Legislature likely to let electric cars speed up

By Andrew Garber

The Seattle Times

Olympia, WA — Geneva Sullivan loves almost everything about her electric car — the way it looks, its quiet power, the fact it doesn’t belch fumes. She just wishes it could go faster.

“I was so concerned I had lettering put on the back, so people would know I can only go 25 miles per hour,” said Sullivan, whose company, Espresso Vivace, uses the car to haul coffee beans to its stores around Seattle. “I sure would like it to go 35 mph.”

Sullivan could soon get her wish. The Legislature is expected to pass a law that would let electric cars like hers zip along at 35 mph, which is the top speed on many city streets.

State lawmakers passed legislation in 2003 that allowed low-speed, battery-powered vehicles on city streets but limited them to 25 mph. Dealers could not sell four-wheeled models that went faster. But back then, many of the so-called “neighborhood electric vehicles” looked like souped-up golf carts.

Vehicle specs

The details on a Dynasty IT sedan similar to Geneva Sullivan’s:

Size: Four-door sedan; 90-inch wheelbase; 140 inches long; 60 inches wide; 63 inches high; weighs 1,450 pounds

Range: 30.4 miles on a single charge

Maximum speed: 24.5 mph

Price: Sullivan paid about $18,000.

Acceleration: 0 to 24 mph in 10 seconds

Maximum recharge time: 11 ½ hours

Source: Dynasty Electric Car Corp.

Nowadays, the newer models — such as the one Sullivan owns — look like real cars. They’re enclosed, with heaters, windshields, seat belts, impact-resistant bodies, and often come with either unibody construction or safety cages. They’re recharged by simply plugging into a standard electrical outlet.

The cars have not passed federal safety tests, so they aren’t legal to use on highways, such as Interstate 5 or Highway 99. But that’s not what they’re designed for anyway, boosters say.
Electric-car dealers in the Seattle area predict a surge of interest in the vehicles if House Bill 1820 becomes law. The measure has already passed the House and is expected to be approved by the Senate. They also expect new types of electric cars to be imported from Europe. The cars cost from under $10,000 to around $18,000.

While a boost of 10 mph might not sound like much, it’s a big deal, said Greg Rock, co-founder of the Green Car Co. in Kirkland.

“Electric cars have been kept alive with the low-speed-vehicle law — vehicles that can go 25 mph. But they really are only functional for, like, golf communities. If you live in Seattle and plan to drive from your house to a grocery store, most of the time the road between you and there is 35 miles per hour,” Rock said.

“You’re constantly holding up traffic and you feel like a putz.”

Rock said he sells three-wheeled electric cars that are classified as motorcycles and thus can go 35 mph or more because the 25-mph cap doesn’t apply to motorcycles. However, he plans to start selling four-wheeled cars if the new speed limit is approved.

Electric cars in Washington

Total statewide: 369

In King County: 107

In Snohomish County: 44

In Pierce County: 20

In Kitsap County: 7

Source: State Department of Licensing

Steve Mayeda, vice president of sales at MC Electric Vehicles in Seattle, expects more people would buy an electric car if it could just go a bit faster.

“There are two reasons why they don’t buy the car. One is that it doesn’t go far enough. The other is that it doesn’t go fast enough. The distance issue I can explain to people. You really don’t drive as far as you think you drive,” he said. “The speed thing, I can’t help them with that.”

Mayeda said many of the electric cars being sold today, such as Sullivan’s, can be easily upgraded to travel at 35 mph. “It’s just a couple of buttons on a computer. You plug it into this controller and the car goes 35 miles per hour,” he said.

Electric cars available today generally carry two to four people and can travel 20 to 35 miles, or more, on a single charge. The range varies depending on the make and model.

The batteries can last three to five years and cost around $800 to $900 to replace, local dealers say. People typically recharge the batteries overnight by plugging the car into a standard outlet.

“It costs 2 cents per mile to drive a light electric vehicle, and it costs 13 to 14 cents per mile to drive a 20-miles-per-gallon car,” Rock said. “It’s a great way for people to insulate themselves from the costs of transportation that are coming.”

Sullivan said she and her husband bought their four-door electric car, a Dynasty IT, for around $18,000 last year. It is driven about four miles a day, well within its range.

“It was philosophical for us. We’re both bicyclists,” said Sullivan, 49. “We’re both big on the environment and try to have as little impact as possible.”

Danial Reid, the head roaster for Vivace, often drives the car. He gets a lot of stares: “I can never think of one time I’ve parked the car and gotten out and not had someone ask me about it.”

Joanna Loehr, 64, gets the same reaction to her ZENN electric car in Port Townsend. “People follow me home to find out about the car,” she said.

Loehr and her husband use the two-seater to run errands around town and, at most, drive about 10 miles on a single charge. Loehr said the car has a 30-mile range, though they’ve never tested it.

“It sort of feels like a VW Beetle from years ago. I just enjoy riding in it,” she said. “It’s kind of like riding around town on your bicycle. You’re close to the ground and you sort of feel like a part of your environment.”

But like Sullivan, she’d like to go faster. “Even though our speed limit is 25 mph, there are a lot of people who tend to go 30 mph. So they sort of pile up behind me … ,” she said. “If I could go 30, that would be just great.”

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