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Dale Brooks had the hardest time getting inspection stickers for his car this year. He visited seven places until someone knew what to do with his sporty white two-seater. Everywhere he went, people asked him to pop the hood and marveled at the strange sight under it, the conspicuous lack of an engine. But then they sent him away. One mechanic told him he had to obtain a special sticker. Another said only one place in all of Houston inspected his type of car. Then there was the guy who just didn't get it.
"What year is it?"
"Then you need an emissions test."
"But there are zero emissions."
You still need a test, the man insisted. "Fine," Dale said. "If you can find the tailpipe, you can test it."
There is no tailpipe on Dale's car; it is electric and runs on 20 six-volt batteries. Dale is president of the Houston chapter of the Electric Auto Association. He and a handful of others are tired of this freeway-laden, traffic-congested, smog-infested city. They're practicing a kind of civil disobedience, Dale jokes, by driving electric vehicles in this big oil town. But seriously, Houston has had a big problem coming for a long time, he says. And now it's here. For two years in a row, Houston beat Los Angeles to win the dubious title of dirtiest air in America, underscoring Dale's belief that the gasoline-powered internal-combustion engine has got to go.
"Petroleum is poison. And it is running out," he says.
According to Scientific American, cars account for half of the oil consumed in the United States, roughly half of urban pollution and one-fourth of greenhouse gases. In 1990 California adopted a zero-emission vehicle mandate requiring that major automakers make 10 percent of their vehicles emission-free by 2003. New York and Massachusetts enacted similar rules.
Having driven an electric for two years now, Dale says he would never go back to regular cars. Aside from the environmental advantage, Dale also finds them superior to gas-powered cars because they don't smell, make a lot of noise, or require oil changes or tune-ups.
"With a combustible engine, you basically have a barbecue pit that you need to keep cool, and on the other side you're carrying enough fuel essentially for a bomb."
The electric vehicle (or EV, for short) on the other hand, requires almost no maintenance. Once a month Dale checks the distilled water in the batteries. Sure, EVs come with their own set of problems. For one, their range is limited: 50 to 80 miles on a single charge, depending on batteries. But most of us don't drive that much on a daily basis. (A Department of Transportation study found that 95 percent of all vehicles travel less than 50 miles a day; 54 percent of us drive less than five miles.)
If he needs to go out of town, he'll rent a gasoline-powered car, Dale says. But until then, he happily drives his EV and talks to other guys in the club. They meet once a month and shake their heads at the shortsightedness of the rest of us. Leading the head-shaking is Ken, the patriarch of EV lovers in Houston. Without him, there might not even be electric cars zooming around in this town.
At 80, Ken Bancroft has spent most of his life working with his hands. They are large hands, bony and sturdy, that match the gaunt, weathered landscape of his face. Lately, though, they have sat idle. Ever since a terrible pain in his stomach sent him to the hospital for 21 days in August, Ken has spent most of his time hooked up to an oxygen machine, a clear tube trailing him like an umbilical cord.
Ken estimates he has converted 30 cars to electric in the last quarter-century, each conversion costing between $4,500 and $6,500. Customers have called from all parts of the country and beyond: from Vancouver, from Baldhead Island off the coast of North Carolina, which has a strict "electric only" transportation policy, and from Cheyenne Mountain, just outside Colorado Springs. The bunker for NORAD, an aerospace defense system, lies nearly a mile beneath the mountain and cannot afford to have its air polluted, Ken says.
In his living room, the curtains always drawn, he opens cheap photograph albums filled with pictures of past projects. Here's a picture of the Volkswagen Fastback, one of the first cars he converted. Here it is again with a cavernous space in it after Ken pried the engine out. He proudly offers other photos, as a father might show school pictures of his children: a Suzuki Samurai, several vans, a 1995 four-door Volvo 850 that a woman brought brand-new and asked Ken to convert.
Cars fascinated Ken at a young age. His father tinkered with them too. "I just love cars," Ken says. "Fast cars and beautiful women." When he was 13, Ken began apprenticing with a man who was building a race car. At 16, faced with the prospect of repeating the eighth grade for a second time, Ken dropped out of school to work full-time as a mechanic's assistant. When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, he volunteered for the army and became a motor sergeant, overseeing more than 100 vehicles and their drivers. Sixteen days after his discharge, he returned to New Jersey and opened his own garage.