John and Joe Conway still remember the first battery-powered car they ever took apart. It was the 1960s, and the two brothers were hanging around their father’s automotive repair business in Monticello, tinkering with an electric go-cart. “That go-cart was one of the first vehicles we took apart; I was 15, he was seven or eight,” says John. “We’ve been working with electric cars for more than 30 years, and now that they are in the forefront, we are in the logical position to sell them.”
The brothers co-own BUZZ Equipment Company, a Barryville firm that markets all manner of transportation equipment and supplies. A small but growing part of their business is now electric vehicles. The firm was recently designated as the exclusive authorized sales rep in New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts for Miles Electric Vehicles, a California company that makes both an electric car and truck. BUZZ also sells Tiger brand trucks and vans, which run on battery, diesel, and hybrid energy sources; and Sunmotor cars, which feature a solar panel on the roof. BUZZ also converts gas-powered light trucks and vans to electric power.
The Miles vehicles run on a 72-volt battery that can be charged using a standard 15-amp outlet. A full charge costs about one dollar, says Joe; the battery has a range of about 40 miles. They are classified as low-speed vehicles, topping out at 25 miles per hour, and are legal for use on streets with speed limits under 35 m.p.h. The suggested retail price for both the car and the truck is $19,900. (More if they are fully loaded, of course.)
So far, purchasers include SUNY New Paltz and SUNY Albany, which have each bought fleets of vehicles for on-campus work. Not only are they cheap to operate — about four cents a mile, Joe says, compared to 40 cents for a gas-powered vehicle — but maintenance is almost nonexistent. “There are no tune ups, no belts or hoses to replace,” Joe says. “And insurance is much less.”
Currently, the only highway-approved electric car on the market is the Tesla, which costs about $110,000. But as battery technology continues to improve, John says, prices will come down. He compares today’s electric-car industry to the state of the computer industry 20 years ago. “Every day something new comes along, and affordable highway-speed vehicles are right around the corner,” he says. “It’s going to happen sooner rather than later.” Perhaps as soon as next year: Miles Electric hopes to offer — and BUZZ hopes to sell — a high-speed car, topping out at 85 m.p.h., at a price that would be more acceptable to the general public.
Electric vehicles are not without their drawbacks. The short battery life makes long-distance trips difficult, and the relatively untested technology means they may not be as reliable as gas-powered autos. But for now, the slow movers are just fine for puttering around town. “I use one all the time, to go to the bank and run errands,” Joe says. “It drives great. The only difference is that it’s totally quiet.” Press him on the coolness factor of driving an electric auto, though, and he seems less impressed. “We are Americans, and our cars are an extension of our personality,” he says. “Sure, it’s novel, but it’s really just a car.”
But John — who has a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Georgia Tech — marvels at how far the technology has come. “These are very sophisticated machines,” he says. “There’s very little resemblance to the ones we took apart as kids.”