- The Washington Times - Friday, November 2, 2001

Electric vehicles have always been an environmentalist's dream and everyone else's nightmare. But there's a new electric car the GEM that just might work.

GEM stands for Global Electric Motorcars, a big name for a tiny company in Fargo, N.D., that was recently purchased by DaimlerChrysler.

Designated by the government as a neighborhood electric vehicle, this little GEM is meant to be driven at less than 25 mph for runs of 30 miles or less. It is an open-sided, two- or four-seat contraption that is safe for roads with speed limits of 35 mph or lower. Some say it looks like a golf cart on steroids.

Such a description drives DaimlerChrysler absolutely crazy because the company wants it to be thought of as a car. That may be the marketing equivalent of pushing water uphill.

But, like most electric vehicles, GEM is quiet, clean, cheap to run and ugly er cute. (Remember, they called Volkswagens ugly when they first came to these shores.)

Unlike most electric vehicles, the GEM runs on regular 12-volt car batteries, with six of them powering a 3.5-horsepower electric motor. As a result, the GEM is relatively inexpensive to buy. It costs as little as $7,000 for the two-seater, and it's very cheap to run.

This machine starts to make sense when you consider that an estimated 80 percent of the car trips Americans take are less than 10 miles long. For commuters, a car such as this probably would never make sense particularly if you live in a city with notoriously heavy traffic. But for train commuters who drive a short distance to the train station each day, or for those running frequent errands close to home, the GEM might be a practical option.

In fact, a fully charged GEM has enough juice to make three 10-mile runs. When you get home, just plug the thing into a regular 110-volt wall socket and let it percolate overnight. By morning, you've got another 30 miles waiting.

Perhaps the best thing about the GEM is what it could save a motorist in "fuel" costs. Instead of paying $20 or $30 for a tank of gas, a GEM owner could get by on about 5 cents a day comparable to the cost of running a typical refrigerator.

Finally, for those bent on saving the Earth, there is the zero-emissions factor. Electric vehicles don't have tailpipe gases.

Ideologues have been claiming for years that electric and other nongas vehicles would be the wave of the future. Despite their warnings that we are all going to hell in a gas-driven handbasket, these people generally have been ignored.

Environmental advocates may see the GEM and its confreres there are a handful of other such vehicles in development today as the answer to a lot of environmental problems, but these vehicles won't have much of an effect if there is no market for them.

As it turns out, demand was the father of the neighborhood electric vehicle. NEVs evolved from people in the Sun Belt zipping off to the grocery store in their golf carts. "Leave the car in the garage, Mabel I'm taking the cart."

There were enough of these folks whizzing down the highway that the National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration took notice. Instead of reining in the carts, they created a new category of vehicle.

Like cars, neighborhood electric vehicles required seat belts, safety glass, windshield wipers, turn signals and a host of other features to make them suitable for the road. Unlike other cars, they had to go slow, run on electricity and stay in the neighborhood. Enter the GEM.

Where can you see one? Try your neighborhood Chrysler dealer, which should be getting one soon. In all likelihood, California, Arizona, Texas and Florida will be the first states to have them because GEMs are pretty much fair-weather vehicles (although there are sides that clip on when weather turns inclement).

And whom does DaimlerChrysler consider its prime GEM customer? The company still isn't sure. It could be people in gated, controlled-traffic communities. It could be business parks that need vehicles to shuttle people over short distances. It could be rail commuters who need a quick, cheap ride to the station.

In fact, it could be you or me.


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