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Eugene Weekly : 3.8.07

Call of the BugE

MARK MURPHY RESURRECTS THE ELECTRIC CAR

BY NICOLE FANCHER

It squats like a space pod or Cyclopsian insect-robot, its one tinted bug-eye glinting in the late afternoon sun. Suddenly, the eye raises its lid, and from its depths emerges … a man wearing a midnight blue, wool engineer's cap and a dark knit sweater. After a warm greeting and firm handshake, Mark Murphy turns, arms folded across his chest, to admire his creation: the BugE — a one-seater "neighborhood electric vehicle" designed for around-town, everyday driving needs.

Mark Murphy and his dog Emily

Murphy's BugE is both a battle cry against human-caused global heating and a practical design for affordable and efficient personal urban transportation. Driving a clean, electric vehicle could help break the shackles of oil dependency, Murphy believes. In just 30 years, he says, the U.S. has gone from being the world's largest oil exporter to importing nearly $50 billion worth of oil each year. And many energy experts believe that since the Earth has passed "peak oil" — where oil demand can no longer meet a dwindling supply — finding an alternative is no longer an option; it's an imperative. Murphy believes his BugE is one step towards a solution. "It gives people a choice that isn't a car," he says.

In his driveway, Murphy commences his show-and-tell of the vehicle's features such as the aforementioned "eye," a tinted, aerodynamic fairing that shields against wind, rain and toxic exhaust from idling SUVs. The BugE's white fiberglass body stretches out, semi-enclosed, like a reverse recumbent tricycle without pedals; it has two front wheels and one back. This configuration ensures that "all the stability is in the direction you're going," says Murphy, plus it ensures that the BugE can obtain motorcycle licensing as a three-wheeled vehicle. The BugE has flat handlebars complete with hand throttle and brakes; aluminum mag wheels; rearview mirrors; a front storage compartment; and an adjustable seat. Murphy's design is simple: It has only 75 part numbers and weighs 385 pounds. It has to be simple. After all, the entire vehicle is a build-it-yourself kit.

Murphy says he specifically designed the BugE kit for easy assembly. No building experience is required. Owners can build BugEs at their own pace and as their budget allows. At the same time, they will learn how their vehicle operates. Murphy adds that BugE purchases also support local businesses. "Three-quarters of this is made right here," he says: A fiberglasser in Goshen makes the body and frame, ProCycle in Springfield makes the turn signals and street-legal halogen headlights, and all basic tools and supplies — nuts, bolts and the lead acid batteries — can be purchased at local hardware and automotive shops. A few main components are made out of state: The 48-volt motor and battery charger come from Washington, the canopy comes from California and the wheels and tires come from North Carolina.

Murphy envisions the BugE as a product combining economic practicality and environmental responsibility. On the one hand, the car is inexpensive to buy and power: The kit costs around $5,000, and juicing it up costs about 1 cent per mile. The power cord, stored in the front storage compartment, can plug into any standard 110-volt outlet (found at home and pretty much anywhere else around town: outside grocery and convenience stores and, of course, at gas stations).

A BugE completely sapped of juice might take overnight to recharge. But Murphy's idea is for people to charge up as they go, so the BugE will always be topped off. Fully charged, the BugE can run for approximately 20 miles at 40 mph, 30 miles at 30 mph, or 40 miles at 20 mph — more than enough power to make several 5-mile trips to and from the grocery store.

The BugE aims to suit the needs of many people, from Baby Boomers who seek more comfortable transportation to those who simply don't want to battle cold, stinging rain biking to Safeway. But more than anything, driving a BugE makes practical sense. According to Murphy, more than three quarters of daily vehicle trips are driven by one person less than 30 miles. Instead of driving alone in the Explorer to the video store a couple miles away, the BugE, Murphy says, will get you there and back just as fast, and with a cleaner conscience. While some will choose the BugE for economic reasons, Murphy believes, others will buy the BugE as a statement, a bit of good, clean road rage, where they can stick it to the human-made global heating trend and those who deny it.

Murphy's clean car dream has been brewing for a long time. This man is no Go-Go-Gadget garage tinkerer — although he does work out of the yellow and white shed at his Creswell home. A graduate of the renowned Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., Murphy has been a professional industrial designer since 1984. He worked for BMW and also on projects for General Motors and Chrysler. But after 10 years of the Southern California "rat race," Murphy had enough of designing luxury gas-guzzlers and moved to Eugene in 1992. Soon after, Burley Design Cooperative hired him to redesign their 16-year-old bicycle trailer, which he turned into the trademark curvy-topped yellow and blue trailer of today.

But a couple of years later, Murphy and a few co-designers had a new idea: a personal electric vehicle. Since Burley wasn't interested, Murphy and his partners left and created the Neighborhood Electric Vehicle Company (NEVCO) in 1995.

Murphy envisioned a personal vehicle that was compact, clean and slow — something suitable for neighborhood or around-town driving. And so the Gizmo was born: an award-winning enclosed electric vehicle with a cartoon countenance, three wheels and a top speed of 40 mph. But while local investors praised the Gizmo's simplicity and efficiency, manufacturing the car proved expensive and, ultimately, unfeasible.

"The biggest problem was that we designed a business plan that required a factory," Murphy says. "Nobody knew anybody with enough money to get us up and running." After limping along for a decade, NEVCO halted Gizmo production and shelved the design. But Murphy wouldn't abandon his dream of a clean, personal vehicle.

During the Gizmo days, Murphy was simultaneously designing electric racecars through his side company, Blue Sky Design. He built the "Aerocoupes" as kits and shipped them off to schools participating in Electrathon America, a sport where students compete in a race not of speed but of energy efficiency with the goal of finding out which car can go the farthest in one hour. With Murphy's Aerocoupe kit, students assemble the car themselves and experiment to find the winning combination of speed and weight. Murphy still sends Aerocoupes to about 25 schools per year, mostly out of state but including a few Portland area schools. Murphy says the assembly projects become science experiments that teach students physics, conservation, aerodynamics and construction in a hands-on, empowering educational experience. "When kids build something and race it, they understand it," Murphy says. "It's not just a true or false quiz."

So when Murphy revisited the Gizmo concept, he simplified the design, cut the number of vehicle parts in half and, drawing on his Aerocoupe work, made the BugE into a kit. Assembly requires no welding, only basic screwdrivers and hardware — and a bit of patience. But the experience of building a practical, usable machine with one's own hands, Murphy says, is priceless. Who doesn't remember the feeling, as a child, upon tightening the last screw onto that Erector Set racecar and watching it zoom across the living room floor? It's the thrill of creation, the childhood reawakening of problem solving and stretching one's imagination, Murphy believes, that makes the BugE kit so appealing. For this reason, he encourages BugE buyers to add features, gadgets, even solar panels, to suit individual tastes and needs.

Murphy emanates a youthful glee as he talks about his BugE and his old Gizmo parked in the driveway (he calls the Gizmo his wife Trish's "garage-sale boat"). But his excitement is not merely one of childlike awe — Murphy knows he's creating a new paradigm for clean, personal transportation. Former NEVCO president Dale Van Metre praises the BugE design. "What Mark has done is to change the business model," Van Metre says. A locally made kit and a simplified design "both help to address the problems with the Gizmo," he adds.

 

With gas prices teetering around $3 per gallon and likely rising, Murphy says people are looking for economic transportation alternatives. A BugE plugs into the existing grid for a penny per mile — it doesn't get much cheaper than that. So why hasn't the U.S. caught the electric bug? Murphy says it's a combination of consumer ambivalence and unwillingness to change habits and auto companies' reluctance to invest. The 2006 documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? (review at www.eugeneweekly.com2006/08/17/movie1.html) discusses how auto and oil companies' fear of profit losses led to the downfall of GM's electric car, the EV1. GM recalled and destroyed hundreds of EV1s in the late '90s, citing lack of consumer interest — even as prospective lessees remained on waiting lists.

There's no doubt that electric vehicles' zero emissions at the tailpipe means cleaner air. However, EVs still draw electricity from the existing grid, an energy pool compiled from resources including wind, hydropower, infinitesimal amounts of solar and geothermal — but mainly coal and petroleum. Some skeptics claim that EVs' clean image merely covers up an "emissions-elsewhere" reality. But EV experts say that electric cars still produce far less pollution per mile. An Oct. 6, 2006, report put out by Tesla Motors, Inc., "The 21st Century Electric Car," examines the new Tesla Roadster, an electric sports car. It goes from 0-60 in four seconds, gets the equivalent of 135 mpg, has a top speed of 130 mph and can run for 250 miles without recharging. Oh, and it costs $92,000.

Murphy calls the Roadster "a rich man's toy." While he acknowledges the hot design, he says, "It doesn't solve my problem or your problem" — it's not affordable, and it's not practical.

The BugE tops out at about 50 mph, though Murphy advises drivers to keep the maximum speed at 40 mph. "It seems happy at that speed," he says, and the battery doesn't run down so fast. Recently, Murphy and a few buddies took the first BugE for some test rides around the block. So far, the BugE seems to be winning everyone over.

Murphy's friend and BugE site webmaster Ed Gunderson is smitten. "It's wonderful!" he says. "It's really peppy. I like the visibility. I like the handling. And it's got lots of leg room." Gunderson says the BugE will be perfect for his transportation needs, which require travel from Creswell into Eugene. Taking the bus isn't always an option for Gunderson as there are not enough evening routes back to Creswell. While the BugE doesn't have a lot of carrying capacity, Gunderson says, it is enough for him. "It carries much more than my bicycle." But the BugE is not meant to haul goods but people.

Videos of the first and second drives are posted at www.blueskydsn.com, linked to YouTube. Other than a simple website, fuzzy online videos and word-of mouth touting, there has not been a lot of publicity about the BugE. Which is why Murphy is surprised by the flood of emails he's received over the past couple of months — dozens upon dozens of messages from across the country and even outside the U.S. making inquiries and placing orders. One man from Europe wants to order 1,000 BugEs. "I don't know what to tell him," Murphy says, who starts shipping this month and adds that he and his vendors plan to prepare one kit per week, then gradually bump it up to two. "We want to walk before we can run," he says.

Perhaps this exceeding patience and modest practicality will be the secret to Murphy's success. And it seems he's chosen the right time and place to get started. "I'm glad I'm in this area," he says. "It's nice when we get a community that responds to these types of innovations. People [here] understand what I'm trying to do."

For now, the electric car's U.S. comeback lurks in garages and tool sheds across the country. "There's a lot of people being very clever and inventive," Murphy says. He hopes the BugE will arouse curiosity, inspire action and offer consumers a choice. He also hopes the BugE kits will foster sustainable community businesses, where people could start up small enterprises building and selling BugEs. As for the rebirth of the electric car, Murphy says that improving battery technology is making manufacturing more feasible. But until then, "The best thing we can do is be energy aware," Murphy says. "We'll plant some seeds for now."

For more information about Murphy and the BugE, check out www.blueskydsn.com