Autonomous cars won’t solve traffic, but the Eli Zero could

Listen to most experts and they’ll tell you the future of transportation involves connected, autonomous, shared electric vehicles. While it’s true those should deliver some benefits—like fewer crashes and less CO2 in the atmosphere—there’s not actually much evidence that autonomous cars will solve problems like congestion. Sure, you might be able to watch TV or work during your commute, but you’ll still be stuck in a car for hours every day.

Which is why a new neighborhood electric vehicle (NEV) called the Eli Zero caught my attention recently.

NEVs certainly aren’t the answer for everyone; if you’re the sort of person who has a 50-mile commute on a freeway every day, you might as well stop reading now because they won’t solve any of your problems. But for people who live and work in denser urban areas whose commute or trip to the grocery store sticks to roads with city-appropriate speed limits, or who live in planned communities like Celebration, Florida, a NEV can start to make a lot of sense.

But what an NEV? It’s a low-speed vehicle certified for road use but limited to roads with speed limits of 45mph (72km/h) or less. The most common NEVs are road-legal golf carts, or something like the Global Electric Motorcar, or the adorable Renault Twizy (which is common in Europe but not available here in the US). And the Eli Zero looks a lot more compelling than any of those vehicles.

The specs are pretty simple. It’s a two-seater, with side-by-side seating, as opposed to the tandem format of the Twizy. And unlike the Twizy, GEM, or a golf cart, it’s fully enclosed, which means it’s vastly more attractive to people living in places where it rains or snows. It uses a 4kW (5.3hp) electric motor powered by a 6kWh lithium-ion battery, which gives the Zero a range of 55 miles (89km), with a recharging time of 4.5 hours at 110V. A version with a bigger battery, the Zero+, will have a range of 85 miles (137km) thanks to a larger 8.3kWh pack—though this increases charging time to a still-reasonable six hours.

“It’s not just small and compact but also energy-efficient,” said Marcus Li, Eli’s founder. “We make it understandable by saying to customers that it will do 85 clean miles at only $1, assuming 12c/kWh. And in our latest tests, we’ve been getting 350MPGe.” For context, the highest EPA-rated city MPGe we can find is the Hyundai Ionic Electric at 150MPGe, followed by the Tesla Model 3 at 136MPGe.

“It’s extremely high compared to conventional EVs. But that makes sense; it’s 40 percent smaller than a Smart Car. We use an aluminum chassis to reduce vehicle weight without sacrificing structural integrity,” Li said. (The Zero weighs 877lbs (398kg), or 904lbs (410kg) for the bigger battery version.) “Our battery is only 8.5kWh, but it goes 85 miles. An electric Smart car has a 20kWh battery for the same range—half of a car’s energy goes to power its own weight, and when you optimize it to running at lower speed, you can get a lot of mileage out of a small battery,” he explained.

Visually, the Zero looks like a cross between a Smart Car and a Twizy, particularly when looked at in profile. “When you fit the ergonomics and people and make it small, you automatically have limitations to the profile. We call the Smart Car a city car, and Smart has been educating the market for a long time; we’re really respectful to people’s familiarity with that form factor,” Li told me.

Refreshingly for a new EV startup, there’s no mention of any self-driving capability. That’s because Li—whose background is in architecture and urban planning—also believes that technology isn’t going to solve congestion. “For urban planning, autonomous is worse for traffic because it competes with subways and buses and also encourages more long-distance trips—ultimately brings more cars onto the road. It won’t make two-hour solo commutes any easier and locks people into car dependence,” he told me.

Although the Zero isn’t eligible for the IRS’ IRC30D tax credit, California’s Air Resources Board has been in contact with the company about offering a $1,000 rebate in the state; previously it had resisted offering that credit, as other NEVs have used lead-acid batteries, Li explained.

Eli is in the process of tooling up for production now and hopes to be able to deliver the first vehicles in early 2019. MSRP is $10,900, but it looks like there are pretty good discounts for preorders.

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