Two Decades Old—And Still Growing
National Drive Electric Week (NDEW) is a nine-day celebration of the electric car. Now in its second decade, it grows annually, spanning two weekends and the days between in the middle of September. It offers EV enthusiasts a chance to meet and compare notes as well non-EV drivers a chance to look at, and sometimes even drive, the current crop of plug-ins outside of a dealership environment.
I attended the Cupertino, California, event on Saturday, September 14–the first day of NDEW 2019. I brought my Chevrolet Bolt EV, which I’ve enjoyed–and showed–since I got it in January of 2017. With its three-year lease running out on 1/8/2020, it’s likely the last chance I’ll have to share it before switching to another EV next year.
The Cupertino event has a long history, and this is where you can see some of what EVs used to be—labor-of-love science projects. I’ll talk about a few shortly.
EVs You Can Buy or Lease Now
Many of today’s pure EV options were there. I saw three Chevrolet Bolt EVs, including my own. A compelling new entry, the Hyundai Kona Electric, was there, sporting a white top over its jaunty blue-green.
The Kona, with a 258-mile range, is the next-best thing to a Tesla for range, and probably today’s best deal for range. This base model, at about $36,000, sat mere steps away from a 2019 Jaguar I-Pace, which starts at twice that price. The Jaguar, which offers great style and luxury, 220 miles of range from its big battery and all-wheel drive, has its own, different buyer.
Nissan brought a new Leaf and let people drive it. From its booth, they awarded prizes throughout the six-hour event.
I saw a BMW i3 down at the far end, and a couple of Tesla Model 3s. Also nearby was a plug-in hybrid Ford Fusion, flanked by two Ford Focus electrics. These EVs, with just 76 miles of range, would make cheap used cars if you wanted a stealth EV.
At the other end was a Chrysler Pacifica plug-in hybrid. It’s a significant vehicle because it’s the only PHEV minivan available in the U.S. Its 33 miles of electric range is plenty for local soccer practice shuttles and commuting.
I saw some electric motorcycles and bicycles there, too. They are a fine option for some people under certain circumstances (good weather, short trip, no baggage, etc.). One motorcycle zoomed past a few times with its electric whine. I’ve considered getting my motorcycle driver license just so I can test these in the future. One interesting variation was Roberta Lynn Power’s folding Blix electric bike from Sweden.
EVs have been available in major manufacturers’ showrooms since 2010, when the 2011 Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt came out. But before that, besides the conversion projects, there were few around. One model that had two representatives there at the show was the Toyota RAV4. Built for a few years around the turn of the century (1997-2003) as part of the first generation of EVs built for the California zero emission vehicle mandate. Toyota again had a plug-in RAV4 during 2012-15 using a Tesla-developed drivetrain. Too bad they didn’t keep building them, because the RAV4 is a very popular body style now. You can get a new one as a hybrid today (but without a plug).
A pair of cute little Corbin Sparrows sat together. Not much more than shrouded motorcycles, these little pods would make perfect little errand-runners or last-mile transit connection vehicles.
The tiny German 1993 City-EL weighs a mere 575 pounds and can shuttle one person for about 40 miles at up to 45 miles per hour. The one in Cupertino was nicknamed “Lemon Wedge.”
Pioneers, Projects and Conversions
As long as there have been cars there have been tinkerers–people who enjoy a tough project. While some folks like to make a classic Mustang faster and louder, others enjoy electrifying an old gasoline car.
I spent some quality time with George Stuckert, a retired engineer who also serves as secretary of the San Jose chapter of the Electric Auto Association. This group, a major sponsor of NDEW, was founded way back in 1967. They used to host a Cupertino event that was all project cars. George is glad that you can buy a new EV at a dealership today, but his pride and joy at this event was his 1996 Volkswagen Golf, which he converted 10 years ago. It looks like an old Golf but has a clever pinstriped design with a plug along the side (that I somehow managed to forget to photograph). It’s filled with electronic tech.
George proudly displayed a large card with photos of the project and showed me his notebooks of carefully documented steps along with the book that got him started.
It was not a smooth process, and included a few spectacular explosions, but he showed grit and determination; that’s what I admire about people willing to get their hands dirty and triumph over failure to ultimate success. The fact that you can buy a used 2015 VW e-Golf that is superior in every way to George’s car is completely missing the point.
In the front corner of the exhibit were two fascinating displays that, along with George’s electric Golf, gave a look at what a Cupertino Electric Auto Association event was like before the NDEW and mass market EVs. Bob Schneeveis, a local legend, showed off his two-wheeled inventions, including a prototype steam-powered bike.
Yes–you read that right. Although it’s not quite in the “drive it around the lot” stage, it is a beautiful piece. His electric motorcycle featured a fascinating front fork that made the ride soft and smooth. As a novelty, he had a “chariot” with a horse up front with “legs” made from brushes that capably gave rides to lucky attendees.
I enjoyed an extended conversation with Jerrold Kormin, who brought two displays: his converted Honda Insight and his prototype solar panel trailer. The former, besides swapping its engine for an electric motor and adding batteries, had a new fiberglass nose and radically changed tail (and just one rear wheel). These design changes, per Kormin, gave the car a 15 percent improvement in its coefficient of drag.
The car was being charged by Kormin’s fascinating portable solar generator. The inventor’s goal is to replace dirty, noisy diesel generators. He is renting his prototypes out now. One appeal of replacing diesel, Kormin told me, was that companies can avoid the major inconvenience of refueling diesel generators, which adds complexity and expense. He claims customers can save $500 a month in fuel costs with a solar generator working just a 40-hour week. The trailer folds up for easy towing and takes about 5-6 minutes to open up. Learn more at his website.
I met Joseph, an entrepreneur who was showing his Cirkit electric bike prototype. Looking clean and simple, it reminded me a bit of early minibikes that you would assemble from a kit and the engine from your lawnmower!
EVs need to be charged, which is why you’ll always find a friendly ChargePoint booth at EV shows. ChargePoint is a leader in chargers (I have one in my garage).
A fun event, as always. I got a chance to network with EV lovers of many stripes, as well as present my Bolt EV to several non-EV drivers, who, I hope, will go home and then decide to join our ranks. They can bring their cars to the 2020 events! For those interested, NDEW has an interactive map to show you where upcoming events are located.