Pimp My E-Ride

John Herou isn’t your typical electric-car ideologue. The founder of e-ride Industries possesses a bright strain of idealism to be sure, but fundamentally he’s a practical man, an inventor and classic car buff, more entrepreneur than tree hugger. The cars he builds, called neighborhood electric vehicles because by law they can go only twenty-five miles per hour and drive on streets with commensurate speed limits, are distinctly Minnesotan. While more common designs tend toward the futuristic, usually resembling a bubble or a jellybean, e-ride’s EXV2 and EXV4 look like small SUVs. They feature rugged tires, optional chrome hubs, plenty of cargo room, abundant panels of shiny aluminum diamond plate, and, of all things, a high payload capacity.

In fact, if you care to know, Herou’s primary vehicle is a gas-powered Ford F-250 truck. “My dad was a chiropractor in Milaca,” said the sixty-three-year-old Princeton native, wearing khaki pants and a tucked-in shirt. He is somewhat tight-lipped and bashful. “And I was in the electrical industry here for about thirty-five years. I thought it would be fun to build an old replica of a 1932 Ford Roadster for the kids. That’s how it all started.”

A passerby turned into Herou’s home driveway one day and offered to buy the electric Roadster. Right then, he saw that there was a market for his invention. His first electric cars were golf carts designed to look like classics from the 1930s. They were elegant and upscale, with chrome headlights, baby moon hubcaps, and solid oak drink holders and sweater baskets. He sold them to wealthy people all over the globe, including one to the king of Morocco and four to the Abu Dhabi Golf Club. The slogan was, "For the fun-loving perfectionist who loves a good ride." The description could just as aptly apply to Herou.

His cars, which come in vivid primary colors, are sturdy, meticulously designed, and also entirely reflective of Herou’s particular tastes. We hopped into a white two-seater EXV2 outside the e-ride offices in Princeton. The car was comfortable, with the pared-down feel of a Jeep Wrangler. Its nine eight-volt deep-cycle batteries, which are stashed in a compartment between the seats, are enough to keep the car moving for fifty-five miles between charges; they also power various accoutrements, such as a horn, windshield wipers, and an optional stereo and heater.

Herou could hardly wait for me to turn the key. When I did, there was a mere click and a disconcerting silence, as though I’d switched on a toaster. He assured me that the car was indeed running. Then, I made his day by fumbling for the nonexistent gear shifter. “You were reaching for the stick shift,” he said, obviously delighted. With one finger, he flipped a toggle switch on the dash from forward to reverse. Now, I just hit the ga… I mean accelerator? I asked, robbing Herou of an opportunity for further delight. The car moved easily, the only sound being the whine of turning wheels.

Proponents of electric vehicles like to point out that some of the first cars in America were battery powered and that in the late 1800s, these cars held many of the land-speed and distance records. Through various actions by the oil and auto industries—some call them conspiracies—electric cars were phased out. Then, after a successful experiment in California in the 1990s, recounted in the documentary Who Killed the Electric Car?, they were phased out again. It’s been difficult to build a sustained and cohesive electric-car movement, explained Lee Hart, an engineer and member of the Minnesota Electric Auto Association, a group formed just last year. “If you are interested in electric cars you are an iconoclast,” he said. “We’re like farmers. We’ll trade technical information on how to do things. But when it comes to political action, it goes nowhere. We don’t lobby. We don’t have lawyers.”

Hart, who can talk for the better part of an hour about battery technology, is on his fourth electric car, a 1980 Renault he converted himself by the curb in front of his house. The car, which is powered by a dozen “plain old lead acid batteries,” was “intended as a short-range vehicle, a get-me-to-work car. I only needed a range of thirty miles or so.” Yet this self-proclaimed evangelist, like other electric-car pioneers toiling away out there, has big plans. He intends to build a vehicle that may go three hundred miles on a single charge. It’s a version of a model designed in the late 1990s called the Sunrise. If all goes well, he will sell the car as a kit—thus avoiding various federal regulations—that the average person could assemble with bolts and a wrench.

Hardcore enthusiasts sometimes refer to neighborhood electric vehicles or NEVs, a category of automobile created in 1998 by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, as “glorified golf carts.” But they don’t necessarily mean that disparagingly. “John is doing great work,” Hart said. The problem, if you ask him, rests with the various state legislatures, which have limited the cars to twenty-five miles per hour. “They’ve restricted them to where they can’t be used.”

More than forty states allow NEVs on public roadways. Minnesota passed its law just last year, thanks to a bill sponsored by Senator Paul Koering. Of e-ride, he said, “They asked me to come over and tour the factory and I was so impressed. They look like little Hummers. I want one!” According to Koering, the legislation generated very little opposition. In fact, at some point the state may offer a tax credit toward the purchase of an electric vehicle (supplementing federal credits). “I’ve gotta tell you, with the new members of the legislature,” he said, “the tone that I’m hearing, people are on the environmental bandwagon. I feel like the pendulum has swung. People are getting more excited about this every day, and rightfully so. None of us are happy with the war in Iraq and we want to see less dependence on foreign oil so we can say to the Middle East, Take your oil and gas and shove it.”

Indeed, it was after the World Trade Center attacks and the attendant stock-market disaster that Herou’s golf-cart business dried up. “Nobody from overseas was buying anything at that time,” he explained. And so in 2003, with gas prices on the rise, he turned his efforts to electric cars. It was a logical progression. “About eighty-five percent of what we sold had never seen a golf course, anyway,” Herou said, referring to their use in retirement and other planned communities. “Plus, people wanted larger vehicles that would go farther and carry more.”

Pages: 1 2