What I'm Driving At: Green Day ... Someday

Scratch the surface of every adult auto enthusiast, and you'll reveal the primal adolescent whose subconscious rhythms are ordered by the rumble and roar of internal combustion. Even a purely utilitarian work truck like Chevy's S-10 can be expected to roar to life when you start it, to rumble up through the gears when you accelerate, and to burble blandly when you pause to idle. So what kind of parallel universe is it where a tap on the pedal that looks like an accelerator elicits only...silence? Then, recovering from the sudden sensory deprivation to the ears, the eyes have it: The speedometer reads 40 mph, and the scenery is rushing by. But still, the ears are bereft. Something is very, very different in this place. Different, but not disconcerting. Indeed, Chevrolet's S-10 Electric is so novel and appealing to drive that I exited the truck convinced I'd just traveled into the future. Certainly, I liked what I saw there; but back in the present, I heard why the future may yet remain just out of reach. At Chevy's recent national media introduction of '98 models at Opryland Hotel, Bob Hayes wore a good-natured smirk every time another journalist got out of his electric-powered pickup with the same exclamation: "Wow!" Bob is Chevy's manager for commercial specialty vehicles, of which this new S-10 Electric is the reigning poster child. "Just turn it on," he'd say when the next scribe asked his version of "how do it go?" Flipping the traditional key switch seemed to do nothing at all. Shifting the traditional column shifter merely illuminated a red diode under the "Drive" indicator. "Now just...drive," Bob would tactfully urge, and another nonplussed know-it-all would whir away down the road. Awaiting the next ride was a good time to query Bob for stats. Unlike GM's ballyhooed EV1 electric car, which you can only lease from a few Saturn dealerships in California and Arizona, the S-10 Electric will be available to buy nationwide in '98. The price? "$34,000," he said. "Fleets will be our main prospects, of course"--because fleets have the most to save in fuel costs. But justifying an electric truck that costs more than twice the price of its fossil-fueled counterpart suggests some mighty creative financial finagling. Then there's the vehicle's range: Officially, it's just 45 miles for highway driving and 40 miles in the city; a computer limits top speed to 70 mph to make these numbers possible. If the driver tools along at a constant, unwavering 45 mph, he can go as far as 60 miles in one stretch. These short distances--punctuated by three-and-a-half-hour rest stops for a full recharge--considerably narrow the prospect pool even further; so does the skimpy payload rating of just 850 lbs. By comparison, a gas-powered S-10 hauls 1,200 lbs. Judging by the spring in his step, it's fair to assume that Bob's job in '98 won't be judged entirely by huge sales numbers. You get the distinct feeling that it's just as important for Bob to get the word out--to give commercial customers and us regular consumers a predictive jolt of our electric future. Certainly, a chance to drive the electric truck is convincing. Its motor is instant-on, instant-off, pure and total torque from the moment you merely "crack" the throttle. As a result, there's no transmission in the traditional sense, so there are no shifting gears. Thrust is all, and all is smoothness. And you can banish the irreverent golf cart comparison right away. The 114-horsepower truck snaps to 50 mph in 9.75 seconds--not a record, but quick enough to get your attention. Absolutely enough, moreover, to conquer this year's Pike's Peak mountain climb, and to make Chevy's new S-10 the fastest electric vehicle ever to try. "Remember," Bob points out, "this is a 4,200-pound truck, and the batteries alone account for 1,400 pounds of that." A traditional S-10 with regular cab weighs only 3,003 lbs., and it's also rear-wheel-drive. The S-10 Electric is front-wheel-drive, because that's the most efficient way to harness the power of the AC motor. "It's also an advantage to have much of the vehicle's extra weight over the front wheels for the sake of extra traction," Bob says. Popping the hood reveals the most unusual visible aspect of Chevy's electric truck. A large, gray, ribbed panel dominates the "engine room"; and, then, voilˆ: There's a traditional 12-volt car battery like any other. "The engine's 26 batteries," Bob explains, "are all under the cab. This battery under the hood here is strictly for accessories like the radio, air-conditioner, and power windows--and for powering up the computer. There's more computational ability under this hood than in a space shuttle." As if to forestall any challenge on this point, he slams the hood with an air of preemptive finality. A key function of the computer is to manage a sophisticated heat exchanger that keeps the giant battery bank at a precious, constant temperature, be it summer or winter. Although of traditional lead-acid variety, these batteries incorporate special valving and fiberglass mat construction. The mat serves to "suspend" the liquid electrolyte into a sponge-like medium meant to contain acid spills in the event of an accident. Regenerative braking is another tech marvel: Whenever the vehicle begins to coast, the engine becomes a generator and diverts energy to charge the batteries. Subtle aerodynamics, including an awkward panel that partially covers the truck bed, provide an additional degree of power conservation. When it's time to charge full up, the S-10 Electric employs a proprietary Magne Charge inductive system, most noticeable by its distinctive "paddle" coupler. Inductive charging eliminates most obvious electric hazards; as a result, the paddle can be inserted into the S-10's front receiver in weather fair or foul without any shocking consequences. Chevy publishes an estimated charging cost of 4.7 cents per mile (at 10 cents/kWh). That's less than three dollars every 60 miles, or about $12 for the typical 250-mile range of a family sedan. Not bad, if you ignore the trio of three-and-a-half-hour charging stops in between. But, of course, you can't ignore this time-is-money surcharge any more than the truck's lofty sticker price. Then again, you can't ignore the future either, which Chevy's little dyno-truck suggests will be quite entertaining and uncanny once it becomes more affordable. It will also be very quiet--a fact we will no doubt attribute to the sound of one hand clapping.

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