La Verne Magazine
"Tradition & Change"
0-60 in 4.6: The Vehicle of the Future Gets a Charge
by Allison Moore
photography by Michelle Zimmerman
Fueling his vehicle free of charge, Keith Young, senior code compliance
officer for the city of San Dimas, gained his Honda EV1 for work use from
the State of California Air Resources Board as part of a program to encourage
environmentally sound transportation.
Like a child's most prized possession in his hot wheels collection,
the "T zero" has characteristics that a car lover seeks. The side
doors and top panel lift upward from this citrus yellow retro race car,
and standard seat belts are replaced with safety harnesses.
The driver turns the key, "click click," the instrument panel
glows, displaying amenities such as full climate control and a CD player.
But there is no sound of an engine. This vehicle is silent and unassuming,
although when it is called upon, it can go 0 to 60 in 4.6 seconds.
Among several revolutionary ideas presented with the turn of the century
is the electric vehicle. Many Southern California residents are concerned
with air quality and believe that electric vehicles can help reduce harmful
"Once you drive an electric vehicle, you really come to appreciate
them because you're not polluting the environ-ment," explains Keith
Young, senior code compliance officer for the city of San Dimas, who drives
a city-owned Honda EV.
Concern about pollutants caused by internal combustion vehicles has
prompted the federal government to issue a mandate requiring auto makers
to manufacture at least 10 percent of their vehicles with zero emissions
by the year 2003.
Locally, since 1992, AC Propulsion Inc., has been working to develop,
manufacture and license system and component technology for electric vehicle
drive systems. Tucked away in a small industrial complex in San Dimas, AC
Propulsion has created technology that meets the government's mandate.
To date, AC Propulsion has designed and hand built two of its "T
zero" aircraft-inspired cars. The T zero has been in production since
1996 and has been demonstrated on race tracks, although notes Tom Gage,
business manager for AC Propulsion, "It's designed to be used on the
streets." Says Gage, "The T zero costs $80,000 on the market and
competes with Porsches, Vipers and other high performance vehicles."
The high price for the T zero comes from the low volume that AC Propulsion
The T zero has the ability to go 0-60 in 4.6 seconds. It can finish
a fourth of a mile in 13.7 seconds and has a 120-mile range. "This
isn't the most practical car," cautions Gage. "It is intended
to attract buyers because of its exclusivity." AC Propulsion has seen
the strongest response for the T zero from residents of Silicon Valley.
"What really appeals to them is that it's unique, it's high performance,
and it is environmentally correct," Gage says.
Alan Cocconi, founder and president of AC Propulsion, is the guru behind
the development of the T zero. He built his first EV in his driveway long
before AC Propulsion opened its doors. Making his mark across the globe
as an engineering consultant, Cocconi developed the drive and solar tracking
systems for the General Motors Sun Raycer, which won the 1987 World Solar
Challenge, a cross-country race for solar powered vehicles held in Australia.
Since then, he designed and built the controller for the original General
Motors Impact that later matured into GM's EV-1.
As a small company with only 26 employees, AC Propulsion has found itself
in a catch-22 situation. "The mandate is both helping and hurting us.
It's helping us because car companies are showing interest in what we develop,"
Gage explains. "It's hurting us because we would be competing with
car companies to sell EVs. The market would be dominated by the big car
companies. They can subsidize the products and sell them for a lot less."
Gage is no stranger to the automotive industry. During the mid-'80s,
he worked with the Chrysler Corporation, dealing with regulatory and safety
compliance. He later became a consultant related to EVs. Gage explains that
with the mandate in force, AC Propulsion will experience a great deal of
competition from car companies that can produce electric vehicles at a high
volume and a low cost to the consumers. "Without the mandate, we would
have the market to ourselves." In light of the fact that AC Propulsion
can provide car companies with its technology, Gage explains that "car
companies don't like to buy technology; they like to develop it within."
For that reason, AC Propulsion has a two fold plan. "Our primary strategy
is to license our technology and commercialize it and put it into production,"
Gage explains. "Our other strategy is to go alone with the T zero.
If no companies buy our technology, we can sell cars that use our drive
The T zero was built with the latter strategy in mind. The former strategy
set root in 1994 when AC Propulsion introduced the AC-150, a drive system
for compact to midsize passenger cars. In an effort to develop EVs for those
without deep pockets, AC Propulsion announced a partnership with Volkswagen
AG to develop EVs with an affordable price tag. In 1998, Volkswagen AG introduced
its Golf Electric Concept, an AV prototype built with AC Propulsion technology.
Recently, Cocconi received the "Blue Sky Merit Award" for his
electric drive system alliance with Volkswagen AG.
There are many objections that drivers have to electric vehicles. Many
say that they are too expensive, others claim that their range is not far
enough and that there are not enough places to recharge. Car companies agree
and have been urging the government to recall the mandate. "Most car
companies oppose the mandate," Gage confirms.
At present, electric vehicles with a lead acid battery can only be driven
50 to 90 miles before a recharge is necessary. Advanced technology has developed
the new Nickel-Metal Hydride (NiMH) battery pack that has a longer range
of 75 to 130 miles. Where the NiMH battery exceeds the lead acid battery
in range, the lead acid battery exceeds the NiMH in price value.
"Right now, the lead acid battery costs a 10th to a 30th of the
cost of a Nickel-Metal Hydride battery," says Gage. The lead acid battery
costs about $3,000, and the NiMH battery costs anywhere between $30,000
and $150,000. "We're talking about batteries that cost more than most
people are willing to pay for a car," he says.
For the general EV owner, there is General Motors, a company willing
to plunge into electric vehicle advancement and count its losses. GM is
in the process of releasing its second line of electric vehicles. The first
model, EV1 Generation 1, was placed on the market in 1997 with lead acid
batteries. The Generation 1's were available on a lease only basis for between
$399 and $549 a month, depending on where the lease was issued. Early March
2000, the cars were recalled by GM because of incidents of EV1s catching
on fire during the recharging process. The flaw-a charger port problem-almost
proved terminal for the cars. Owners at first were told by GM that the problem
could not be fixed; they were instructed to leave their cars parked; a tow
truck was dispatched to their homes. March 24, GM reversed that pronouncement,
saying the cars would be fixed in 10 months.
The Generation 2 models were modified with the advanced NiMH batteries.
Despite the expensive improvements made to the Generation 2 models, the
price of a lease has only been increased to between $424 and $574 a month.
"They deserve respect," Gage says, adding that the volume necessary
to bring production costs of NiMH batteries down will not occur for a long
Owners of these EVs are reaping the benefits. "It was love at first
sight," declares Edward Bonneau, San Dimas resident, who saw a Generation
1 EV for the first time at a home show in Colton. For Bonneau, his EV's
50-90 mile range was realistic for commuting to his credit repair company,
only five minutes from his home. "It's perfect for local driving,"
Bonneau confirms. Even though his car has since been recalled, Bonneau says
charging his EV was safe and easy. "General Motors Generation 1 charged
inductively; you could stand in a tub of water and plug it in." Bonneau
says he could fully recharge an empty battery in three hours with a charging
unit at his home.
Safety measures have been substituted for convenience with conductive
charges. AC Propulsion has invented the reductive charger, and while re-charging
in the rain is out of the question, a reductive charger has the capability
of being plugged into an existing outlet from a household socket to an existing
EV conductive wall box. It can fully recharge a car at maximum power in
just one hour. The reductive charger works by combining the drive system
and the battery charger into a single unit, with only $300 worth of additional
The advantages of ownership have far outweighed the disadvantages for
Bonneau. "I view this as a revolution, a thing of the future."
Due to the revolutionary concept of EVs, people have expressed curiosity.
"Everybody loves them," elaborates Bonneau. "It has given
me an opportunity to talk to people that I never would have." Bonneau
enjoyed the quietness, extremely low maintenance and overall performance
of his EV 1. "It reacted well in cases that you can associate with
a high performance vehicle," he recalls. Despite Bonneau's complaint
of the lack of charging stations, he considers himself a "good promoter
of EVs" and would seriously consider leasing another EV. EVs are also
being promoted within the San Dimas Planning Department. Young has been
given a Honda EV from the Air Resource Board for driving within the city
and uses the EV for routine checks of resident's compliance to municipal
codes. "Overall, I'm very pleased with it. I believe it fits in with
our needs." Young says that he is surprised with its high performance
and delivery of a quiet ride.
The commuting population is ready to listen to this praise. With the
price of gasoline climbing above $2 a gallon, the electric vehicle may quickly
move past the curiosity stage and become the "prized possession"