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Last Updated: Monday, 14 May 2007, 11:38 GMT 12:38 UK
Building cars for 'tree-huggers'
By Jason Margolis

Zenn car
The car is classed as a low-speed vehicle in the US
The hybrid car, the Toyota Prius, has become the poster child of the greener car movement.

But now a Canadian car maker is taking the concept of environmentally friendly cars one stage further.

Based in Toronto, the Zenn Motor Company has started to produce the Zenn, or Zero Emission No Noise car.

The $12,500 (6,250) car runs entirely on electric power and unlike the Prius uses no petrol whatsoever.

"You get an extension cord that comes with the car and you plug it into any household outlet," explains Tom Bevilacque, owner of Amenia Motors in upstate New York, which sells the Zenn.

That charge will get you about 50-65 km (30-40 miles) and costs about 50 cents (25p).

Tricky task

But it has a top speed of 25 miles per hour (40km/h) - that way it can be regulated as a low-speed vehicle in the United States. So who is going to buy that?

Toyota Prius
Toyota's Prius uses some petrol in its hybrid engine

"Tree-huggers," says Mr Bevilacque. "People don't like to hear that word, but tree-huggers like these cars. They're environmentally friendly, cost next to nothing to operate, there's no maintenance and they like the car."

But marketing to the tree-hugger demographic is limited, something the makers of the Zenn know.

Ian Clifford is the CEO of the company. Speaking in his small Toronto office, he says 20 dealerships in the United States sell the vehicle.

"The existing market in the states is predominantly gated communities or master-plan communities in the southern states. So that's typically a 65-year-old plus person who uses this as perhaps their third or fourth vehicle."

But this is changing, he says.

The Zenn is the first low-speed electric vehicle that looks like a car instead of a futuristic golf cart and as a result appeals to a wider demographic, including those in their 30s and 40s.

"They may be a person who today typically uses mass transit or a bicycle to get around, says Mr Clifford. "They're looking for something to add to the transportation mix."

But, Mr Clifford readily admits that in its present configuration, it will not meet everyone's needs.

Energy source

The company now has plans to build an all-electric car capable of reaching highway speeds, something that MIT engineering professor Donald Sadoway says he is ready for.

Tesla
The Tesla has a top speed of more than 130mph

"I would dearly love to own that car, not because it's green, and not because there are all those wonderful things that should accrue from a zero emission vehicle.

"It's a superior ride. And what people need to know is once you drive all electric, you don't want to go back to internal combustion."

But if it were really that simple, we would all be driving electric cars. The problem is storing the energy.

"Batteries are expensive, batteries are bulky, batteries are heavy, and batteries don't hold very much energy," says Professor Dan Sperling of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California at Davis.

"The result of that is that cars with batteries tend to be expensive and they don't have a long driving range."

The Zenn is powered by lead acid batteries that do not hold much charge.

Lithium ion and nickel metal hydride batteries hold a greater amount and provide a greater driving range, but the nickel batteries are costly and lithium ion batteries still have safety problems related to their flammability.

Still, battery technology has greatly improved in recent years and looks like it will continue to do so.

Sharp looks

Professor Sadoway says the real problem with electric cars might be our own expectations.

"I'm not going to lie to you and tell you that we're going to have all electrics that can give you 550km (350 miles) on a single charge and they're going to be available within the next five years. I don't see that.

"It is possible to build cars now that have a range in excess of 100 miles (160km) on a single charge. And that meets most people's needs.

But if you are not "most people", there is another option.

California company Tesla has launched an all-electric sports car that has speed, power, range, and looks sharp.

So, what's the catch? The pricetag. The limited edition car starts at close to $100,000 (50,000).

Jason Margolis is technology correspondent for The World, a BBC World Service and WGBH-Boston co-production.


SEE ALSO
The death of the electric car
04 Aug 06 |  Magazine
Green mini-car to beat congestion
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Clever cars taking to the road
31 Jan 05 |  Technology
Toyota 'world's largest carmaker'
24 Apr 07 |  Business
Lotus plans 'green' power supply
19 Apr 07 |  Norfolk

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