Thursday, August 7, 2008

How To Live Without Gas

The Segway, that marvel of two-wheeled balance and electric mobility, may someday solve America's dependence on gas-powered engines. But first, it will have to solve the suburbs.

That was the lesson of my short-lived experiment in gas-free living, an ill-fated attempt to explore the latest in electric tech as an alternative to $4-a-gallon gas.

As pump prices rise and the buzz around plug-in alternatives grows, I vowed to leave behind my privileged public transit lifestyle in New York City and spend three days gasoline-free where it meant something: In my family's hometown suburbs of Durham, N.C.--the depths of car-centric, Nascar-loving America.

In Pictures: Tech Tips For Cutting Your Gas Bill

The Segway, I had thought, would be my secret weapon in the struggle against the pump-powered lifestyle. According to the company, rising gas prices have driven Segway sales up by more than 50% last quarter, compared with the same period a year ago. "Never fill up again," Segway's marketing materials suggest optimistically.

But I found that gliding my Segway around the suburbs is not the breezy experience the slogan implies. On my first trip, I had successfully ridden about six miles to pick up a DVD when I reached the inevitable: a long stretch of sidewalk-less road. I edged onto the asphalt.

Rain began to drip through my borrowed bike helmet. Cars whizzed by at 45 miles an hour, honking at the two-foot-wide biped awkwardly blocking their lane. I tried leaning forward to accelerate beyond the Segway's 12.5 mph maximum, and the machine responded by lurching its foot platform back--a not-so-subtle way of telling me to slow down.

Instead, I leaned in farther in a panicked attempt to find the nearest sidewalk and escape the internal-combustion engines threatening to crush me from behind. By the time I reached safety, my Segway seemed ready to chuck me off like a spooked horse, and I felt less like a green-tech revolutionary than a very dangerous idiot.

I didn't give up. On my second day, I steeled myself and tried riding the Segway to a friend's house located just 10 minutes away by car. I ended up on a 55 mph backwoods road, trucks careening just inches from my Segway's wide wheelbase. With my organs in a knot, I gave up and called my brother to pick me up in his Prius.

To be fair, Segway's two-wheeled wonders were never intended for this kind of reckless jackassery, even in the name of American progress. Both the vehicle's manufacturers and the helpful folks at Triangle Segway, a dealer in Raleigh that loaned me the machine, had warned against straying from low-speed roads and sidewalks.

Most states prohibit riding Segways on any street with a speed limit above 25 mph, and Bedford, N.H.-based Segway inventor Dean Kamen himself has long suggested his device would solve the "last mile" problem, bringing riders the final leg of their trips once public transit had already hauled them close to their destinations.

But that doesn't change the notion that the Segway simply isn't built for a suburban lifestyle--the one lived by the large majority of Americans. At best, it's an approximately $5,000 replacement for either walking or biking--two activities that, for most suburbanites, have little to do with getting from A to B.

Luckily, there are other options for suburban petrophobes. Santa Monica, Calif.-based Miles Electric Vehicles builds a fully electric car it calls the ZX40S, which runs up to 25 mph, can travel as much as 60 miles without a charge (compared to the Segway's 24 mile limit) and costs around $19,000.

Another small plug-in auto, known as the ZENN (for "Zero Emissions, No Noise"), is built by Toronto-based ZENN Motor and offers similarly modest speed and range for $16,000.

But ZENN Chief Executive Ian Clifford admits that current electric cars are still a "niche product," and that his company has sold just 350 of the current model. The main snag: because of their low speeds, today's electric cars are generally illegal on any street with posted speeds above 35 mph, making them only marginally more useful than a Segway in treacherous suburbia.

Better offerings are on the way. Miles is working on a high-speed sedan priced between $35,000 and $39,000 that can travel 80-plus mph and go 250 miles on a single charge, making it a real contender for the gas-powered standby.

ZENN is building a highway-ready plug-in with equal power and endurance that it hopes to sell by late 2009. Clifford says it will be priced competitively with gas-powered cars, and will be able to fully charge its battery in just five minutes.

"At that point, there's no reason why anyone would drive a vehicle that burns gas," says Clifford. "Once you've got the energy storage that enables a highway-capable vehicle, can recharge in minutes--not hours--and is cost-competitive with internal combustion, you've cracked the code."

For commuters who can't wait till 2009 to zip past gas stations, the most practical solution may be one that's been zooming around Europe and Asia for years: an electric bicycle. One model is emerging in the U.S. this August from San Francisco-based Ultra Motor.

Known as the A2B, it can hit 20 mph unassisted and travels up to 43 miles on a charge. Its design is far thinner than a Segway's for negotiating traffic, and it costs about half as much: around $2,500.

Unlike electric cars, the A2B can travel legally on any road where bicycles are permitted. "It's basically a bike on steroids--in a good way," says chief executive Chris Deyo.

Of course, riding an electric bike, like riding today's electric cars, is an adventure not suited to the Lexus set. Like the Segway, electric bicycles still leave riders vulnerable to the gas-powered masses of steel and glass that fly by on high-speed roads, and require wearing a helmet--a deal breaker for many style-conscious commuters.

So how to find instant gasoline-free gratification? The simplest way may be for suburbanites to leave the world of highways and strip malls--a culture that was practically designed by and for the automobile industry--and move to the city.

That, it turns out, is where green-tech wonders like the Segway work best--and where the subway works even better.

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