Electric cars in the Oil Capital

Houstonians still love their Hummers, Escalades and F-150s, but there’s a growing number of hybrids, microcars and now, 100-percent electric cars hitting the streets in the Bayou City.
There’s long been an active community of electric car hobbyists, mainly centered around the Houston Electric Auto Association. This is assortment of gear heads, environmentalists and — dare we say — geeks, with an interest in building and promoting emission-free cars.

Richard Ehrlich, general manager of Houston Electric Cars Corp., sells the Zenn NEV (Neighborhood Electric Vehicle) from the company’s warehouse downtown. Houston Electric Cars is the first dealership in town to just do electrics. ( Julio Cortez / Chronicle )

But as we write in Thursday’s Chronicle, there are now some options for those who lack an electrical engineering degree but want to be spared the weekly pummeling at the gas pump and reduce their impact on Houston’s air quality.
For starters, Houston Electric Cars Corp. has opened shop downtown in recent months, becoming the city’s first all-electric car dealer (unless there was one in the early 1900s — did you know Henry Ford’s wife drove an electric?). For about $17,000 you can drive off in a Zenn, a two-person neighborhood electric vehicle with air conditioning.
And then there’s Zap, the California company that sells a variety of electric vehicles and has a local representative at Apollo Scooters. Miles EV has a local rep that has worked with the University of Houston. And GEM, a unit of Chrysler, has at least two sellers of the vehicles in the area. A pair have been seen in downtown Houston working as taxis.
Most of these off-the-shelf options aren’t allowed on the highways. But Dale Brooks, president of HEAA says his Zenn does the trick.

electric_car_dale_brooks No gas, just class: Dale Brooks is a little addicted to electric cars. He’s had his Jet Electrica (in the back) for a decade, and just bought the Zenn (left) and Zap Xebra in the past few months. Steve Mathis is holding the power cord. (Karen Warren / Chronicle)

“It carries two fat guys in the front and six bags of groceries in the back. What more could you ask for?” Brooks said.
Electric cars also tend to be very low maintenance, Brooks said. Electric motor technology is very reliable, there’s a minimal number of moving parts and there’s no vibration from the engine to shakes things loose.
Even the batteries require little, if any maintenance. Brooks would change the batteries on his older car, a Jet Electrica, every few years but the newer cars will likely go longer.
But before the most recent blossoming of EV companies, what inspired people to tackle the difficult (and costly) task of building their own? Steve Kobb says it was Al Gore’s movie “An Inconvenient Truth” and the film “Who Killed the Electric Car?” that led to his conversion of a Chevy S-10. But he also cited this excerpt from a Wired magazine interview with domestic maven Martha Stewart for his DIY inspiration:

“That’s why I say, “You own it if you made it.” You don’t own the pie if you buy it. You just don’t. Doing projects really gives people self-confidence. Nothing is better than taking the pie out of the oven. What it does for you personally, and for your family’s idea of you, is something you can’t buy.”

electric_car_kobb Steve Kobb is converting a Chevy S10 pick-up truck to go all-electric and will use 26 lead acid 6 volt batteries. A member of the Houston Chapter of the Electric Auto Association (HEAA) he got the truck running this summer but it’s temporarily back in the shop. (Melissa Phillip / Chronicle)

There are some highway-ready cars being built, such as the eBox and the Tesla. A plug-in electric hybrid Toyota Prius is also expected in the future, which is supposed to feature a “battery-only” button (although we’ve heard you can break your warranty and wire a current Prius that way).
But until those higher-performance vehicles are more ubiquitous, owners of the NEV’s say they can be just the right thing for some families or individuals.
That includes Jason Cooke and his wife. They live in Austin but turned to Houston Electric Cars Corp. to replace their 2007 Zenn with a 2008 model with air conditioning (Can you believe Houston has an electric car dealer but Austin doesn’t?).
The Zenn works well as a second car for Cooke because he and his wife both work within 10 miles of their home. It only takes about five minutes longer to get to work than when he drove their Subaru Forrester all the time. They take the Zenn for grocery shopping, visits to the gym and to church.
“What really strikes me is you really put yourself in a different frame of mind. You’re not rushing around because you simply can’t,” said Cooke, a planner for Austin’s EMS service. “But if you’re not careful you can lay some rubber with the Zenn, which is pretty funny when you’re talking about a car running on six batteries.”
Brooks expressed something similar, a sort of calm that comes over you when you’re driving a silent vehicle with limited speed. As he took me for a spin around the neighborhood in the Zenn he mused about how he and his girlfriend just look for excuses to run errands in the car.
“This could bring back the art of driving around pointlessly,” Brooks said.

electric_car_ebox The eBox is essentially Scion xB 5-speed converted to electric power by San Dimas, Calif.-based AC Propulsion.

Some more electric vehicle resources:
Houston Electric Auto Association: Meets every third Thursday at The Citizens Environmental Center, 3015 Richmond Ave.
• Want to see who else has an electric vehicle in Texas (and elsewhere)? Visit here.
• Here’ the link for Plug In America, an electric car advocacy group.
• An attempt to answer the question “How Much Does it Cost to Drive an Electric Car?”
Plug-In Hybrid Development Consortium
Electric Cars are for Girls. Just ask the author of this site.
• Yahoo’s Neighborhood Electric Vehicle Users Group.
• A Facebook electric car group.
• A directory of Neighborhood Electric Vehicle dealers.
EV World Magazine.