The maker of the Zenn electric car still has to fill up his own vehicle at a gas station.
Ian Clifford, CEO of the Zenn Motor Company (TSX:ZNN), is trying to get his environmentally friendly car on urban streets for short trips because, despite approval from Transport Canada, the province still won’t let him.
“Your biggest carbon footprint as an individual is probably the car you drive,”Clifford told The Canadian Press in an interview at the Zenn car manufacturing facility.
This worries Clifford when he gets into his intentionally small “internal combustion car” to get his groceries and do his errands.
And it also isn’t a calming or Zen-like experience.
“Every time I go to the gas station, I want to choke,” he said, his voice full of frustration.
Clifford had just finished test driving a Zenn car on a suburban road in St-Jerome, north of Montreal. The drive included doing circles of doughnuts on a snow-covered parking lot.
The Zenn – short for zero-emissions and no noise – can travel at a speed 40 kilometres an hour for more than 60 minutes at a time, ideal for going to the store, and plugs into an regular electrical outlet to recharge.
The car recently received the National Safety Mark from Transport Canada, approving its use in Canada, but each province has to legislate its use as a low-speed vehicle.
It retails between US$12,000 and $15,000 and can be driven legally in 45 of 50 U.S. states, currently its primary destination.
But the Toronto-based company doesn’t have a Canadian retail price because Clifford is still waiting on the provinces.
British Columbia is supposed to come up with specific legislation that would allow the Zenn car to be driven in that province early in 2008, Clifford said.
Ontario has a pilot project that allows electric vehicles only in provincial parks. But Premier Dalton McGuinty’s government is specifically interested in the Zenn car and Quebec is looking at the experience of low-speed vehicles internationally, he added.
“It’s an absurdity, to be honest, that we cannot sell this in Canada. We are a Canadian company and this just adds insult to injury, if you will.”
Al Cormier, executive director of Electric Mobility Canada, said there needs to be more flexibility in regulations for electric cars, which can contribute to environmental well-being without forcing a change of lifestyle.
“It’s the end of cheap oil,” Cormier noted. “As the price of oil goes through the roof, this makes more and more sense.”
Industry analyst Dennis DesRosiers said although he’s not familiar with the Zenn car, it’s difficult to “jump all of the hurdles” to get an electric car on the road because each province and state has to approve it.
“It’s a real dog’s breath of a problem,” said DesRosiers.
Electric cars are a small “niche market” and the battery technology isn’t there yet for a mass-market electric vehicle, said DesRosiers, head of DesRosiers Automotive Consultants Inc.
But gas-electric hybrid technology cars by major automakers are having some success but that’s a niche, too, Clifford added.
“These kinds of things are a lot of fun but how do you manage to make money out of it?” DesRosiers said.
Clifford, 45, started out as a photographer and then had an Internet marketing company. So it has been a long way from pictures to cars.
For him, it was the frustration of being stuck and idling in his SUV in Toronto traffic that turned him to the idea of an electric car.
“When I couldn’t buy one, I said enough of this. I am going to start a car company.”
Clifford said more than 200 Zenn cars have been sold in the last eight months.
“We’re looking really good for next year.”
The aluminum and plastic bodies of the Zenn car are shipped from France and the St-Jerome production line staff install the electric drive system.
The Zenn has six 12-volt batteries and a 5.5 horsepower engine with plenty of “torque,” Clifford said. It takes an overnight recharging to keep it fully charged.
“You get about 55 or 60 kilometres of driving. So as a 40 km/h vehicle, you’re good for an hour or an hour-and-a-half of steady driving.”
“But nobody drives this kind of car like that. This is a stop-and-go urban core, neighbourhood type of vehicle.”
It also has enough storage space, as was demonstrated on television’s “The Rick Mercer Report” by filling the back of a Zenn with beer.
“We fit 20 cases of beer in the hatch. So it’s an ideal Canadian weekend grocery shopping car,” Clifford joked.
Zenn now has a line of cars with an alternating current drive which allows motorists to accelerate when going up hills, which suits markets such as San Francisco, or B.C.
The company is launching a model that has air conditioning with the latest coolants that Clifford said aren’t ozone-depleting and is also launching heating system to keep the battery pack warm in winter.
Shares in Zenn closed down 22 cents, 5.6 per cent, Friday on the Toronto Stock Exchange at $3.74. CanadaEast Interactive, Brunswick News, Inc.