by Allison Moore
photography by Michelle Zimmerman

Fueling his vehicle free of charge, Keith Young, senior code compliance officer for the city of San Dimas, gained his Honda EV1 for work use from the State of California Air Resources Board as part of a program to encourage environmentally sound transportation. / photo by Michelle Zimmerman

Fueling his vehicle free of charge, Keith Young, senior code compliance officer for the city of San Dimas, gained his Honda EV1 for work use from the State of California Air Resources Board as part of a program to encourage environmentally sound transportation. / photo by Michelle Zimmerman

Like a child’s most prized possession in his hot wheels collection, the “T zero” has characteristics that a car lover seeks. The side doors and top panel lift upward from this citrus yellow retro race car, and standard seat belts are replaced with safety harnesses.

The driver turns the key, “click click,” the instrument panel glows, displaying amenities such as full climate control and a CD player. But there is no sound of an engine. This vehicle is silent and unassuming, although when it is called upon, it can go 0 to 60 in 4.6 seconds.

Among several revolutionary ideas presented with the turn of the century is the electric vehicle. Many Southern California residents are concerned with air quality and believe that electric vehicles can help reduce harmful emissions.

“Once you drive an electric vehicle, you really come to appreciate them because you’re not polluting the environment,” explains Keith Young, senior code compliance officer for the city of San Dimas, who drives a city-owned Honda EV.

Concern about pollutants caused by internal combustion vehicles has prompted the federal government to issue a mandate requiring auto makers to manufacture at least 10 percent of their vehicles with zero emissions by the year 2003.

Locally, since 1992, AC Propulsion Inc., has been working to develop, manufacture and license system and component technology for electric vehicle drive systems. Tucked away in a small industrial complex in San Dimas, AC Propulsion has created technology that meets the government’s mandate.

To date, AC Propulsion has designed and hand built two of its “T zero” aircraft-inspired cars. The T zero has been in production since 1996 and has been demonstrated on race tracks, although notes Tom Gage, business manager for AC Propulsion, “It’s designed to be used on the streets.” Says Gage, “The T zero costs $80,000 on the market and competes with Porsches, Vipers and other high performance vehicles.” The high price for the T zero comes from the low volume that AC Propulsion produces.

The T zero has the ability to go 0-60 in 4.6 seconds. It can finish a fourth of a mile in 13.7 seconds and has a 120-mile range. “This isn’t the most practical car,” cautions Gage. “It is intended to attract buyers because of its exclusivity.” AC Propulsion has seen the strongest response for the T zero from residents of Silicon Valley. “What really appeals to them is that it’s unique, it’s high performance, and it is environmentally correct,” Gage says.

Alan Cocconi, founder and president of AC Propulsion, is the guru behind the development of the T zero. He built his first EV in his driveway long before AC Propulsion opened its doors. Making his mark across the globe as an engineering consultant, Cocconi developed the drive and solar tracking systems for the General Motors Sun Raycer, which won the 1987 World Solar Challenge, a cross-country race for solar powered vehicles held in Australia. Since then, he designed and built the controller for the original General Motors Impact that later matured into GM’s EV-1.

As a small company with only 26 employees, AC Propulsion has found itself in a catch-22 situation. “The mandate is both helping and hurting us. It’s helping us because car companies are showing interest in what we develop,” Gage explains. “It’s hurting us because we would be competing with car companies to sell EVs. The market would be dominated by the big car companies. They can subsidize the products and sell them for a lot less.”

Gage is no stranger to the automotive industry. During the mid-’80s, he worked with the Chrysler Corporation, dealing with regulatory and safety compliance. He later became a consultant related to EVs. Gage explains that with the mandate in force, AC Propulsion will experience a great deal of competition from car companies that can produce electric vehicles at a high volume and a low cost to the consumers. “Without the mandate, we would have the market to ourselves.” In light of the fact that AC Propulsion can provide car companies with its technology, Gage explains that “car companies don’t like to buy technology; they like to develop it within.” For that reason, AC Propulsion has a two fold plan. “Our primary strategy is to license our technology and commercialize it and put it into production,” Gage explains. “Our other strategy is to go alone with the T zero. If no companies buy our technology, we can sell cars that use our drive systems.”

The T zero was built with the latter strategy in mind. The former strategy set root in 1994 when AC Propulsion introduced the AC-150, a drive system for compact to midsize passenger cars. In an effort to develop EVs for those without deep pockets, AC Propulsion announced a partnership with Volkswagen AG to develop EVs with an affordable price tag. In 1998, Volkswagen AG introduced its Golf Electric Concept, an AV prototype built with AC Propulsion technology. Recently, Cocconi received the “Blue Sky Merit Award” for his electric drive system alliance with Volkswagen AG.

There are many objections that drivers have to electric vehicles. Many say that they are too expensive, others claim that their range is not far enough and that there are not enough places to recharge. Car companies agree and have been urging the government to recall the mandate. “Most car companies oppose the mandate,” Gage confirms.

At present, electric vehicles with a lead acid battery can only be driven 50 to 90 miles before a recharge is necessary. Advanced technology has developed the new Nickel-Metal Hydride (NiMH) battery pack that has a longer range of 75 to 130 miles. Where the NiMH battery exceeds the lead acid battery in range, the lead acid battery exceeds the NiMH in price value.

“Right now, the lead acid battery costs a 10th to a 30th of the cost of a Nickel-Metal Hydride battery,” says Gage. The lead acid battery costs about $3,000, and the NiMH battery costs anywhere between $30,000 and $150,000. “We’re talking about batteries that cost more than most people are willing to pay for a car,” he says.

For the general EV owner, there is General Motors, a company willing to plunge into electric vehicle advancement and count its losses. GM is in the process of releasing its second line of electric vehicles. The first model, EV1 Generation 1, was placed on the market in 1997 with lead acid batteries. The Generation 1’s were available on a lease only basis for between $399 and $549 a month, depending on where the lease was issued. Early March 2000, the cars were recalled by GM because of incidents of EV1s catching on fire during the recharging process. The flaw-a charger port problem-almost proved terminal for the cars. Owners at first were told by GM that the problem could not be fixed; they were instructed to leave their cars parked; a tow truck was dispatched to their homes. March 24, GM reversed that pronouncement, saying the cars would be fixed in 10 months.

The Generation 2 models were modified with the advanced NiMH batteries. Despite the expensive improvements made to the Generation 2 models, the price of a lease has only been increased to between $424 and $574 a month. “They deserve respect,” Gage says, adding that the volume necessary to bring production costs of NiMH batteries down will not occur for a long time.

Owners of these EVs are reaping the benefits. “It was love at first sight,” declares Edward Bonneau, San Dimas resident, who saw a Generation 1 EV for the first time at a home show in Colton. For Bonneau, his EV’s 50-90 mile range was realistic for commuting to his credit repair company, only five minutes from his home. “It’s perfect for local driving,” Bonneau confirms. Even though his car has since been recalled, Bonneau says charging his EV was safe and easy. “General Motors Generation 1 charged inductively; you could stand in a tub of water and plug it in.” Bonneau says he could fully recharge an empty battery in three hours with a charging unit at his home.

Safety measures have been substituted for convenience with conductive charges. AC Propulsion has invented the reductive charger, and while re-charging in the rain is out of the question, a reductive charger has the capability of being plugged into an existing outlet from a household socket to an existing EV conductive wall box. It can fully recharge a car at maximum power in just one hour. The reductive charger works by combining the drive system and the battery charger into a single unit, with only $300 worth of additional components.

The advantages of ownership have far outweighed the disadvantages for Bonneau. “I view this as a revolution, a thing of the future.” Due to the revolutionary concept of EVs, people have expressed curiosity. “Everybody loves them,” elaborates Bonneau. “It has given me an opportunity to talk to people that I never would have.” Bonneau enjoyed the quietness, extremely low maintenance and overall performance of his EV 1. “It reacted well in cases that you can associate with a high performance vehicle,” he recalls. Despite Bonneau’s complaint of the lack of charging stations, he considers himself a “good promoter of EVs” and would seriously consider leasing another EV. EVs are also being promoted within the San Dimas Planning Department. Young has been given a Honda EV from the Air Resource Board for driving within the city and uses the EV for routine checks of resident’s compliance to municipal codes. “Overall, I’m very pleased with it. I believe it fits in with our needs.” Young says that he is surprised with its high performance and delivery of a quiet ride.

The commuting population is ready to listen to this praise. With the price of gasoline climbing above $2 a gallon, the electric vehicle may quickly move past the curiosity stage and become the “prized possession” of many.