One way to enter the electric car market, is through the high end, as Tesla or Venturi have done: offer high-performance vehicles with a high-end price tag -- electric vehicle as status symbol. Another way to enter is through the low end. Offer an inexpensive, low-speed vehicle that is good for lugging groceries. The ZENN (Zero Emissions No Noise) car is one such offering, and it is manufactured in St. Jerome, Quebec, by Feel Good Cars of Toronto.
There are not many Canadian designed and built cars, let alone Canadian designed electric cars.
The ZENN is considered to be a success story for ITAQ (the Québec Advanced Transportation Institute), who gave technological assistance in its development. ITAQ and Feel Good Cars won a prestigious international award for sustainable mobility in June (the Gold medal in the urban vehicle category at the Michelin Bibendum Challenge).
There was a fuss recently because the ZENN electric cars were not allowed to be sold in Canada, even though they were selling successfully in the United States and France. However Transport Canada relented recently and presumably it should at some point be possible to buy them in Canada, pending approval from the provinces. (B.C. has already approved the ZENN).
The ZENN is a low-range, low speed vehicle. It is speed-regulated to 40 km/h (25 mph) to comply with Low Speed Vehicle (LSV) standards. They will travel 56km (35 miles) on a single charge of their lead-acid batteries.
LSV's are popular in markets where most driving is in and around the neighbourhood, like communities of retirees in Florida, places where electric golf carts (also considered LSV's) are becoming an increasingly popular means of transportation.
There's an account on the Environment Canada website (Environmental Protection Branch, Quebec Region) about what it's like to drive a ZENN in Montréal, by Luc Couillard of the Agence Métropolitaine de Transport (AMT):
One day, the driver of a 4X4 jokingly challenged us to a race. My ZENN and I arrived at the light only four seconds behind the 4X4 and we took off again neck and neck! What's the point in having a super powerful car when the average speed downtown is only 13 km/h?
The future may be even more interesting.
A company named eeStor is working on an ultracapacitor technology. Ultracapacitor technologies, if they are proven reliable, are a game-changing technology. A Canadian company, epod, is also working on one. If successful, ultracapacitors would remove the primary obtacle to wide-spread adoption of electric cars: range.
ZENN has purchased a small percentage of eeStor. If eeStor's ultracapacitor technology is proven, ZENN's stake in eeStor would allow them to be the first car manufacturer to exploit this technology by producing an electric car with the range and quick refueling times provided by conventional automobiles. It is claimed that a car run on EEstor could be charged in 5 minutes, could run for 500 miles on $9 of electricity. There is skepticism about this claim, and it remains to be seen whether eeStor can deliver on this technology.
ZENN has negotiated the rights to its exclusive use in "new small and medium-sized low speed and highway capable vehicles (up to 1,400 kgs curb weight)," clearly having set its sights on producing larger cars with this technology in the future.
The same release also mentions a detail that has not been widely reported, namely, that ZENN has obtained worldwide exclusive rights with eeStor for converting "any used internal combustion passenger vehicle to electric drive."
People have been doing electric-car retrofits for years, but if there were a way to do a standardized retrofit which would give much the same range as existing automobiles, but with smaller operating cost, this might be more attractive to mainstream consumers than previous solutions in this arena.
Would you buy a ZENN as it stands, once it becomes available in Canada? What are the things you'd want to know about such a vehicle if you were considering one? If ultracapacitor-based retrofits became available, how much would you pay to retrofit your existing automobile?