Green Machines

There has always been an ecological rationalization for hybrid and alternative fuel vehicles. But with the cost of gas these days, a very real economic incentive has entered the minds of countless American consumers, as many of them find it increasingly difficult to bankroll their daily commutes. In response, demand for such vehicles has hit record numbers. Electric and hybrid cars are now considered viable choices by the same soccer moms and other large segments of the driving population that not long ago ruled them out, favoring instead gas-guzzling SUVs that flooded the domestic auto market for over a decade. And as this market slowly continues its shift away from the gas-guzzlers, innovative designers and industrious businesses are lining up, helping both to facilitate and capitalize on this automotive evolution.

Graham Hill is one such individual who has been an integral part of progressive automotive technologies. His involvement began in the mid-1990s when one of his good friends designed the Global Electric Motorcar, the world’s first neighborhood electric vehicle. Since then, as a major activist for green transportation, he has helped advocate the use of such forward-thinking machines as the ZENN (Zero Emissions, No Noise vehicle) which he helped launch earlier in 2006. It has since received international attention.

I got the chance to speak to Hill when he was in Bozeman for the Bioneers Conference. When highlighting the advancements that he has seen in his time working with alternative vehicles, he pointed out that “the biggest thing is that the components are now off the shelf and tested, and the batteries are proven.” He did concede though that the market is still waiting for a technological leap that will significantly “increase the range of electric vehicles so that people can make an intelligent decision about driving a zero-emission vehicle.”

Unfortunately, notes Hill, “the process has crawled like a worm.” An inconvenient truth that he attributes, in part, to the fact that “Big Oil" and the United States government have not paid attention to the zero-emission vehicle. The automotive and oil industries, in concert, don’t want to see new technologies develop, and that is why they have fought off California mandates and zero-emission vehicle mandates over the past few years.” These hurdles are sometimes offset when a state introduces tax credits for zero-emission vehicles. Oklahoma and Georgia are two states that have recently benefited from the most aggressive zero-emission tax credits in the nation. “It takes a champion legislator that wants to see more of these vehicles in their community, and that is how tax-credits emerge.”

In Bozeman, where SUVs and F-350s are as commonplace as the dirt roads they drive on, the practicality of small vehicles such as the ZENN seems to end with the asphalt. But Graham Hill, being from Boulder, Colorado, is no stranger to the mountain town. He has noticed that in communities such as these “people are absolutely as curious as can be” when it comes to learning about alternative vehicles. He had some time to evaluate the reaction of locals while showcasing his ZENN at Ron Gumforts’ Eco-Auto in downtown Bozeman. And although his pitch revolves largely around “if [potential consumers] can fit them into their lifestyle as a second vehicle,” Hill is eager to point out that a new generation of more rugged electric vehicles is just around the corner; futuristic cars such as the new E-Ride are well-suited as a primary vehicle to families in places like Bozeman and Boulder. And because the costs to maintain an electric vehicle are minimal when compared to a standard gas-consuming automobile, Hill encourages people to look into the long-range savings rather than dwelling on the initial investment.

“The zero-emission vehicle has a bright future,” Hill points out, but most important, he says, “it boils down to the small guys that want to make it happen. Small guys like Ron [Gumforts] in Bozeman need to show it off to the consumer.” From there it’s up to local and municipal officials to react to growing demand by creating free parking for electric vehicles and installing charging stations throughout town. Think that there are too many obstacles preventing this from becoming a reality? Just keep your eyes peeled for electric charging stations on Main Street, because people like Graham Hill make their careers out of hurdling obstacles.