- The Washington Times - Friday, February 28, 2003

Most electric vehicles have struck out as an answer to environmental problems caused by cars and trucks. That's because consumers expect alternative-fueled vehicles to offer the same kind of performance that they get from gasoline or diesel-fueled vehicles. But a DaimlerChrysler subsidiary is having some success selling EVs that are engineered deliberately to deliver less performance than conventional vehicles.
The Global Electric Motorcar neighborhood electric vehicle is designed to carry two or four people, depending on the model. The GEM's top speed is only 25 mph, but despite this limited capability, the GEMs fill a niche for use within planned communities. So far, 37 states allow GEMs to be driven only on secondary roads. Several more states are considering legislation that would legalize GEMs for use on certain state roads, but with critical budgetary matters taking more priority the legislation is moving slowly.
Wherever they're used, the vehicles provide genuine nonpolluting performance. That's because GEMs are powered by six deep-cell 12-volt marine-type batteries. The batteries provide a range of up to 35 miles and can be recharged in six to eight hours using conventional 110-volt house current. If the electric is from a nonpolluting source such as hydroelectric or nuclear generating stations, there are truly zero emissions created when operating these electric vehicles.
About 15,000 GEM vehicles have been sold since their introduction in 1998. DaimlerChrysler purchased the Fargo, N.D., company in 2000. Steve Shark, GEM's director of marketing, forecasts that about 5,000 units will be sold this year. The top markets for GEMs are in Florida and Arizona where there are a lot of planned retirement communities that have very low speed limits.
California and New York also are big markets for GEMs where sales of zero-emission vehicles earn needed credits under environmental mandates for the auto manufacturer in those states. GEMs are ideal vehicles for trips within a small community or to nearby shopping malls. They can be driven on roads or on turf. A golf rack is an option. The GEM's top speed on turf is 15 mph, so it can double as a golf cart. Some models are used for utility purposes.
GEMs come in two wheelbases: 71.1 inch or 101 inches. The overall length of the short wheelbase model is 109 inches and the longer model is 147 inches. The vehicles have an aluminum space frame structure that helps keep its weight low. The smaller version weighs 1,160 pounds and the long wheelbase model is 80 pounds heavier.
The front-wheel-drive vehicles have rack-and-pinion steering and independent front suspensions. Short wheelbase models ride on 10-inch tires and 12-inch tires are used for the longer model. The vehicles come with windshield wipers, lights, directionals and hazard signals. There's also a horn. In addition, there are center high-mounted stop lights and backup lights.
There are 200 GEM dealers nationwide. In California GEM has introduced mobile service for the vehicles so dealers in a lot of locations in the Golden State don't get involved in that department. Mr. Shark says there is a 48-hour turnaround on service. Generally, the vehicles don't require much service because there are far fewer moving parts than in a conventional vehicle.
The batteries need to be replaced about every three years and that's a $300 expense for standard batteries. In 2003 models, GEM offers gel maintenance-free batteries. That's a $400 option on new vehicles. The gel batteries also can be retrofitted to older batteries, but at a cost of about $1,700.
The starting national price for GEMs is $8,995 for the four-passenger model. But in California and New York, the vehicles start at $4,995. The two-passenger version is less expensive. The GEM, of course, is not designed to replace conventional cars and trucks, but it's adequate for local use. The company says most of its vehicles are driven no more than 10 miles a day. The GEM also is far less costly to purchase and operate. And in their limited way, GEMs provide transport and utility without damaging the environment.


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