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Charging Ahead

With a GEM of an idea, the boys from Fargo, North Dakota, may have found the perfect niche for the electric car.

Bay Harbor, Mich., stretches out along five miles of exquisite (and expensive) Lake Michigan coastline. This gated community, situated about 50 miles north of Traverse City is home-away-fromhome for many wealthy auto executives and entrepreneurs who dock their boats at the Bay Harbor Yacht Club and park their golf carts at the 27-hole Bay Harbor Golf Club.

GEMs come in five body styles, including the two-seater above. Body panels are ABS and molded in five colors.
And while the driveways of these milliondollar homes are full of Mercedes and Cadillac SUVs, the standard mode of transportation around Bay Harbor is the GEM neighborhood electric vehicle (NEV).

Bay Harbor, as well as other gated communities like Otay Ranch near San Diego, Calif., have proven to be the perfect place for the electric vehicle.

On this beautiful sunny summer Saturday, two small tents buzz with activity. Today is GEM day. Once a year GEM sets up shop in Bay Harbor and invites all of the owners to bring their vehicles in for a free 21-point inspection. The line forms up the path and around the top of the hill in front of tables selling chrome wheels, doors and other accessories, as well as brand new GEMs.

Larry Oswald was named CEO of Global Electric Motorcars after DaimlerChrysler bought the company in December of 2000. The director of DaimlerChrysler’s hybrid electric vehicle program sits on the board at Bay Harbor and was instrumental in introducing the residents to the little electric car. Oswald says that about half the people that live at Bay Harbor own GEMs.

“GEM was hoping for 15 percent,” he adds. One resident named Gerry has owned his GEM for about a year now. He drives down to the village every morning to get his coffee. Impressed with his personal GEM, Gerry has added a flatbed-equipped GEM to the lawn maintenance fleet that tends to the grounds around his large insurance company.

“The guys fight over it,” he grins.

He says that he plans to eventually replace other gas-powered vehicles with GEMs.

A stylish Atlanta couple, who ask to remain nameless, were drawn to their GEM “because of convenience and peer pressure.”

“If you want to go from the house to the village or yacht club,” she says, “you have to drive out on the main road and back into the community. With the GEM, we don’t have to leave.”

She’s very impressed with what GEM is doing and knows now why long-term residents look forward to these once-a-year GEM appreciation days.

“Car dealers should learn from these guys,” she says.

Global Electric Motorcars built its first GEM, a 48-volt two-seater with a top speed of 20 mph, in April of 1998. The Fargo, N.D.- based company built 480 vehicles that year. Currently, about 18,000 people own and operate GEM cars in the U.S.

GEMs move down the assembly line on a conveyor system (above). The Fargo, N.D., plant can build 150 vehicles a day on two shifts.
The GEM Neighborhood Electric Vehicle qualifies under the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration as a low-speed vehicle/ neighborhood electric vehicle (NEV). Lowspeed vehicles can be driven on public roads with a posted speed limit of 35 mph or less. NHTSA requires that the vehicle is equipped with a safety glass windshield, turn signals, mirrors, wipers, headlights and taillights, brake lights and seatbelts. Currently, 37 states have passed legislation accepting NHTSA’s lowspeed vehicle ruling.

The GEM is easy to drive. Just put the key in, turn it on, put it in gear and you’re off. The seats are plenty comfortable and there’s more than enough head, shoulder and legroom for all four passengers inside the helicopter- cockpit designed cabin.

GEMs are powered by a 72-volt GE motor fed by six 12-volt industrial batteries, two in the front and four under the rear seat. The batteries are charged by an onboard charger with an outlet in the nose of the vehicle that plugs into a standard 110-volt outlet. It takes about eight hours to fully charge the vehicle, but it can be topped off anywhere you have electrical power.

We clip along at a steady 24 mph, waving at the GEM drivers that we pass going the other way. As Oswald says, “It’s hard not to be friendly in an open air car.”

The vehicle feels pretty solid and handles much better than it looks like it should. Chrysler engineers worked with GEM on designing and tuning the coil-over shock suspension.

A coil-over suspension attaches to the aluminum space-frame (top). Chrysler engineers have played a major role in suspension tuning and bringing more car-like parts onboard.
“Chrysler has been a monumental help with the program,” says Richard J. Kaspar, president and COO of GEM. “They have helped us with crash and corrosion testing and have put a lot of car elements into the vehicle.” DCX engineers found an off-the-shelf clip to replace the thumb screws that held the hood down. The thumb screws that held the back seat in place are also gone. Accessing the four rear-mounted batteries is now as easy as pulling a nylon loop and unsnapping the seat cushion.

DCX engineers were instrumental in redesigning the seats, going to a more carlike foam-over-steel frame construction replacing the old foam-over-plywood and bringing carry-over car items like turn signal indicators, wipers and motors and accelerator pedals.

Kaspar looks forward to these GEM Appreciation days for the one-on-one feedback he gets from the owners.

“Typically I like to go around and shake hands with the owners to find out what’s working and what isn’t,” Kaspar says. “We work to improve the quality every year, but the complaints and the issues tend to be minimal.”

Kaspar adds that many of Bay Harbor’s automotive industry-trained residents supply knowledgeable input on vehicle improvements and aesthetics, like the placement of pedals and switches.

GEM vehicles are available at selected Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep dealers. There are four models available, a two-passenger, starting at $6,995, a two-passenger Shortback NEV for $7,595, a two-passenger Longback NEV for $8,695 and a four-passenger for $8,995. GEMs are now available in six colors, metallic silver, metallic blue, metallic green, red, white and yellow.

The accessories catalog list 14 options like hard and soft doors, chrome bumpers heater/defroster, windshield washer kit and stake-bed rails for the utility vehicles. There are also option Decca Gel batteries.

While Kaspar admits that they don’t improve the 30 to 35 mile range, they are maintenance- free. Most of the Bay Harbor owners opted for the Swivelpak detachable and lockable storage container. The 33 x 16 inch space is a perfect spot to add a personal touch. While most owners adorn their GEMs with the name of their boat, we did see a few college logos and one set of Audi rings. Golf enthusiasts can order a dual golf bag rack. And, of course, there’s also a long list of GEM clothing and apparel.

One of the things that the factory doesn’t condone is ‘souping up’ the vehicles. “We have to be good corporate citizens and make sure that we are complying with the NHTSA 500 standards with maximum speeds and the safety features on the vehicle,” says Kaspar. “We are careful with outfitters to make sure that they are also complying.” “A lot of the options you see on the base models,” he continues, “were factory driven and designed.”

Building a GEM of a car

GEM cars are manufactured at a 100,000 sq.-ft. facility outside of Fargo, N.D. A 19-carrier conveyor system, all ergonomically balanced, moves the vehicles down the assembly line. Kaspar says that they’ve also put in the necessary manipulators to be able to bring frames to the line.

The GEM is a unibody construction, made up of an aluminum space frame and powdercoated side rails. Construction of the frames is outsourced as well as the powder coating on the side rails.

“We are for the most part an assembly plant,” Kaspar points out. “We don’t manufacture, we don’t do any paint.”

GEM had looked at bonding the frames, but decided that the extra time required for bonding wasn’t warranted.

“We get quality from the vendor and there are never any (quality) issues.” says Kaspar. “But (the frame) still requires a lot of welding and a significant number of fasteners. That’s one of the areas were looking at.”

Some subassembly is done at the factory.

Front and rear suspensions are sub-assembled and one station assembles the side rails, windshield and roof panel. The older process required eight hours for the adhesive to cure. The assemblies now cure in about 20 minutes and can be clamped and sent right down the line.

“For us it’s a learning experience,” says Kaspar, “getting the right epoxies and correct materials and the right people and that process down.”

The future looks bright

The GEM is more than just a pleasure cruiser. Utility models have found their way onto the factory floor (above) and as landscaping vehicles, to name a few.
While gated communities, like Bay Harbor, have embraced the little NEVs, GEM has plenty of other things in the works.

GEM has entered into a relationship with Playa Vista Development in Anaheim, Calif. One of the developments goals is to reduce the dependence on automobile use inside the community. Residents will park their vehicles in below-grade parking facilities and use NEVs to move around the community.

GEM is also participating in a year-long study with the Anaheim Transportation Network (ATN). The South Coast Air Quality Management District’s rule 220 requires employers of more than 250 people to find ways of reducing vehicle trips by their on-site workers. ATN is challenged with finding alternative means of transportation such as car and van pools, and subsidized bus passes.

“Workers who commute to Anaheim in carpool, on the bus, or on Metrolik,” says Ken Montler, president of GEM, “have been largely stuck without wheels once they’re at work.” Employers can now make GEMs available to those workers for use during the day.

“This is their ticket to worksite mobility,” Montler adds.

GEMs have also found their stripes in the military. Luke Air Force Base, near Phoenix, Ariz., has added 100 GEM vehicles to its alternative fuel vehicle motor pool as part of a measure introduced by the Arizona legislature in 1998 to reduce the amount of pollution created by gasoline-powered vehicles.

The GEMs, used by the 56th Fighter Wing and 944th Fighter, are outfitted as fire vehicles, maintenance vehicles and HAZMAT vehicles. One GEM tows a 5-ton load of generators along the fighter flight line. Another, fitted as an auxiliary fire department utility vehicle pulls a load of fire extinguishers to locations unsafe for gasoline-powered vehicles to maneuver. Another has been redesigned to accommodate six passengers for carrying flight crews to the flight line.

With Think tanking at Ford and GM pulling the plug on their EV1 program, GEM may be the only hope for a mass-produced electric car program in America. But Kaspar does admit that he’s already talked to a couple of different companies about the possibility of putting a fuel cell in the GEM. Technology still may someday make the electric vehicle a thing of the past.

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Fri. June 14th, 2024

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