John Herou settles in at the wheel of an EXV2. It's an $18,000 electric vehicle built by his Princeton, Minnesota company, e-ride. Herou turns a key, pushes a button, presses down on the floor pedal, and the vehicle takes off with barely a whisper.
This vehicle looks like a miniature pickup truck. Others in the product line look like mini-SUVs. They all have rugged looks, with off-road tires and lots of chrome.
The cars require an overnight connection to an average household outlet to charge up their eight batteries. On a full charge they have a range of 55 miles. By law they can only go 25 mph. And yes, they have heaters.
Herou says he's sold a few hundred of these vehicles all over the country, mainly to universities and corporations. But his most obvious market has been off-limits. He says people who want to buy his vehicles and drive them around Minnesota neighborhoods haven't been able to do so.
That is, until a new law goes into effect Aug. 1, allowing the small electric cars on Minnesota roads, at least where the speed limit is 35 mph or less. Now. Herou says his job is to convince Minnesotans that these neighborhood electric vehicles, or NEVs, might be a good addition to their driveway.
"The average second vehicle doesn't go more than 15 miles a day. For running kids back and forth or doing errands, it works just fine on the amount of charge you get," Herou said. Herou's company, e-ride, isn't the only electric car manufacturer in the region looking to take advantage of Minnesota's new electric car law.
Global Electric Motorcars, a company owned by Daimler-Chysler based in Fargo, North Dakota, makes a futuristic looking electric vehicle called the GEM car.
"We've had a lot of requests from residents in the state of Minnesota for our vehicles," says the company's chief operating officer, Rick Kasper. "Now we'll be able to answer those requests by offering all the products in our product line."
Kasper's company has already sold 31,000 GEM cars worldwide. About one-third have gone to individuals, the others to companies, university and governments. In the U.S they're popular in retirement communities.
But Kasper hopes Minnesota customers see GEM cars as more than a grandparent's grocery-getter.
"Looking at communities in Minnesota with roads with speeds up to 35 mph, including lakes country and master planned communities and actually urban centers, this represents a perfect transportation solution," Kasper said.
But if the current usage of neighborhood electric vehicles is any guide, automotive journalist Paul Eisenstein doesn't think you're likely see many of the little cars on the road. Eisenstein is publisher of TheCarConnection.com. He admits neighborhood electric vehicles are great for retirement communities, or for tourist rentals in a beachside town. But they've failed to catch on as everyday street transportation in other states where they're allowed on the road, and he expects the same in Minnesota.
"Most people don't feel comfortable in sub-compacts these days, because of all the trucks on the road. I think a lot of folks would feel even less comfortable driving around on the open road in what are essentially just golf carts," Eisenstein said.
Neighborhood electric vehicles don't have to abide by the same government safety standards as passenger vehicles. But manufacturers point out that their cars are outfitted with three-point seat belts and safety glass.
The manufacturers say with gas prices headed above $3 a gallon, they expect more Minnesotans might consider neighborhood electric vehicles as an option to gas-powered cars.