Now a ZENN in Ashland

We are in the midst of a transportation revolution that holds promise of reducing our carbon footprint and dependence on foreign oil while changing the way we shop and commute.

Thus it was with great anticipation that I met with Ashland resident Thomas Heumann, who is the proud new owner of an all-electric, two-door hatchback that more resembles a compact car than a golf cart on steroids.

Heumann's new ride is called a ZENN (Zero Emissions, No Noise) Low Speed Vehicle. Technically, it is a Neighborhood Electric Vehicle (according to United States Department of Transportation) with a 25- to 40-mile range per charge, depending on the load, slope, temperature, battery charge and factors as yet unknown.

"I used to own a 2001 Prius, then switched to a 2004 model," Heumann said. "They both were great cars, but my needs are more modest, as most of my vehicular trips can easily be accomplished with the ZENN, which I charge overnight in my garage using a standard household 110-volt current. I get 35-plus miles per charge and accelerate rapidly to the 35-miles-per-hour top speed, which allows me to zip around town at the speed of traffic at a cost of about 1 cent per mile."

I climbed in and the first thing I noticed was the abundant head and leg room. It comes standard with a heater, electric windows, front and rear window wipers, remote door lock and a rear hatchback to store many bags of groceries.

A base model of the 2009 ZENN costs about $16,000, according to the Toronto-based company's Web site. It can be ordered with floor mats ($95), a radio ($245), a battery insulator system ($300) air conditioning ($2,200) and a sunroof ($1,195).

Electric vehicles are quickly evolving. The ZENN currently uses lead-acid deep cycle batteries and its software keeps the top speed at 35. Upcoming lithium-air and lithium-sulfur or super capacitors hold great promise in the boosting of the charge by up to 500 percent, but that is not the niche that ZENN fills.

Every electric vehicle possesses a formidable characteristic over traditional internal combustion engines: Instant 100 percent torque, which translates to speed off the line and constant acceleration to top speed, all without shifting gears. The braking system feeds energy into the batteries when slowing down or stopping, helping to extend the range.

Heumann is enthused with the existing capabilities of the ZENN, as it handles most of his needs around town. For longer trips he uses his gasoline-powered car, but that is increasingly rare. He plans his errands to fit within the range envelop.

"This is a time of change and I considered the ZENN ideal for Ashland's size and hilly terrain," Heumann said.

Early adopters such as Heumann are blazing new trails through the jungle of Big Oil and traditional automobile manufacturing. There seems no shortage of future choices with a number of innovative electric vehicles coming to market. Like the computer, new models with more features come out seemingly several times a year.

Yet, instead of waiting or the next big idea, consider jumping on board with something that works and is available now. Just as with a car or computer, you will want to upgrade some years in the future. In the interim, you will have helped us all by example and deed.

It is time to put a little Zen into your ZENN.

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