May 12, 2008 – New niche: Electric vehicles

With consumers concerned more than ever with emissions and gas prices, hybrid and electric vehicles are surfacing more frequently throughout the powersports industry. But the market is niche thus far with only a handful of companies in production, and none seemingly older than a few years, if that.
The unknowns regarding the vehicles have some consumers — and dealers — hesitant to buy. Because of that, sales for the units have been initially slow. But manufacturers and some dealers are confident in the vehicles’ future because of the savings on gas and maintenance, noise level and the benefits to the environment.

Short & long term savings

One of the highest regarded benefits electric vehicles provide is the immediate relief from what seems like the never-ending climb of oil prices. That’s certainly the case with Vectrix, a 100 percent electric, zero emissions motorcycle. Bob Cleary, brand strategist of Vectrix, says the bike represents energy conservation and oil preservation.
“We have an equivalent mpg of 357 miles,” he said. “When operating at a penny per mile and seeing the California gas price tag around $4.25, (price) starts to mean something.”
Those gas prices are ridiculous, says Scott Michener, head of Internet sales at Montgomeryville Cycle Center in Hatfield, Penn., and recent news indicates it’s only going to get worse before it gets better.
“These (electric vehicles) are the way everyone needs to be thinking,” said Michener whose dealership carries the Vectrix. “It’s the wave of the future. It’s the way the industry is going, especially with the cost of gas going up.”
The cost savings of gas is important, but electric vehicles’ low noise emissions is another benefit, especially for hunters looking to use ATVs.
The LandCrawler ATV, developed by engineering company Creative Product Solutions, Bridgeton, Mont., is an electric amphibious ATV. LandCrawler Engineer Jim Taylor says the six-wheel vehicle was developed for hunters who don’t want the noise levels of gas-powered ATVs.
“Walking is nice because it doesn’t disturb the game, but often times you want to take your ATV, and with an electric vehicle, that’s possible,” Taylor said. “It’s for someone who has 30 or 50 acres of land and wants to get around it. It’s geared very low and has an extraordinary amount of power. It’s good for rugged terrain and going up hills. If you use it in that niche, it can be a lot of fun.”
The enjoyable aspect of the vehicles along with the practical side is drawing in customers who would not necessarily buy a powersports vehicle in the past. Montgomeryville Cycle Center acquired the Vectrix in March, and after hosting a demo day for consumers, the dealership has attracted a variety of people.
“We’re not seeing your normal motorcycle person walking into the shop anymore,” Michener added. “All spans of people are looking for a way to commute to and from work. (The Vectrix) is definitely more practical.”
The limited maintenance, due to lack of internal combustion/few moving parts, makes it a more practical vehicle also, notes Greg Rock, co-founder of Vectrix dealer The Green Car Company, Kirkland, Wash. Michener says that’s a main point his dealership sells the bike on.
“There’s no oil, and there’s no gas, so even your general maintenance is non-existent except for checking the breaks and your tires,” he noted. “Where you can save in that aspect will repay itself over time.”
Priced at $11,990 for the 2008 model and $9,999 for the 2007 unit, Cleary says the price of the Vectrix is not expected to drop with time, but the price of other models might be lower if the company decides to produce more, which is currently undecided. He adds, however, the benefits outweigh the price, but he acknowledges that it’s higher priced than most scooters.
“The justification of price is primarily in the technology,” he said. “We realize there is a premium if you compare it to gas-powered combustion engines, but we believe that the benefit over the course of time equates to be even.”
The initial price, Michener says, is drawing in an older crowd who tend to have more money in their pockets.
“We’re not getting the 20-year-old college kid looking for this,” he noted. “Most people are 50-plus in age. They are well educated, and they understand spending that kind of money to begin with.”
Cleary agrees, saying Vectrix’s early buyers will most likely be 40-plus and be an early adapter of technology as well as has “a very keen interest in environmental consciousness.”

Too early?

Creative Product Solutions developed the LandCrawlers because Taylor believes the battery technology currently isn’t strong enough to support a traditional ATV.
“There have been a lot of companies that have tried to make electric off-road vehicles, including ATVs, simply by taking an existing vehicle and making it electric,” he said. “From what I’ve seen, it’s been a hard road. Battery technology is our Achilles tendon of electric vehicles. Although there is some good stuff on the horizon, it looks like its still about five or even 10 years out before we have these high-end batteries being widely distributed at low cost.”
The price of the LandCrawler is undecided currently, but Taylor says it will compare to a mid-size ATV, but he says the vehicle is made for the existing battery technology because it’s low-geared and designed for tough terrain, not speed.
“In our case, the lead acid battery is not a handicap,” he said. “When these other (improved) batteries come out, this vehicle will only improve. Its range will go up, and it’ll be lighter in weight. It’s only going to get better.”
Frank Curtis, sales manager at Streit’s Motorsports, Gainesville, Fla., agrees with Taylor that the technology is not ready yet.
“[Electric vehicles] do have a place in the market, but currently they are just too expensive,” he said. “They make a very good, quality product, and if the battery technology comes up and the battery costs go down, they certainly will be a more viable option.”
Regardless of price, Cleary says the time is now.
“There’s been a variety of electric transportation for many decades, but I think we’re at a stage in our economic environment where electric and hybrid technology is coming to the fore very, very quickly,” he said. “Like any other mass production item, there are going to be a ton of people who sit on the couch for a short period of time to see how things go.” PSB

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