The Beginning

I remember exactly how it began.  It began a few minutes after midnight, January 1, 1999.

There I am, sitting on the couch, watching David Letterman usher in the new year.  10, 9, 8, etc., and the new year is rung in.  1999.  When suddenly I am seized with a terrible sense that Something is Wrong.  What’s missing?  Why, the lunar base, for one!  And my robot butler!  And a manned mission to Mars!  How about a hovercraft in my garage?  Well?  What about all those science fiction stories and books written in the 50’s and set in 1999?

At least, I said to myself, I am going to have to get an electric vehicle in my garage.

My Alternative Past

It was also true that we could use a second vehicle.  I’ve been married almost ten years and never during that time have we had more than one car.  I always used the bus, or my bicycle, or a combination.  When all those failed, I mooched rides.

I have always been an advocate of alternative transportation, and there are many things to recommend the bus, or a bicycle.  But there are enough bad things to sour me on both after ten years.  The bus is too unreliable in Tucson.  Buses come 20-30 minutes apart.  Miss one, or your transfer, and your day is ruined.  It can take an hour, door to door, to travel six miles.  A bicycle is OK in the morning, but in the afternoon, when the pavement is warm and the pollutants rise instead of sinking, you get lungfuls of everyone else’s pollution.  Plus, you’re exercising and your “air demand” is greater, so you suck in more, etc.  Great health benefit.  Cough.  Choke.

It was time for a change, but without giving up my “clean air” badge.  A change to something clean and… futuristic.

The Quest

I didn’t start out looking for an electric motorcycle; I didn’t know they existed.  I started by test driving General Motors’ EV1.  Great car!  But SO EXPENSIVE.  In California, evidently, there are many legal incentives that help reduce the final cost, but not here.  Not enough.  $550/month,for a 2-seater.  Ouch.  My Honda Accord, a 4-seater, is $275/month.

Honda itself has an EV, the EV Plus, with 4 seats and a neat incentive package—but you can’t even lease the car outside of California.  What’s up with that?

I started doing research on the Web.  Found the Sparrow, made by Corbin-Pacific.  A 3-wheeled enclosed vehicle, only $13,000.  But that was also too expensive for a second vehicle.  I realize that it’s comparable to a new Honda GoldWing or the like, but it wasn’t for me, not at this stage in my life.

There were some other strange EVs, like bicycles with electric assist motors.  Hm.  Not for me, either.  No good reason; it just felt too nerdy somehow.  I realize that’s prejudiced but I’d spent my ten years in the bike lane, thanks.  I wanted to ride with the big boys in the regular lanes.

Found EV World, with a large listing of electric vehicles.  Many from Europe.  Most too expensive by far.  But way down at the bottom, in their “Test Drives” section, I see the “Lectra”.  An electric motorcycle.  I followed the link to EMB’s webpage. (EMB has since been bought out by ZAP Electric Bikes, and they have since discontinued the Lectra. Turkeys. Here, however, is the website from which I bought my Lectra. It is sort of a “memorial website” maintained by Scott Cronk, the inventor.)

Now this was really interesting, really doable.  Only $4000.  Competitive.  This, yes, this, could be the one.  The review praised the Lectra for having plenty of power; it wasn’t a wimpy scooter at all.  More and more interesting.

Doing My Homework

I clicked on the link for asking questions over email and began to pester EMB with my many questions about the Lectra, relating especially to top speed and temperature requirements (Tucson gets hot).  Imagine my pleasant surprise when the president and founder himself, Scott Cronk, wrote back very promptly with the answers.

The biggest problem was top speed.  The Lectra is designed to cruise at 30 and has a top speed of 45.  Now, Tucson doesn’t have any freeways, so although few in-city streets have speed limits posted over 45 (and almost all of them are posted at 40), people will drive 60+ on some of them if the traffic density and conditions allow.  I’d had a motorcycle in the past, a Honda 450, and I knew that being tailgated in a motorcycle is a very uncomfortable and unsafe feeling.

Tucson also sprawls out; it isn’t built upwards like New York or Chicago.  So range can be an issue.  The Lectra’s range is 30 miles, tops, and can be reduced quickly by weight or even more quickly by driving at its top speed.  So the second question was, can I live with a very short range, perhaps only 15-20 miles?

I should point out here that EMB’s website has a nice Range Calculator as part of it, which helped me do my homework.

So I began to do homework on my normal trip profile.  Before going somewhere in my Accord, I would reset the trip odometer and then keep an eye on the speedometer.  Was I being forced to go above 45?  And how far was my trip, really?

To my surprise, most of the time traffic really did stay around 40 mph—I just had to avoid the outlying streets on the edge of town.  Besides, as a bicyclist, I already knew many “side street alternatives” to the main drags.

Also, my normal trip radius from home was almost always 10 miles or less—not the 25 miles I had been assuming.  10 miles was quite a long way for me, even in Tucson.

Charging time was no real issue for me.  I’d already been putting myself in the EV mindset a year ago, when I’d first read about the EV1.  You need to change the way you use the vehicle— don’t just run it down and then “gas it up” suddenly; rather, you plug it in whenever you’re not using it.  No problem.  I approached the facilities manager at my workplace and asked about plugging in my EV while I was at work.  He really liked the idea and told me it would be no problem.

Another great thing that EMB did was to make their operator’s manual available for downloading in PDF format.  This let me get a feel for what owning a Lectra might actually be like.  In it, there were some hints that extended operation at the top speed could overheat the motor and force a slowdown or stop.  This wouldn’t be good for me during a commute.  I asked Mr. Cronk about it and he suggested that a smaller rear sprocket could be used, that would give me good power in the 40 mph range and a top speed of 50.  That was the last objection.  I ordered my Lectra.

Read on, about the first two months of ownership.