Pimp My E-Ride

Asked whether environmental concerns, such as global warming, were also a factor in his decision, Herou answered, “Oh yeah. You bet.” He added somewhat conspiratorially, “I truly believe in global warming.”

Herou and his close-knit staff of thirteen, including a general manager and chief financial officer who are both in their twenties, have sold hundreds of cars (the goal this year is just over five hundred). Some have gone to individuals living in warm states like California, Florida, and Texas—none have gone to private parties in Minnesota. E-ride’s most robust markets are commercial and governmental. The company has sold to municipalities, universities, and branches of the military, along with parks services and the Department of Energy. Recently e-ride received an inquiry from the McMurdo science research station in Antarctica, which is under the gun to reduce emissions. “The DNR here in Minnesota purchased one and they use it up at Itasca,” Herou explained. “During the day they use it for maintenance and in the evening they distribute wood with it to the different camp sites. And then at night they use it for security because it doesn’t bother anybody. It doesn’t make any noise.”

Motoring through a neighboring housing development in the EXV2, Herou noticed that we were being tailed by a Princeton police officer. “I don’t have a license on this one,” he mumbled nervously. “I hope they don’t pull us over.” The female officer cut us off at a crossroads, sat for a moment, and then smiled and waved.

E-ride’s cars cost between fifteen and twenty thousand dollars, depending on the model and options. But that’s offset by the fact that they cost just over a penny per mile to drive. Plus, there is no need for oil changes, antifreeze, or spark plugs. The batteries charge in approximately eight hours from a common household outlet. “See now, this is perfect for the average person who doesn’t go but twenty miles a day,” Herou said, directing me to make a right, “or for use as a second vehicle, delivering kids, going to the dentist, buying groceries, going out for coffee with the neighbors, or whatever.”

We parked in front of the metal warehouse where e-ride’s cars are manufactured. Herou got out with the intent of flipping up the hood. “Well, here, I’ll show you the motor,” he said, unhooking a couple of cleverly designed rubber fasteners. With a smile, he waited for a reaction. “There is no motor!”

He pointed toward a box between the front wheels that was about the size of a laptop computer. “That is just the twelve-volt DC components, like the fuses and the relays for the signal lights and break lights and that; the heater and that.” Then the mirth of the inventor overflowed in a cascade of details. “This is a seventy-two-volt-to-twelve-volt converter. It takes seventy-two volts in off of our main system and converts it down to twelve volts down to the accessories.” He reached for a key. “This is the master disconnect switch. You turn that key off and take it with you and nobody can drive it. This is the battery filling system here,” he said, indicating a hose sticking out from under the hood. “When that light on the dash turns red and starts blinking at you, you put a two-and-a-half-gallon distilled water tank on top of here and plug it in. It waters all the batteries at the same time.”

E-ride is working with a company in Boulder, Colorado, to develop a battery that could extend the range of its cars to 150 miles per charge, a significant improvement, which reminded Herou: “One other very important part of this whole organization is that all of our parts, or the majority, I’d say ninety-nine and nine-tenths, are U.S.-made. We don’t buy any foreign parts.” Sounding a tad bit radical, he added, “I mean we’ve got to wake up here. Kmart is not the answer.”

The inside of the manufacturing plant was exceptionally quiet, except for occasional spates of drilling and clanging and a low-volume broadcast of The Supremes’ “Come See About Me.” There was a cement floor, many shelves containing wiring and car parts, and several fleets of gumball-colored e-ride vehicles. A couple of yellow numbers were headed for LAX airport. “They use them for security and general maintenance,” Herou said. “They’ve bought fifteen of them from us now.” A few employees tinkered and assembled, yet unlike in a standard garage, there was no oil or grease. There was no smell. It was as if they were building robots. And in a way they were.

When asked whether he yearned to build full-speed electric cars, Herou said no. “We are a niche.” It would take a major overhaul of the operation—including design and manufacturing changes—to make that transition. “To get past that twenty-five-mile-per-hour speed limit, we would have to pass a crash test and add airbags,” he said. “It’s considerable. We’ve been told anywhere from five to seven million dollars’ worth of costs.”

Still, it must be frustrating to hold an answer to the country’s energy problems and be relegated to a niche market. “It’s an educational process,” Herou said. “People are spoiled. I mean, they want big, comfortable vehicles that go fast. They want distance so they don’t have to stop and put gas in or whatever. I was to a seminar where this professor, he was from the University of Minnesota, stated that the way our country has designed the roadway systems and the homes … If you look at crowded cities like in England, Scotland, Italy, Mexico, they’ve got narrow streets with lots of homes or lots or apartments or whatever side by side. And here, we’ve got a ring road around every city. Off of that ring road there are these big interstates, roadways that go out into the country. So we like to live in the country and we drive in, take this ring road into the city to work. And that’s the reason for the big cars. Up here, we’ve got people from Onamia, which is about another forty miles north of us, driving into Minneapolis every day. That’s nuts, isn’t it?”

At that, Herou had no choice but to fess up. Asked whether he considered himself an environmentalist, he paused and answered, “I would think so, yeah. You bet.”

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