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Maryland Science Center brings electric car rentals to Baltimore

June 24, 2009
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Mayor Sheila Dixon talks up the electric Maya 300 at the Maryland Science Center | Image by Chris Landers

A fleet of electric cars buzzed their way to the Maryland Science Center this week. Lime green, with zero-emission motors, the cars will be offered for rental and ride share in the coming months. For now, visitors can test them out at the Science Center. “It’s what science centers do best,” MSC President Van Reiner says. “Bringing emerging technology to the public and to demonstrate it in a way that is practical. We hear so much about electric vehicles and what might be possible, but today we are putting the technology on the road and letting people see that it is a real and viable alternative to gas powered vehicles.”

The Maya 300 is made by Electrovaya, a Canadian battery company, and is legally classified as a low-speed electric vehicle. Limited to 25 mph, the cars contain most of the safety features of a modern car, and travel 60 miles on an overnight charge. There is an option to double the range with an additional $10,000 battery pack. Beginning in the next few months, they will be rented at the rate of $14.50 an hour for a two-hour minimum.

The two factors that have held back previous electric cars (other than price, which, at $25,000 for the lower-range model, the Maya still hasn’t conquered) have been safety and range. Early electric cars, like Bob Beaumont’s Citicar, introduced in the mid-’70s and still the top-selling American electric car, claimed a 60-mile range but lacked the safety features. The Citicar was based on an electric golf cart, and looked the part—sort of a rolling aluminum cheese wedge. Consumer Reports at the time called it unsafe, and “foolhardy to drive.”

By contrast, the Maya 300 is based on a Chinese car—the Ben Ben, one of China’s top-selling models, made by Chang’an—with dual airbags and anti-lock brakes. The 25-mph limit is regulatory, and varies with state law. In Maryland, a low-speed vehicle requires tags and a licensed driver, but can’t go faster than 25 mph. Legislation to create a new “medium speed” category with a 35-mph limit was introduced in the Maryland House last year, but didn’t pass the Senate. That limit keeps the Maya 300 off the highway, but Electrovaya CEO Sankar Das Gupta contends that the cars are aimed at urban drivers. “We believe it’s the perfect car for running around cities,” he says.

In a brief test drive offered to the public, the four-door hatchback proved quiet, with limited acceleration. In place of a gear shift, a joystick shifts it from forward to neutral to reverse (which sounds a backup alarm). The lithium-ion battery resides under the passenger compartment and charges via extension cord, which plugs in where a gas cap would be. The process requires parking within
extension-cord-length of an electric outlet, and the battery takes between six to eight hours to reach full charge. There is no backup to the electric motor—running out of juice would require a portable generator for a jump start.

In addition to the rental and car-sharing program, Electrovaya is offering the Maya 300 as a fleet vehicle, and plans to sell it to American consumers in the future. Gupta says his company uses a
manufacturing process that produces no harmful emissions, and the car itself is a no-emission vehicle. A recent study by the Electric Power Research Institute found that switching to electric and hybrid cars, even taking into account the emissions produced at power plants during the generation of electricity, would significantly reduce the production of greenhouse gasses and improve nationwide air quality.
Mayor Sheila Dixon has offered her support of the Science Center’s program, tying it to ongoing environmental efforts around the city.

“I will personally market this to make sure that when people look back, they will see Baltimore not only being first, but being out front on this issue,” Dixon says.

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