These minicar efforts are relatively tiny: About 240 workers in North Dakota build DaimlerChrysler's Gem cars, out of the company's worldwide workforce of approximately 416,000. It's a fast-growing marketplace, however. Gem built 10,000 cars last year and expects to double that next year. Ford, meanwhile, has invested roughly $100 million in its two minicar lines: the Neighbor, which was introduced this fall, and the City, which will become available in the U.S. at the end of 2002.
The move toward the small is clearly at odds with American consumers' apparently ceaseless penchant for bigger, more powerful vehicles, and no one expects the minis to reverse that trend. Instead, the idea is to offer efficient, alternative transportation for moments when a conventional vehicle is overkill. "We think in terms of replacing trips, not other vehicles," says Ann Hanson, vice president of marketing at Think.
The minimalist approach began in wealthy towns of the American Sunbelt, when the locals started wandering off the golf course to go shopping downtown -- without getting out of their golf carts. Palm Springs, California, whose hillside windmills have become a national symbol of alternative energy, quickly legalized the habit, and other, mainly western, cities followed suit. In 1998 the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration established a new class of "low-speed vehicles," limited to a top velocity of 25 mph, for use on roads with speed limits of up to 35 mph. That decree also established minimal safety standards for such vehicles, and left it up to each state to decide whether to adopt the new category. At last count, some 37 states have done so.
One of those states is Michigan, heartland of the U.S. auto industry and the expressway scofflaw -- hardly the place where one would expect a car operating at a scooter's pace to fit in. But in Bay Harbor, in northern Michigan, the developers of a new community on the shore of Traverse Bay got an idea. Their new town consisted of upscale single-family homes, condos, a marina, and a shopping and entertainment district, all connected by a 3-mile network of local streets. As an incentive for prospective homeowners, the developers began including a Gem car as part of the purchase price. What resulted was a kind of electric front porch on wheels.
Owning one of the minicars became de rigueur. "People came up here and wanted a complete change of lifestyle," says Wally Kidd, Bay Harbor's general manager. "They ended up parking their cars and would meet their neighbors while riding around on these neighborhood cars." Today, about a third of the 400 or so houses in Bay Harbor have a Gem in the garage. But the Bay Harbor experience demonstrates the limitations as well as the benefits of neighborhood electric vehicles. The town of Petoskey is only about 5 miles away, well within the minicars' range, but the only way to get there is on a 50-mph highway. The most adventurous residents are already pressing for a pathway there, but so far it's illegal.
For years I'd have been prepared to drive a milk float if it meant no CO2. Why can't we have mini electric rechargeables, now, available everywhere - even as a second vehicle. Many drivers like us do many short local journeys with cold engines. I nearly bought a G Wiz and then discovered I'd have to trail it 150 miles to London (UK) to get it serviced.
I have nothing aganst small(tiny) cars; but why not make a car that can hold 5 people (average family in u.s.).
Make True Hybrids; full powered electric with a small generator to charge battries and run accessories like A/C,
Heaters headlights at night.
Put in an air scoop and use a small wind turbin generator.
Americans are too fat to fit in these tiny cars, and too ignorant to care about the environment. I'm sure they will do well in other countries where people are more intelligent and environmentally conscious.