Maybe E.T. is in the back seat. I'm trying hard to keep such thoughts out of my mind, but the fact is there's a strange orange glow coming from the rear of the car I'm driving, visible whenever I glance in the rearview mirror. That, along with the high-pitched whine of the drive motor and the intermittent thump of a tiny compressor replenishing the brakes, is making a simple crosstown trip feel somewhat surreal.
Also, suddenly, nearly everybody thinks I'm cute.
I'm getting thumbs-up from grade-school kids, and some grins from their mothers. The kind of attention earned by a truly distinctive automobile. Or a weird one.
The car I'm driving -- a City built by Ford's new Think division -- is a little of both.
The soft light in the back seat is caused by sunlight shining through the translucent body panels, which are made from molded plastic. The motor is electric, capable of unambitious 50-mile trips at speeds of up to 55 mph. Henry Ford would have understood immediately: low-cost, basic transportation; a people's car; a Model T for the 21st century.
This is also the kind of car that until now, few U.S. automakers have taken seriously; moreover, those that have tried have mostly gone out of business. But now Ford and DaimlerChrysler have set up special divisions to develop alternative transportation, and they're putting some serious corporate resources behind them. Ford's Think division is making two different minicars. DaimlerChrysler, meanwhile, has acquired Fargo, North Dakota-based Global Electric Motor Cars LLC (GEM), and is churning out thousands of new minis annually, in five models. Furthermore, over in Europe, DaimlerChrysler's Smart division is selling several variations on a stylish minicar, and there's talk that Smart cars might have a future in the United States.
The cars themselves vary wildly. Some, like DaimlerChrysler's Gem, are bare-bones electric-powered shuttles, only slightly more sophisticated than golf carts. Others, such as Ford's City, are higher-powered electrics that meet passenger car crash standards and keep up with local traffic. The most roadworthy models -- notably the Smart car -- are small, gas- or diesel-powered "city" cars, suitable for short-range commuting. What these vehicles all have in common are small size (as little as 8 feet in length); limited, specialized capabilities; and, in theory at least, low cost, thanks in part to new materials and technologies.
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.
Which is where Ford proposes the next logical escalation. Its City car is less than 10 feet long, but the prototype includes enough structure to meet most current crash standards. The model going on sale next year will be fully certified as a passenger car. A "real" car, more or less, if you're willing to ignore the speed limitation of 55 mph and to embrace the image of a giant Christmas tree ornament on wheels.
The City isn't made of metal, like most ordinary cars. To make the body, heated thermoplastic is injected into a hollow, rotating mold. As it cools, the plastic hardens into shape, and then the windows and doors are cut away. This is how plastic canoes and kayaks are made, and it's a cheap way to create strong, hollow shapes. The car that results is tough, flexible, and impact-resistant. Its surface isn't smooth and shiny the way steel is; instead, City cars have a dull, soft finish that a cat could claw scratches into. And it lets in sunlight, which accounts for the eerie glow from the backseat.
The City is surprisingly at home in urban traffic. I drove it about 70 miles during rush hour, bypassing the expressways but easily keeping up with a 45-mph speed limit. The car's rounded, egg-like shape is almost as tall as it is long, putting you nearly eye-to-eye with surrounding traffic, and the windows are shoulder-high. Those design features helped lull me into feeling comfortable, even alongside an SUV at a traffic light. Acceleration was modest, but the high torque at startup quickly kicks you across the average intersection. Only when a full-blown 18-wheeler was snarling in the rearview mirror, reminding me of the Tyrannosaurus that chased the Explorer in Jurassic Park, did the City's small size begin to shrivel the psyche.
The City's prospects are not encouraging, given the history of the electric car. The search for a battery capable of the range and speed of a gasoline engine so far has proved fruitless, and consumer interest in all-electric propulsion seems virtually nonexistent. In 1996, GM staged a multibillion-dollar launch of its EV1 electric cars; three years later, with fewer than a thousand leased, the project was scrapped. So how does Ford expect to make the City car, which is a lot like its predecessors, profitable? The makers of the City, which has a nickel cadmium battery pack that delivers about 50 real-world miles of driving between charges, hope they can get people to simply accept the battery's limitations -- and live with them.
I had to improvise: I hooked an electrical cord to the 220-volt dryer outlet in my basement and ran it up into the driveway to plug it into the City's charger. Using the snap-in connector was as easy as hanging your hat on a hook. The 20-amp drain of the charger sent the electric meter spinning wildly, but the battery was good to go 5 hours later.
The big question is, What will drivers be willing to pay for a car that has such a limited range? The less ambitious, golf-cart-like minicars -- DaimlerChrysler's Gem and Ford's Neighbor -- come in below $8,000, even with the required safety equipment, such as seatbelts, rollover protection, and bumpers. The City, by contrast, despite its low-cost materials and manufacturing methods, is pricey: in Europe, where it's already available, it sells for the equivalent of about $25,000. Granted, the high fuel prices in Europe, as well as sizeable subsidies there for environmentally friendly vehicles, make that price tag more palatable. Ford plans to bring a modified version of the City to the United States late next year, and to lease, not sell, it. The lease arrangement being contemplated will run motorists about $150 a month -- a fee that's comparable to what one might pay for a gasoline-powered car that's far more versatile.
What's the solution? Subsidies have been instrumental in the recent surge in sales of mini electric vehicles. Arizona offered a tax credit so large -- $10,000 -- that for consumers it amounted to being paid to buy the car (the credit has since been rescinded). Gem was a major beneficiary of Arizona's largesse: Virtually all of its early cars were sold in that state. Today, government and industry are snapping up Gem cars for their local fleets, and the 20,000 that DaimlerChrysler hopes to sell next year represent an exponential increase that makes minicars the company's fastest-growing car line.
Still, creative financing schemes and innovative ideas might be necessary to bring minis into the mainstream. For example, the Panoz Corp., which builds sports cars and manages a race car empire, is planning to import from Europe about 16,000 engine-less Smart cars and bring them to Atlanta. The cars would be converted to electric power and rented by the day -- as sightseeing vehicles for tourists and temporary wheels for city residents.
Meanwhile, DaimlerChrysler, which acquired Smart three years ago, is hedging on whether it will market the cars in the United States -- although this year alone, Europeans bought 60,000 of them.
The future of the minicar in America is at a crossroads. Proponents ask, Why drive more than you need for the task at hand? Naysayers retort that a car needs to serve a variety of purposes. The U.S. auto industry hopes incentives like subsidies, dedicated roadways, and new kinds of neighborhoods will convince drivers that small is beautiful. I don't know about that, but I can say that small is certainly a change of pace.
If nothing else, it's a new way to meet the neighbors.
Odd as minicars appear on U.S. roads, they are nothing new in Europe, where city centers are often a maze of narrow, medieval streets. The most recent mini to make a splash on the Continent is the Smart, a brightly colored little gumball of a car with a stylish, avant-garde design.
Originally dreamed up by designers at the Swatch watch company, the Smart was introduced three years ago and has since evolved into a roadworthy -- and eminently parkable -- vehicle. Just 8 feet long, it can slide nose-to-curb into a conventional parking space, like a motorcycle. Stack two Smarts end to end, and they'll still measure almost 3 feet less than a single Ford Excursion.
Affectionately dubbed rolling backpacks, Smart cars are not only diminutive; they're also energy efficient and relatively inexpensive-starting at the U.S. equivalent of $9,000. Smart offers a full line of models, ranging from two-seat commuter cars to a new roadster. They run on gas or diesel; diesel models get more than 60 miles to the gallon. And a new, diesel-electric hybrid does even better: 70 mpg.
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.