Speech to the 1994 NorthCon I.E.E.E. Convention Seattle Washington by: Mark Edward Murphy


Electric vehicles are said to be one gas crisis from the showrooms, but for them to be successful products they will have to achieve two things:

They must function as instruments of social change

The vehicles we are to drive tommorrow must be designed in context with the profound changes in society we are seeing today. They must be part of a paradigm shift as social products, designed to be an integral part of our daily lives, and at the same time be compatible with our needs, both personally as a part of our society and of course be a positive contribution to our environment. The second thing EV's must achieve is more basic:

They must have a competitive advantage

The opportunities for Electric vehicles do not lie in head-to-head competition with the conventional automobile. The cost to do so is staggering and frankly, no one is interested in fighting the battle. As a result, we continue to see a lot of stalling, excuse making, and the resulting government mandates required to force the issue. However, rules and research dollars alone will not put vehicles on the road. They have to have a competitive advantage in the marketplace, and the advantages are not in direct competition with the car, but instead at the ends of the transportation spectrum from where they can effectively diminish the reliance on the automobile by creating viable alternative options.


Just over 100 years ago, the first automobiles began to roam the earth. They were simple things: they were slow, they had limited range, and most of them were electric. Today, our expectations for automobiles have changed but our perceptions of electric cars have not: they are still slow and they still have limited range. We are throwing tremendous amounts of money and technology at these problems and we shall overcome them someday (given enough research grants.) But are we spending these millions to find a cure for which there is no disease? The automakers are not convinced there is a market for an electric car; GM is hedging its bet on the two-seat "Impact". In some respects we appear to be on a technological holy war in an effort to create the perfect electric car. We are pushing the envelope instead of solving the problem.

When all is said and done, we will still have internal combustion engines fueled by one kind of brew or another, as well as a menagerie of electrics, hybrids and fuel-celled vehicles. The electric car will be competing with a whole variety of alternatives, each with its own strengths and limitations. The last time we did this, 100 years ago, the electric car lost. If electric vehicles are going to be successful this time around, they have to offer people solutions that meet their needs personally, socially and environmentally. I.C. powered automobiles offer speed, range and performance to the last drop. They have an abundance of power, accessories and creature comforts. They have the advantage of tremendous production volume and 100 years of refinement in a competitive marketplace.

If electric cars are going to compete, they need to have a competitive advantage, and a big one. The environmental crisis and fuel shortages have done nothing more than IMPROVE the I.C. engine. New cars are far more efficient and cleaner than they were only ten years ago. The bottom line is, we don't need more automobiles, no matter what powers them!

Why do we need to back a 4,000 pound minivan out of the garage (find the garage door opener) just to drive six blocks to the DariMart for a gallon of milk, a loaf of bread and Kleenex? The traditional family car is totally inappropriate functionally, socially and environmentally as an all-purpose vehicle. And yet we have no real choice. We need a car and it has to do everything. Today the family car has become a ãSport Utility Vehicle, pickup truck or minivan. Truck models now outsell cars in this country. Because of their capacity, we use them for everything, from driving the family to the beach to getting a loaf of bread at the corner store. We are the victims of this mindset. We got hooked on speed: we have the freedom to go anywhere, and yet we end up all together again choked in traffic. We can't all go to the same place at once, especially when we drive alone in vehicles that enclose 450 cubic feet of space each and weigh two tons or more. It is absurd to drive large machines that kill thousands of people daily, use a nonrenewable resource and cost well over $20,000.00 to buy, despite the fact that we typically drive less than 20 miles a day.


We have far too little diversity in transportation. This is not good in nature or society. The problem is that the automobile car has become the only option. It is the dominant species. There are still more bicycles than cars in this country, but only a few of us will ride them to work. Some of us use public transit, but everyone else is in a car, and it dominates the architecture of our cities. Over a third of our urban landscape is devoted to the automobile; our society has evolved around it.

And at the same time, we increasingly seek "the good old days," a time when we could get around on uncrowded roads, when children could play beside quiet streets, when you knew your neighbor and felt a part of the community. People cry out for a sense of place, for neighborhoods they can identify with. We crave communities that are human-scaled, people-based rather than grids of parking lots and intersections. The real need in city planning is to get away from the shopping center and back to the corner market. We have allowed the car to replace community. The driveway and garage has replaced the front door.

What we need are some new options. While we might prefer the silence and clean air of an electric car traffic jam, being stuck in any kind of gridlock is still not a solution. Electric vehicles must break out of the conventional automotive model and succeed on a social level, and this is where EV's have a distinct competitive advantage; at BOTH ENDS of the transportation spectrum. Not as alternative Chevrolets, but as fast and efficient urban mass transit systems; trolleys and light rail, at one end, and as small, lightweight, personal vehicles at the other extreme. Convenient transit systems and small Neighborhood Electric Vehicles can get many people out of their cars and provide practical, compatible and clean options for the majority of our everyday transportation needs.


The Neighborhood Electric Vehicle is quite simply a new species of vehicle. It has the potential to develop into a global form of personal transportation much like the bicycle. It represents lightweight, all-weather personal mobility within the local community where low speed and limited range are not liabilities. The NEV positions itself somewhere between pedestrian and Plymouth; cheaper than a car and it beats walking. At this point in time the NEV concept is still in gestation. It is still being defined by transportation designers and planners studying this missing link in the transportation evolutionary chain. But the general idea is that of a "companion vehicle," an understandable, user-friendly, unintimidating pet machine.

There are several types of what might be called N.E.V.s.


These vehicles are known as City Cars or Station Cars. Many different types are running around Europe and Japan, where tiny cars have been putting around for years, but now new state-of-the-art examples are being developed as EVs from the ground up. In Europe, the major automakers from Mercedes to Volkswagen are developing NEVs. In fact Mercedes has a joint venture with Swatch to manufacture 200,000 vehicles a year in a new half billion dollar facility in France, and yes they plan to import them to the USA. Mercedes and Swatch: if they can get together, it must be serious... Many innovative new companies are attempting to enter the marketplace as well. These types of vehicles will be quick but not fast. That is, they will accelerate with a lot of torque, but have a relatively low top speed for safety. They will provide many of the basic creature comforts and security of a car, while replacing many of our needs for a car. MicroCars will inevitably be compared to the full size automobiles, and will have to demonstrate that their limitations will be offset by advantages. They will not be cheap, over $13,000.00 but they will probably have some tax incentives and of course eco status. They may well be the predominant form of electric vehicle in the next century. Most have a range of 40 miles or so, weigh between 1,200-2,000 lbs, and will probably be limited to speeds under 65 miles per hour and restricted on some freeways.


A second category of NEVs, Cyclecars, are lightweight, true neighborhood-only vehicles. They will also be popular forms of transportation for the young and old alike. These are simple single-passenger three wheeled vehicles: A lightweight shell for protection from the wind and rain and designed to carry only a few bags of groceries on short errands and commutes. The Cyclecar could be licensed as a motorscooter and travel at comparable speeds; 25 to 40 MPH, and capable of climbing hills and accelerating with traffic without the effort a bicycle requires. One can envision colorful fleets of these things gliding around town and along the streets of planned communities we will all come to know and love. Simple and inexpensive, they will be popular on school campuses and business parks. About the price of a motorcycle at $6,000.00 or so, they will weigh about 600 lbs., go about 25 miles on a charge and recharge like a cordless appliance using any ordinary 110 volt outlet.


The third category of NEV is the Electric Bicycle. These have been around before, but should grow in acceptance as more people find out about them. Some are motorpacks for bicycles for use as helper motors for hills and headwinds. There are also some new electric scooters coming out that will be popular with students and sightseers, but without the two-stroke noise and smoke typical of the last generation of Vespas and Suzukis. Motorpacks are about $600.00 and the scooters cost about $2,500.00.


Together these NEVs will change the way we think about our personal transportation needs and priorities. They are the machines of the ECO generation, the bottom rung of the motorized food chain but with tremendous potential appeal. Rather than owning two or three cars, a family might use their minivan just for outings and trips, and rely instead on two or three NEV's for individual daily transportation. The NEV is a part of a socio-economic shift from an industrial to a technological society. Just as older automobiles are replaced by cleaner state-of-the-art vehicles, we will see an increase in special purpose vehicles such as the NEVs that offer new options and appeal to specific demographic niches. They will benefit as well from technology transfer and trickle-down applications from research.

A hundred years ago the first generation of cars appeared. The popular electric cars of their day could go 50 miles on a charge. They were the first NEVs, but they never made it in the arms race of power, range and speed. Now, 100 years later, a second generation of Neighborhood Electric Vehicle is being born with similar performance and range that meet the new needs of a society redefining the meaning of community. Ego is being replaced by Eco. Like the bicycle, the NEV is an indicator species for livability. Perhaps this time the Neighborhood Electric Vehicle has arrived to bring us home again.

Mark Edward Murphy

Mark Murphy has a Bachelor of Science degree in Behavioral Science from Westminster College and is a graduate of the Art Center College of Design in Industrial Design.

He has worked on a wide variety of advanced concept vehicle projects for General Motors, Chrysler and BMW, among others.

He has been involved with several alternative vehicle design projects including two National Endowment for the Arts grants to design "Minimum Vehicles".

Mark is Chairman of the Board of Directors for
Electrathon America, the largest and fastest growing electric vehicle racing class in the United States, and is Director of Design for NEVCO of Eugene, Oregon. NEVCO is doing research and product development on a Neighborhood Electric Vehicle project called Gizmo.