to be an integral part of our daily lives. They must be compatible with our needs, our society and become a positive contribution to the sustainability of our environment.

The second thing EVs must achieve is more basic:

They must have a competitive advantage.

The real opportunities for practical Electric Vehicles do not lie in competition with the conventional automobile. An EV's advantages are at the ends of the transportation spectrum from where they can effectively diminish our reliance on the automobile by creating viable options for society and the individual.

Just over 100 years ago, the first automobiles began to roam the earth. They were simple things. They were slow, they had limited range and many of them were electric. Today our expectations for automobiles have changed but our perceptions of electric vehicles have not. EVs are still slow and they have limited range. We are throwing tremendous amounts of money and technology at these problems and we shall overcome them someday (given enough research money). But are we spending these millions to push the envelope instead of solving the problem. The automakers are not convinced there is market for an electric car. GM destroyed its two-seat "Impact" rather than develop an expensive new technology.

Advocates appear to be waging a technological holy war in an effort to create the perfect "electronic" car at any price. A $100,000 Tesla electric sports car is no answer. Such a product is a cure for which there is no disease.

Internal combustion automobiles offer speed, range, and performance to the last drop. They have an abundance of power, accessories, and creature comforts. They also have the advantage of tremendous production volume and 100 years of refinement in a competitive marketplace. The environmental crisis and fuel shortages have done nothing more than improve the internal combustion engine. New cars are far more efficient and clean than they were only ten years ago.

However, even the most exotic internal combustion engine cannot physically exceed 60% efficiency, while many electric motors are 90% efficient, with only one moving part! Meanwhile our global oil supply shrinks 2.5% per year.

We will still have internal combustion engines fueled by one kind of brew or another but see an increasing menagerie of electrics, hybrids, and fuel-celled vehicles. The electric car will be competing with a whole variety of new alternatives, each with its own strengths and limitations. The last time we did this (100 years ago) the electric car lost. If electric vehicles are going to be successful this time around, they have to offer people solutions that meet their social, financial, and environmental needs. They need a competitive advantage and a big one. The bottom line is that we don't need more automobiles, no matter what powers them!

The traditional family car is totally inappropriate functionally, socially, and environmentally when it serves as an all-purpose vehicle. And yet we have no real choice. We "need" a car but its high cost leads us to select an all-purpose vehicle. Today the family car has become a pick-up truck, an SUV, or a minivan. Trucks now outsell cars in this country because of their utility value. They are general-purpose vehicles that are under-utilized most of the time. We justify them for the occasional family drive to the beach, but more often we back the 4,000-pound minivan out of the driveway just to drive six blocks to buy a gallon of milk, a loaf of bread, and rent a movie. We are the victims of this mindset. We got hooked on cheap gas. We have the freedom to go anywhere and yet end up stuck in traffic.

We can't all go to the same place at once, especially when we drive vehicles that enclose 300 cubic feet of space each and weigh two tons or more. It is senseless to always drive machines that pose a monumental threat to society, waste enormous amounts of non-renewable resources and cost us thousands of hard earned dollars when 7 out of 10 of us drive alone - less than 25 miles per day.

For all the many automobile brands and models available, most are very similar and are in competition with each other for our attention. Because of the false choices provided by the current auto industry, we have far too little diversity in transportation. The problem is that the car has become too successful. It has become the dominant species and left us few real choices. There are still more bicycles than cars in this country, but only a few of us can or will ride them to work. Some of us do use public transportation, if it is convenient, but everyone else is in a car and this habit dictates the layout and pattern to our cities.

Over a third of our urban landscape is devoted to the automobile. People have adapted to cars more than cars have been adapted to us. We have evolved into an auto-centric society. The driveway and garage have replaced the front door. We persist in making plans for more roads but refuse to maintain the ones we have. We have allowed the car to replace community.

Ironically, we are a society looking for the architectural equivalent of the "good old days" - a place where we can drive on un-crowded roads. Where children could play quietly beside safe streets. A small town setting when you could walk to the store, talk to your neighbor and feel a part of the neighborhood. People cry out for this sense of "place" - something they can identify with and belong to. We love the Disneyland "Main Street" because there are no cars on it and we will drive hundreds of miles to see it! We love homes with a 19thCentury style, but only if it has a three car garage out front. Yet, we admire towns that are human-scaled and people-based rather than grids of parking lots and intersections. Consequently, the trend that now drives city planning is the "New Urbanism" - nostalgic retro architecture that replaces the impersonal strip mall with an accessible pedestrian oriented "urban village" we can identify with. Such developments sell out rapidly and one reason is that the cars now park in the back. We are increasingly aware that our cars and culture are clashing. We go shopping only to be surprised that the parking lots are crowded with massive, gas guzzling domestic tanks that are hard to park, just like ours..?! We experience a sense of disconnect until we realize we are part of the problem and we really need some new choices.

While I would prefer the silence and clean air of an electric/hybrid/fuel-cell traffic jam, being stuck in any kind of gridlock is not a solution. Personal mobility options must defy the conventional automotive model and succeed on a social level. The global automakers find it particularly unappealing and difficult to manufacture a profitable, low cost vehicle despite international demand. This burden has been offset only by the sale of many expensive, high-profit models to Americans.

So where do electric vehicles have any distinct competitive edge? Their advantages lie at both ends of the transportation spectrum. Not as electric Chevrolets in the middle of traffic, but as comprehensive and efficient transit systems moving many people across the community on the public level and as small inexpensive vehicles for mobility within the neighborhood on a individual basis.

Transit systems are usually the domain of the municipality, while personal mobility is the role of private enterprise. Public transportation and personal mobility complement each other and with cooperation could offer many people a convenient and affordable urban option to the automobile. Personal Mobility interfaces with Public Transit at both ends of the trip across town. Proactive public policy and product design can provide a practical, compatible and flexible alternative for the majority of our everyday transportation needs within the urban environment. This is, after all, where we actually spend most of our time and do most of our driving.

At this point in time the Personal Vehicle concept is the missing link being identified by transportation designers and urban planners who study transportation issues. Somewhere between Pedestrian and Plymouth, between a Bicycle and Buick is a "companion vehicle" - a user-friendly neighborhood personal transporter. The concepts range from mini-cars to three- wheeled enclosed scooters; they encompass a new class of vehicle not seen since the last major energy crisis 30 years ago. Today, in an age of escalating energy costs and shrinking supply, these types of vehicles have the potential to develop into a popular form of urban transportation at the bottom of the motorized food chain. The Electric Personal Vehicle can offer efficient, all-weather personal mobility utilizing the existing electric grid where lower speeds and limited range are not liabilities, while traveling as far as a mile on a penny of energy.

Eugene was the birthplace for this type of vehicle with the Gizmo Neighborhood Electric Vehicle produced by NEVCO a few years ago. It was, perhaps, ahead of its time, but new designs are evolving quickly and will find their role in our community as we become receptive to new ideas.

These small electric vehicles will change the way we think about our individual transportation needs and personal priorities. They are the machines of the X-box generation. They have tremendous potential "coolness" appeal. Like a rolling equivalent of the i-pod, PVs could be relied on for daily transportation, while saving the big, expensive SUV for family outings and long trips.

The PV is a crucial part of a socio-economic evolution from a commuter culture to a community culture. Just as cleaner technology replaces dirtier industries, the trend is toward smaller special-purpose vehicles such as PVs that offer new options that appeal to our changing demographics and needs.

A hundred years ago the first generation of cars appeared. The popular electric cars were quiet, clean, and reliable. They were the first PVs, but they never made it in the arms race for power, range, and speed. Now, 100 years later, a second generation of PVs is being created with performance and range similar to its ancestors, while meeting the priorities of a society re-defining the meaning of community. Eco is replacing ego. Like the bicycle, the PV will become an indicator species for livability. Perhaps this time the solution to personal mobility has arrived just in time to get us back home again.

Mark Edward Murphy

Mark Murphy has a Bachelor of Science degree in Sociology from Westminster College and is a graduate of the Art Center College of Design in Industrial Design.

He has worked as a transportation designer on a wide variety of advanced concept vehicle projects for General Motors, Chrysler and BMW among others and has been involved with several alternative vehicle projects including two National Endowment of the Arts grants for "Minimum Vehicles".

Mark was a Director for Electrathon America, the Director of Design for NEVCO and creator of the innovative Award winning "Gizmo" NEV.

Mr. Murphy is currently developing a new generation of personal vehicles with his company Blue Sky Design in Creswell. www.BlueSkyDSN.com 

 

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