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Emissions-free car on trial

Medford official road tests the EV1

MEDFORD -- Motorists may be forgiven if they find themselves doing a double-take when Kim Lundgren pulls up alongside them at a traffic light. After all, the silver-blue battery-powered car that the city's environmental agent drives is just a bit out of the ordinary.

"I get strange looks," Lundgren said of the reaction she draws as she tools around Medford in the city's sleek new EV1. "The comments I get most are that it looks like the space-age vehicle that everyone thought we'd have in the year 2000. It looks weird not to have an exhaust pipe coming out the back of the car."

Medford is the beneficiary of a General Motors trial program that is placing EV1s in various communities in the Northeast in order to evaluate how well the vehicle's advanced technology performs in cold weather. The EV1 (EV stands for "electric vehicle") is powered by a rechargeable battery pack and can travel just under 100 miles to a charge; the car incorporates seven computers that give the driver detailed information about how it is functioning.

Medford's EV1 was delivered on Sept. 16, and Lundgren will use it for travel related to her work in the city's Energy and Environment Office. GM also paid for a charger for the vehicle to be installed in the City Hall parking lot.

The EV1 will be a visible symbol of the city's commitment to working to advance climate protection, said Lundgren, noting that Medford has set a goal of reducing its greenhouse-gas emissions by 20 percent from 1998 levels by the year 2010.

"Now, when I go to meetings, I can do it in a zero-emissions vehicle," Lundgren said.

Ironically, as futuristic as the EV1s look, they are being made available to communities like Medford precisely because GM sees no future in them. The need to recharge the EV1 regularly proved daunting to consumers, according to David Barthmuss, a GM spokesman, and the automaker is no longer producing it.

"We've learned that there is not a mass market for a full-functioning vehicle of this kind," Barthmuss said. "The EV1 told us that vehicles that forced consumers to make too many lifestyle changes were not going to be the future."

Some of the advanced technologies featured in the EV1 are, however, critical in the hybrid gas-electric vehicles that GM envisions as a bridging technology to what it sees as its long-term goal: building hydrogen-oxygen fuel-cell vehicles.

Barthmuss said that GM is particularly interested in gathering data on how the EV1's electronic traction-control system and its electronic-assist system will work in cold climates.

Stephen Trottier, fleet coordinator for GM's Northeast EV1 program, said 10 of the vehicles, some 800 of which were previously leased to drivers in California and Michigan, will be made available to Massachusetts cities and towns. Barnstable and Lynn have received EV1s, Trottier said, and Brookline was scheduled to receive one last week. GM has yet to award the remaining six EV1s that are targeted for Massachusetts, Trottier said.

Medford will use the vehicle for most of each year until November of 2005, when GM will reclaim it. The EV1s will be stored each winter at a GM warehouse in Rochester, N.Y., Trottier said, and will be returned to their host communities "as soon as weather permits in the spring."

The EV1 cannot be driven in snow because of its low ground clearance, but the vehicle's performance can be evaluated as the winter advances and temperatures drop.

For now, Lundgren is happy to drive it. "It's a great car," she said. "I can't believe how much fun it is to drive. The mayor was very supportive of our getting it, so that our office can practice what it preaches."

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