I Sing the Scooter Electric

Teri Nolan/Santa Fe Reporter

Jennifer Lowe on her Car of the Future

Santa Fe Reporter | September 28, 2005
When I was a kid in the ’70s, my father subscribed to Popular Mechanics. There wasn’t much of interest there for a ballet-loving, Chopin-swooning proto-femme like myself, but I read everything in those days; so I dutifully read Popular Mechanics.

Every so often they’d put out an issue whose cover would proclaim, “The Car of the Future!” with some daydreaming draftsman’s fantasy inked in pastel colors and hovering several inches off the pavement. The Car of the Future, everyone knew, was colorful, quiet and emission-free; it ornamented a serene suburbia straight out of Edward Scissorhands, a world in which lawns were evenly, placidly green, mothers wore high heels in their gleaming white kitchens and dads emerged every evening from the Car of the Future, relaxed and smelling of expensive cologne. The Car of the Future would be perfect: it would never need gasoline or an oil change, it wouldn’t drip coolant on the carport floor and if it ever broke down, it could just be recycled.

There was just one problem with the Car of the Future:

It never showed up.

Now it is the future. I’m 36 and have a laptop, a VCR/DVD player, a digital camera, an answering machine and a cellphone—none of which would have been conceivable to the younger me, lying on the cool damp of the garage concrete reading Popular Mechanics. I have enough technological apparatus in, on and around my immediate person that I’d probably be worshipped as a god if I turned up in the 18th century.

Yet, like millions of other people, for most of my adult life I’ve driven to work every morning in an enormous, expensive contraption which hasn’t really changed that much from the machine Henry Ford first began to mass-produce in 1908, other than to become more comfortable. The very name “automobile” is something of a misnomer: It doesn’t move by itself and it can’t move at all without fuel. The most modern engine still uses ancient crushed biological matter in order to combust, and its controlled explosions propel not just my svelte 120-pound mass through space, but also the car’s 2,800 pounds of steel and ceramic, its glass and fabric and plastic; what’s underneath the hood alone probably outweighs me five times over.

The automobile is, in fact, a complete dinosaur—an outdated, unwieldy T. rex of a creature—yet one on which I’ve relied for 20 years.

If I’ve been waiting all these years for the Car of the Future and it’s never arrived, maybe it’s time to find another alternative.

It took several incentives to push me toward buying and driving an all-electric vehicle. They are, in chronological order:

1. I married a scientist.

2. The US declared war on the Mideast.

3. My Honda blew up.

4. There was a hurricane.

Ontogeny, we know, recapitulates phylogeny; my own tortuously slow progress toward discovering all the reasons why driving cars may not be our species’ smartest move ever, and toward doing something about it, may mirror that of society at large. I hope so.

Knowledge isn’t just power; it’s also darned inconvenient at times.

When I grew up and moved away from home, I was lucky enough to live in a succession of places which all had one curiosity in common: In none of them did I need a car. In a few of these places I had an invariably unwieldy bicycle, and in others I had a monthly pass to BART/the Metro/PVTA/the Métro/the Underground/the T. Even when I lived in the Eastern Sierras, in a tiny, remote town half-reservation and half-trailer park, I hitched rides with local little old ladies and became friendly with everyone with wheels. I simply didn’t need—or want—a car.

This worked just fine until, during our 1999 honeymoon in Santa Fe, my econophysicist husband was offered a job here and we relocated to the Land of Entrapment. He could easily walk to work from home, and did, in sun and snow. But I had to take strenuous combinations of cadging rides from coworkers, struggling to hoist my mountain bike upon the racks of Santa Fe Trails buses and, in a last desperate resort, lacing up snowboots to get to my place of employment, located out past the community college where buses do not go.

After a year of this all-terrain struggle, I caved in and bought my best friend’s hideously ugly, gas-guzzling 1986 Pontiac LE-6000. Now I couldn’t make fun of car people anymore. Now I was, as the crowd chants in Tod Browning’s 1932 cult classic Freaks, “one of us.”

My husband, on the other hand, continued walking everywhere and pointedly did not obtain a driver’s license. I had married not just any scientist, but one passionate about issues like climate change and responsible development. We filled the house with used books, half of them incomprehensible to me, half to him, George Eliot rubbing shoulders with George Johnson, Richards Feynman and Dawkins alongside Richards Ellmann and Powers. Eventually I’d read every novel in the house and had to start in on his sections, beginning reluctantly with the least mathematical pop-science paperbacks.

As Y2K began, I finished a little thing I’d picked up called The End of Nature by Bill McKibben. I threw it on the sofa and stared off into space for a long time. Then I rang my spouse at work and demanded to know why he hadn’t told me about carbon emissions, the greenhouse effect or global warming. I spent the next few months hectoring him to teach me about the current mass extinction and the impact of various human encroachments and I began, in anger and confusion, to research and collect information for a non-fiction book I planned to call Biocide.

And as Y2K drew to a close, my husband woke me early one September morning to tell me that the East Coast was under attack. I stumbled into the living room in time to watch the first tower collapse. When a Mideastern terrorist group claimed responsibility, the US declared war. In the weeks that followed, my British husband printed out maps and explained everything from colonialism to TE Lawrence, from Henry Kissinger to Amartya Sen. And I found out even more inconvenient things, things I wished I didn’t have to know—such as the fact that half of the oil used to produce American gasoline is imported, and about two-thirds of our oil consumption (20 million barrels a day) is used for transportation.

But until the political becomes really, really personal, even the deaths in New York and Kabul and Baghdad—even the fact that the snows of Kilimanjaro are melting rapidly and Manhattan could conceivably be entirely underwater in 100 years—even these aren’t enough to get the average privileged and vaguely liberal person to give up her car. I know. Because I didn’t.

The Pontiac got approximately .2 miles to the gallon and was, as I may have mentioned previously, hideous. When I moved to Tesuque I replaced the Pontiac with a vehicle to which I affectionately referred as my midlife-crisis car, a bright red Honda Civic two-door coupe (with spoiler) which got 40 mpg and made tears of gratitude come to my eyes every time I pulled into Allsup’s. For though I wasn’t willing to give up driving, I’d educated myself silly about fuel efficiency in a desperate attempt to justify my continued car use.

In fact, I’d become a mileage freak. I can get so exercised about getting good mileage that I’ve been known to cruise gently through rural stop signs in an attempt to avoid braking, looking nervously around and hoping I don’t have to explain my unorthodox fuel-economy techniques to the local police—or to reach tactlessly across a friend and turn off his ignition when I think the car’s been idling for too long. I discovered other tricks to get the best possible bang, as it were, for my buck: Make sure the fuel tank cap fits tightly, so you don’t lose gasoline through evaporation. Eliminate “jackrabbit” starts and stops, which are hard on car parts and on mileage (a challenge for competitive, type-A drivers—or anyway difficult for me). Slow down on the highway—going 75 mph instead of 65 means you’re spending an additional 25 percent on fuel. Surprisingly, turn on the air conditioner rather than rolling down windows; the increased wind drag can actually increase mileage. Use one of the snazzy new synthetic motor oils. Keep tires properly inflated—the correct tire pressure is a surprisingly big factor, and can save one anywhere from three to five cents per gallon. Finally, change the air filter at least every three months—maybe more often if you live or drive on dirt roads. This last one has the additional advantage of costing only about three bucks if you go to the parts store, look up the filter number in their big car-model directory and change it yourself—if a die-hard girly girl such as myself says you don’t need the guys at Jiffy Lube to do it for you, believe me, you don’t.

Given my fanaticism about gasoline economy, it was imminently logical that I’d get a Honda. If I could have afforded it, I would have gone into hock for a hybrid, a Toyota Prius or Honda Insight. According to DOE data, even gas-powered car owners could save $3 billion a year at the fuel pump if automakers would merely put existing technology to work. “This is not about the public giving up its trucks and SUVs,” UCS researcher David Friedman said in a press statement at last year’s North America Energy Summit in Albuquerque. “This is about Detroit letting go of its unwillingness to roll safer, greener vehicles off its assembly lines.”

At any rate I only had $2,500 to spend, so a 1994 Honda Civic it was. And life was good, or anyway slightly cheaper.

Until, that is, my beloved cherry-red coupe basically caught fire on Cerrillos Road. Since then I’ve been driving my mom’s dark-blue 2000 Daewoo, and puzzling over the continuing dilemma of automobile ownership in a world where transportation by car, hugely inefficient as it is, is taken as the norm.

Still, it was going to take one more crisis before I’d change my ways.

Which brings me to hurricanes, skyrocketing gas prices—and my new electric scooter.

It’s exactly one week after Hurricane Katrina hit, and I’m driving the Daewoo home from the mechanic’s where it’s just had a week’s worth of work done on it: Brakes, rotors (ouch), and some weird transaxle/solenoid stuff I don’t understand, except that when I dig out my credit card to pay for everything, I think my nose might start bleeding.

Finally I finish signing my inheritance away, collect my keys and leave. I coast to the nearest $3.49 gas station on fumes, inwardly regretting that I passed up the $3.45 place on Agua Fria.

The late evening sun feels good on my face as I stretch, insert my credit card again, “REMOVE QUICKLY” as I’m instructed and select the cheapest grade. My engine doesn’t need high-octane fuel and while it can damage a performance engine to feed it a lower grade, purchasing premium gasoline would do nothing for the undiscriminating Daewoo—or its mileage. I set the nozzle to gush forth pungent-fumed fossil fuel with no squeezing from me.

I zone out staring at the traffic on St. Francis and return to reality just in time to stop the pump before the gas overflows. I get back in the car and reset the odometer: 202.5 miles since my last fill-up. Out of habit, I look at my printed-out receipt: 10.26 gallons, at $35.81. As a movie reviewer I travel daily on that 10.26 gallons, and though I’m able to claim travel as a deduction from my self-employment tax, the going rate for mileage is only 37¢. At this rate, I’m not even getting 20 mpg, and for that privilege I’m paying roughly 18¢ per mile. Plus the $438.94 I’ve just shelled out to the mechanic.

Did you know about the MIT study which found that hurricane winds are 50 percent faster than they were 50 years ago? And that carbon emissions from the burning of fuel, whether a fireplace or an coal-burning electric plant or your Range Rover, are overwhelmingly responsible for scientifically acknowledged global climate change? Do you know that we should all be wearing sandwich boards reading The End Is Near?

I stare numbly at the little piece of flimsy paper. Across the bottom is printed THANK YOU PLEASE COME AGAIN.

You’re welcome; and no, not if I can help it.

That night I rifle through my e-mail, looking for a message I got a few weeks ago from my dad, written in his best ee cummings style: “Lookie-lookie check out this electric scooter…whata-U-tink??? dad-dude.” I click on the link, which takes me to a Pep Boys sale-circular page, and there the Panterra Retro scooter is displayed in all its electric glory, looking like a Vespa but admittedly more plastic and less substantial. I download the specs, according to which the Retro weighs 189 pounds and has a 12-volt battery, operating at 48 volts—which means the top speed is around 29 miles per hour, with a range of maybe 25 miles. I sit at the computer, blinking. Why didn’t I know about this before? The speed limit in and around most of Santa Fe is 25 mph anyway (though I, like everyone else, usually speed), and where would I need to go that would take me more than 15 miles away? The farthest I usually go in a week is to the Villa Linda United Artist theatres.

I surf around, looking at other electric scooters and getting more and more excited. Where have I been that I’ve never heard of these? With our much-touted 300 sunny days a year, doesn’t that mean I can, more often than not, easily drive a cute little scooter instead of hauling a ton and a half of car around with me? At the Pep Boys’ price of $399 plus a $100 manufacturer’s rebate, I’m looking at $299, which is going to pay for itself within 10 tanks of gas. The electricity required to charge the battery costs only a few cents, and while electricity in northern New Mexico definitely isn’t “clean” (unless you pay PNM that little bit extra to purchase energy powered from sustainable sources such as wind generators), it’s got to be one heck of a lot cleaner than the pungent stuff guzzled by the Daewoo. I check with the UCS, and to my relief, “even if battery-electric vehicles are recharged using fossil-fuels, they can cut global warming emissions by as much as 70 percent.”

I surf some more, ogling other, nicer scooters, like the EVT Ion or the Oxygen. They’re better-constructed and go farther (50-80 miles per charge) and faster (up to 45 mph), but they also cost anywhere from $1,999 and $3,500, an amount that’s not really in my freelancer’s budget right now.

Could this be the Car of the Future?

It’s scooter day at last! I haven’t woken up this excited since I was 9 and my mother and I brought home my Appaloosa mare (an astonishing number of miles per gallon of oats, but definitely not zero-emission).

I take Santa Fe Trails down Cerrillos Road, with only a few other passengers. Once at Pep Boys, I’m practically slavering with anticipation as they bolt the last few parts into place (a storage box on the back, the rear-view mirrors). They’ve plugged the Retro’s charger into an electric outlet and I’m champing at the bit when I suddenly realize that I don’t know how to drive the thing, which dampens my enthusiasm only a little. There’s no way I’m going to let the guys who work here know that, so I feign great coolness, acting much more indifferent and hip than I feel, having never ridden anything even close to this machine (Appaloosas surely don’t count). Have I done a big stupid? What on earth have I gotten myself into?

I pretend I’m cursorily studying the manual while I wait for the scooter to charge, but in fact my eyes are burning I’m cramming so hard. The Retro comes with an assortment of documentation, all in beautiful Chinese-inflected Angrish (“sundries are forbidden to be hung on the handle bar” and “when swerving to left, the left signal light will be sparkling”)—but I’m too frantic to appreciate the humor. I’m growing more and more confused because the primary manual seems to say something about kickstarting and oil changes—? I thought one of the primary advantages of the all-electric creation was minimum maintenance: no combustion engine, no transmission, no carburetor or fuel injection, no belts, no chains, no ignition plugs, and above all no gasoline and no lubricants.

When I get outside and casually ask the mechanic on duty, he takes a look at the page I’m pointing to, laughs and says they gave me the wrong manual. Phew. I act confident and completely in charge, hop on board, flip up the kickstand and to my great relief and delight simply peel out of the parking lot onto Siringo like I’ve been driving this thing my entire life.

It’s literally a breeze. I don’t yet have a helmet and the sun is glorious and the birds are singing and it’s quiet. Electric motorcycles are the coolest thing in the world, I decide immediately, and I must make it my life’s mission to tell everyone the joys of buzzing along, nearly silent, at 25 mph.

I wrap my head in my scarf, zip up my fleece vest, and enjoy the sun on my face. I feel ridiculously glamorous, like Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday. I make a mental note to order the hot pink helmet that caught my attention on Froogle—or maybe they come in purple. I nod and wave like Queen Elizabeth to passersby, who to my surprise greet me with “Hey! Nice scooter!”

It may take more than the Car of the Future to change the world. There may not be changes we can realistically make, especially those of us who aren’t affluent. But as I write this, another giant hurricane nearly creamed my home state’s coastline. Texas alone produces 25 percent of the nation’s crude oil, most from its offshore refineries. I don’t think gas will be getting cheaper any time soon.

How much will it have to cost before we trade in our Dakotas and Cheyennes, unironically named for Native Plains tribes hounded to near-extinction? If it were accurately priced right now, with no government subsidies and based on the damage done by its combustion and the human costs of extracting and refining it, gasoline would surely be hundreds of dollars a gallon. How much will it have to cost us—$4 and $5 a gallon, as it is in Europe? $10, $15, $20—how much before we stop?

I don’t have answers to these questions. I don’t know whether my grandchildren, if I have them, will be forced to watch a handful of invasive species take over the planet in the wake of an extinction the kind of which the world hasn’t seen since the Cretaceous Period. I don’t know how they’ll look at me when I tell them how it used to be back in the day when we drove huge fuel-combusting cars.

What I know is that it’s the end of the day, it’s sunset and those last shafts of almost Parisian light are gleaming over the Jemez and making the adobe glow. On my way home, watching yellowing leaves fall off the locust trees and drift along the curbside like snow, I feel like a dog with its head stuck out of the window, experiencing an engagement with the world that I seldom do when driving a car.

Next week, Gov. Bill Richardson will convene a special session in part to respond to rising gasoline prices. Even though Hurricane Rita didn’t create the level of damage it could have, gas prices are still elevated and the last month has given all of us a taste of just how bad things could get during the next disaster.

But today I’m on my scooter and all is almost all right with the world.

For now.

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