Green technology in head-turning vehicles

Posted on October 22, 2010 by Staff Writer

Talk about kicking the tires and looking under the hood.

What began as a class demonstration in Professor Dave Orvos’ environmental issues introductory course morphed into a nearly campus-wide test drive of the Chrysler GEM car. GEM stands for Global Electric Motorcars.

Michelle Brown ’14 gets behind the wheel of an all-electric GEM truck to take it for a test drive. Michelle Brown ’14 gets behind the wheel of an all-electric GEM truck to take it for a test drive. When representatives from Dominion Dodge of Bedford towed one on to campus last week, it’s little wonder it drew so much attention. The red and white four-seater they brought along was eye-catching with its bubble-like cabin and retro fenders.

Orvos asked Dominion’s Andy Kaplan and Don Walker to show it to his students and let them test drive it so they could compare the entirely battery-powered car to other vehicles. Kaplan and Walker agreed to stay for another demonstration that day, this time to engineering students. And they left the car for a few days to allow the physical plant and safety departments to evaluate it.

That’s when sightings of the car zipping around campus, now with various physical plant employees behind the wheel, began being reported. On Friday the passenger model was swapped out for a truck version.

Finally, Bethany Brinkman’s engineering intro students examined the GEM truck — a green and white number with a diamond-plate bed. They checked out the motor, looked at the battery pack and ran it through a few performance tests, taking it onto gravel roads and up hills.

With a range of up to 35 miles on a full charge and a top speed of 25 miles per hour, the vehicles are designed for limited street use but are appropriate in neighborhoods or for light duty on a campus like Sweet Briar’s. But they have their limitations. Chief of safety Willie Neal didn’t rule out using one if the department ever runs two mobile patrols. But he couldn’t see pulling someone over in the car and it wouldn’t be adequate in emergency situations, he said.

The consensus of Brinkman’s engineering students was that the green technology is a “step in the right direction.” They thought it needed to be bigger, though, and questioned if the seven-horsepower motor would be enough for the College’s needs. The truck runs off six 12-volt batteries.

Scarlett Reel, a sophomore environmental science major and engineering minor, noted the truck’s $16,700 sticker price and correctly guessed that physical plant would have a hard time justifying the expenditure. Indeed, department director Steve Bailey had already crunched the numbers and determined the return on investment on a safety department vehicle would take about nine years. For physical plant’s work trucks it would take even longer.

The College buys used vehicles and keeps them running with a mechanic on staff. And even though the electric vehicles are impressively cheap to operate — they have few maintenance costs and run for about 2 cents a mile versus 10 to 15 cents per mile for a gas engine — Sweet Briar’s fuel and maintenance costs aren’t high enough to recover the investment any time soon.

On the flip side, if the College exchanged one of its SUVs that averages 15 miles per gallon over 10,000 miles per year for an electric vehicle, it could reduce carbon emissions by 10,356 pounds of carbon dioxide. So electric vehicles are worth giving a serious look, Bailey concluded, if a particular model is up to the task it’s intended for and cost was less of a factor.