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When I was younger, I was on track to become a professional dirt bike racer.

All right, maybe that’s not entirely true.  However, some other people in my life did want me to try to be a dirt biker, reasoning that there were fewer girls than guys racing dirt bikes so I had a better chance at getting sponsored and making money off the deal.  Good plan, except that I’m a terrible dirt bike rider who is scared of going above 15 mph, crashes through jumps, and occasionally tries to twist the throttle backwards.

Zero bike

Not your average motorcycle...

Needless to say, my professional career never took off.  However, looking at Zero Motorcycles, maybe it’s time I reconsider the whole dirt biking thing.

The company represents the “ultimate electric motorcycle technology.”  Considering the impressive background of the founder, Neal Saiki, this isn’t surprising.  He’s an aeronautcal engineer by trade, but his ultimate passion has always been motorcycles.  Over the years, Saiki has worked to design high-performance mountain bikes in between his time as a NASA engineer.

Now, he’s at the helm of a company that produces electric dirt bikes, sport bikes, and dual sport bikes.

Let’s delve into some specs.  The sport bike weighs 270 pounds, a range of 50 miles, and a top speed of 67 mph.  As you can imagine, the gas mileage is impressive; the motorcycle is certified to obtain the equivalent of 455 mpg, which comes in at a cost of less than one cent per mile.  The sport bike puts out 26 hp and 98 pound-feet.

The dirt bike models feature ultra-lightweight frames – each a mere 13 pounds – and can provide about two hours or 40 miles of ride time before the battery needs to be recharged.  All told, the motocross model weighs in at 172 pounds and the trail bike at 161 pounds (weights even I might be able to manage).

Zero frame

Made of 100% aircraft-grade aluminum

One of the perks (or drawbacks) of an electric bike?  It’s quiet.  There’s just the hum of an electric motor instead of an ear-splitting two-stroke motor or the roar of a Harley.  This is good for people like me, who get freaked out by loud noises, but also has significant downfalls.  Many people who ride motorcycles like the noise; it’s tough, intimidating, and let’s people know you’re coming, an important part of motorcycle safety, especially in this age of distracted drivers.

Electric motorcycles have been developed unsuccessfully over the years, never really taking off due to heavy batteries and engines.  But Saiki knew where to look for the technology to make electric bikes happen: in the military, where he also spent some time working in aerospace.  Small, super-powerful motors were used in torpedoes and other weaponry, and when the technology became available to the public, Saiki jumped on it.  He also credits his success to the recent developments in lithium-ion batteries.  Added bonus: these bikes can be plugged right into normal outlets!

Zero dirt bike

Picture this parked next to your Honda CRF250R

Protecting the environment was a big motivation for Saiki, whose bikes emit less than 1/8 of the CO2 as gas motorcycles and about 1/100 the NOx.  In addition, the bike’s materials are almost completely recyclable, including the battery.  Concerns of electric fire risks are greatly reduced by the Z-Force™ Air Induction System, which lets more airflow get into the engine and improves performance in addition to its safety benefits.

As a bonus, routine maintenance costs are diminished.  However, the initial price is pretty steep – about $10,000 for a street bike, although buyers are eligible for a 10% tax credit and other states have larger incentives in place, too.  If you’re in California, you’re eligible for $1,500 more back, thanks to Governor Schwarzenegger.

So will I hop on a Zero motorcylcle and recapture my racing dreams?  Not in the near future.  While I’m sure there’s a market for these bikes (think affluent, environmentally-conscious city commuters), I’m not sure if the average motorcycle rider will jump aboard this wagon anytime soon.  Just as with cars, there’s a lot of associations attached with each vehicle.

It’s been awhile, I know, but trust me, the Milwaukee School of Engineering Supermileage Vehicle team has not been sitting idle.  The team members have been working like maniacs to make sure their car is in great shape for the competition on June 10 and 11.

The carbon fiber body was completed a few weeks ago, but are you curious to find out how exactly those engineers made it happen?  Take a look at this video to watch how they did it!

The body is now fully assembled and the car is running.  Last weekend, the team spent a rainy Saturday in the rain testing the vehicle.  They put about fifteen (wet) miles on the car – talk about dedication!  While the testing team was outside, the rest of the crew was working on the electronic fuel injection (EFI) engine.




This week, the team is putting on the top of the car and will begin testing with the entire car.  After putting at least 30 more miles on the vehicle, the team will begin the final preparation stage to get ready for the competition.

Full body

In what is becoming known as the “Earth Day Blowout,” a premier oil rig exploded and plummeted to the bottom of the ocean last week, ultimately sinking on the fortieth anniversary of Earth Day.

Deepwater Horizon

Crews working to put out the flames after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded.

The BP-owned Deepwater Horizon was staffed with over 100 employees, 11 of whom are still missing (and presumed dead) with several others still hospitalized.  Like the coal mining accident earlier this month, this Gulf of Mexico oil spill is bringing to light the damages done by accidents on oil rigs.  From 2001 to 2007, there were over 1,400 accidents involving oil rigs.  In these accidents, 41 people died and 302 were injured.  Investigations into these previous accidents show that human error generally accounts for causation of problems.  That’s to be expected; after all, we’re only human, right?  But the question remains: do we want to continue risking the lives of workers and the integrity of our environment to perpetuate offshore drilling?

Oil spill

The oil from the Deepwater Horizon making its way towards the US coastline.

Right now, the oil spill is leaking at the rate of 42,000 gallons per day from a pipe 5,000 feet below the surface.  The spill covers an area of 1,800 square miles –  larger than the entire state of Rhode Island.  Originally, the slick of oil on the ocean’s surface measured a mere two miles by eight miles.  BP sent 32 vessels to try to contain the spill before it hits the Gulf Coast, where it has the potential to damage an already fragile Louisiana coastline.

This is not a concern to take lightly.  We’ve seen in the past that oil spills can have devastating effects.  For example, look at the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989.  That accident spewed 10.8 million gallons of oil into the Prince William Sound, covering 1,300 square miles.  Wildlife are still feeling the effects of that accident today.   At the time, thousands of animals perished.  Birds became soaked in oil and were unable to fly to safety.  Some otters, covered in oil, froze to death in the Arctic waters, while others tried to lick the oil off their fur and poisoned themselves to death.  Two short years later, the largest oil spill in history occurred: the Gulf War oil spill, which dumped up to 462 million gallons of oil into the Persian Gulf, covering an area 42 miles wide by 101 miles long.

Covered in oilAre we okay with this?  Are we okay with painful accidents like the Deepwater Horizon and others in the fossil fuel world, such as the loss of 29 miners in a West Virginia coal mine explosion earlier this month?  What price are we willing to pay to fuel our dependence on fossil fuels?  Accidents like these are sad and heart-wrenching.  But hopefully, they spark new ways of thinking about energy and ways of obtaining it.  There are more options and better options.  We have to pay for renewables and alternatives, and it’s up to us to decide what is more valuable: our people and our environment or cheap fuel.

The other day, I talked about the new gas mileage law, which will require car manufacturers to increase the fuel economy their fleets obtain by 2016.  For the environment, this is a step forward, leading to decreased overall carbon emissions and better mpg’s in cars.  Naturally, this will also increase new car costs as car makers dump resources in R and D to create more efficient vehicles.  But this bill might provide an unexpected injury to another part of the auto market: the luxury car industry.

James Bond Aston Martin

Will James Bond have to give up his trademark Aston Martin?

Remember that car manufacturers must have a fleet average of about 35.5 miles per gallon.  For large companies like GM and Ford, this is pretty feasible, considering the high number of models these firms produce.  Even lower-end luxury brands like BMW should be all right meeting these standards, especially considering the high mileage makes already coming out.  But what about the really high-end performance cars like Porsches and Aston Martins?

If the makers of the fast cars are large manufacturers, these regulations should be pretty easy to overcome.  Consider Ferrari, which just released the fastest road car in the company’s history, the 599 GTO.  Ferrari is owned by Fiat SpA, which luckily is already selling fuel efficient vehicles in the US.  But brands that don’t sell cars besides luxury autos in the US are scrambling for ways to meet this regulation, like developing smaller, more fuel efficient cars (both Aston Martin and Jaguar are trying that route).  Tiny (fewer than 5,000 vehicles sold per year) manufacturers are hoping that the EPA makes special allowances for them since the government agency has said these companies will get their own rules.  Larger car makers (50-400k cars) are allowed to have 25,000 cars per year exceed mileage targets without being penalized.

Ferrari 599 GTO

The fastest Ferrari road car ever made...

And let’s not forget that fuel efficiency and carbon emissions regulations are not unique to America.  Most developed countries in the world have to adhere to standards which get more strict all the time.  In fact, the US is lagging behind in the regulations game.

So what exactly does this mean?  Will our favorite high performance car makers be able to punch out a few efficient models to keep the sportiest vehicles on the road?  I’ve said this before – I love fast cars, even if I may never own one.  But can they remain on our highways indefinitely?  Or will there come a time when they’re chained to closed tracks?

Maybe others agonized over a similar decision decades ago when horses were replaced by horsepower.  Maybe carriage drivers were sad to put their high-stepping ponies in the barn and resigned themselves to riding and driving them for sport instead of transportation.  Will luxury cars as we know it be kept merely for hobby instead of a way of getting around?  I know that most Aston Martin drivers aren’t slogging through their daily commutes like James Bond, but these new regulations may dramatically change the fast cars we all love.  The divide between transportation and sport might keep growing.

My stepmom, Olly, has a cat named Gogo.  She’s got this wild, fluffy black hair, a rip-roaring purr, and huge green eyes (Gogo, not Olly).  Basically, she’s absolutely adorable, and I bet even the SMV engineers would love her, based on this highly educational video.

Anyways, I love the name Gogo, so obviously, I love the Goggomobil, even though it’s a little difficult to find information about the company’s history.

The Goggomobil began its life story in 1895.  At that time, a Bavarian man called Hans Glas opened a repair shop for agricultural equipment.  I can’t say he had the catchiest name I’ve ever heard of (Hans Glas, Reparaturwerkstaette fuer landwirtschaftliche Maschinen mit Damptbetrieb or the Repair Shop for Steam-powered Agricultural Machines).  Despite the ultra-long name, Glas enjoyed some success, particularly with his sowing machines.  His business kept expanding as Hans went through life (and several wars).  Eventually, his son, Andreas, joined the business.  After World War II, the demand for agricultural machinery was in a steep decline and Andreas was scouring the European countryside for new ways of generating business.  Lo and behold, in 1951 he came upon a Vespa scooter.

He brought this idea back to the Dingolfing factory and Glas began pumping out scooters.  In a stroke of naming genius, Andreas and Hans decided to call the scooter after the youngest Glas boy, nicknamed Goggo.  The Germans went wild and the scooters sold like hotcakes to the economically-depressed Germans who were hungering for affordable, respectable forms of transportation.  The scooter’s success led to the development of a larger car, and thus the Goggomobil was born.


Not quite as cute as Gogo the cat, but pretty close!

The Goggomobil T300 was produced from 1955 through 1968.  Like other Goggomobils, it had a low center of gravity which provided good stability on the roadways.  Pietro Frua, a top Italian designer linked with Maserati, designed the body, which featured a pressed-steel chassis and stiffening ribs for reduced flexibility.  The car had swing axle suspension and independent springs, making it a comfier ride than many of its fellow micro competitors.  This model sported a 297cc engine that topped out at about 60 mph and put out 15 hp.  Like many other microcars, the Goggomobil sipped gas at the leisurely rate of over 50 mpg.

Like many microcar makers before them, Andreas and Hans were not satisfied with their tiny cars and sought to expand into the large car market.  Their attempts were not received well and in 1966, the company was sold to BMW.  Goggomobils were made under the BMW name until 1969, at which time the Glas factory at Dingolfing began producing BMW suspension components instead of mini cars.

However, the Goggomobil reigned supreme in its glory days.  By 1956, the small car was exported into 36 countries and ultimately over a quarter million Goggomobils were sold, making the vehicle the most successful German microcar ever sold.

Not to be outdone by its German counterpart, BMW received the 2010 Green Car Award from The Independent in the United Kingdom a few days after VW became the producer of both the best and greenest cars in the world at the New York Auto Show.  Leave it to the Germans to be constantly searching for more success, even when their own countrymen take home the prizes.

The specific model that won the award was the 320D EfficientDynamics.  Like the VW, the 320D isn’t a hybrid; it simply gets stellar gas mileage, coming in at about 68.9 mpg.  The 2-liter engine puts out 161 hp, maxes out at 140 mph, and goes from naught to sixty in 8.2 seconds.  Its CO2 emissions are pretty good, as well.  The 320D is rated at about 109g/km.

BMW 320D

Over 60 mpg? Yes, please!

Like other efficient gas models, this BMW sports some unique features that allow it to sip instead of slurp fuel.  It has slimmer tires (reminiscent of microcars), improved suspension, and a system that eliminates vibration for a smoother ride at lower engine revs.  And of course, it helps that the car is a diesel – we are getting farther and farther away from the smoke-belching trucks of our past.

German Flag

Need a green car? The Germans will hook you up!

And as with the VW, the 320D isn’t available in the United States, despite clamor in US markets. With Prius sales through the roof and waiting lists for the Leaf and the Volt, it seems to be clear that there’s a market for European cars with super fuel economy.  Considering most of the best-selling cars in America are smaller cars that get good gas mileage, the demand is there, even with likely increased costs due to importing and such.  The question remains: will the US give car buyers the quality German engineering they desire?

Forty years ago today, a Wisconsin politician declared a day to honor those without a voice.  He wasn’t working to give rights to unborn fetuses or the disabled or the elderly.  He was working for nature.

I know I might lose some of you car buffs right there.  “Nature,” you might scoff.  “That’s the stuff I mow down every Wednesday in the summertime.  That’s what hides its face when I fly by in my convertible.  That’s what I dominate.”  And all that might be true.

But hear this.


Nature is also what gives you your favorite pets, the food on your plate, the rain to make that godforsaken grass grow.  It gives us the breathtaking sunsets, the jaw-dropping mountains, the intricacies of a single cell.  It has the power to cause volcanic eruptions and stop air traffic for a week, to send devastating hurricanes crashing to our shores, to destroy whole towns with a single tornado.  And right now, we are hurting nature in more ways than we can count, and you can bet our actions won’t come without consequences.

This isn’t about the doom and gloom, although there’s plenty of that if you look.  It’s about having the opportunity to make a difference in some way…in your way.  I can’t design a better battery or manufacture solar panels.  But I can write and help people to know about the amazing environmental efforts going on largely behind closed doors.  Bring the skills you have to the table and use them in a positive, important way.  There are limitless opportunities out there for all skills and all people.  We are living in an era of unheard of technological and societal advances and right now is the time to make a huge difference.  How tremendously exciting is that?


At the end of the day, it’s about looking outside yourself, making decisions you can stand behind, and becoming the best version of you possible.  Nobody can control your actions but you and really, actions are what we’re after.  The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and sometimes, that seems like what we’re doing.  So follow the example of Gaylord Nelson or Aldo Leopold or the SMV team.  It’s not about doing what everyone else is doing or what’s fashionable.  It’s about doing what’s right.

Many, many years ago today, one small family had a very memorable day; I showed up.  To be more specific, I was born.  So, to celebrate, I’m going to talk about something that’s more important to me than some other aspects of the automotive industry: trucks and trailers.  I care about this because I’m a horseback rider and animal lover; in fact, I just got back from the Midwest Horse Fair, where (among other things) I talked to a German who’s ridden in so many Bentleys he can’t stand the sight of them and took a lesson with an Olympian who’s one of the best riders in the world.  And how did the horses get to the fair?  Trucks and trailers.

Truck and trailer

Horses have to get around somehow, too!

All right, so maybe it’s a stretch to think there’s such an overflow of horse trailers on the roadways that they’re the number one concern in the green automotive industry.  It’s also a stretch to think that the MSOE SMV will be hauling around a few thousand pounds of aluminum and horses anytime soon.  Still, they’re a piece of the puzzle, and they’re related to an even bigger part: the trucking industry.

We might not hear much about trucking, but think about it for a moment.  How do most products get anywhere?  You got it.  From bananas to books to basketballs, many things are shipped around the country to get where they need to be.

Of course, there have been improvements in the trucking (and truck) industry over the years.  Ultra low-sulfur diesel is now standard, truckers are idling less, vehicles are becoming more aerodynamic, and new engines are reducing particulate matter pollution.  And trucks are moving beyond simply diesel; companies with fleets are looking to alternative fuels to cut down on future costs and protect the environment.  More than20% of the UPS fleet are hybrid vehicles.  FedEx, Coca-Cola, and AT&T are also jumping into the hybrid trucking game and spokespeople say they are already reaping the benefits.  Companies in Europe are already using all-electric vehicles.


Moving the products of our lives one highway at a time...

And commercial trucks aren’t alone in their quest for greener paths.  While many car companies undoubtedly spent too much time pushing fuel-hungry big trucks and SUVs,  manufacturers are trying to step up their games in the light truck market, too.

Still, no matter how you slice it, trucks are bigger than most vehicles and are more polluting than most vehicles, too.  But they are a part of our societal structure.  There are certainly ways to cut down on the costs of trucking, like those hybrids and the improved structures of big trucks.  And there is more to be done, like considering other forms of transportation (trains) or simply trying to reduce hauling (grocery stores selling local in-season produce).  Trucks are like cars; they aren’t going anywhere, but we can keep looking for ways to improve their fuel efficiency and reduce their environmental impact.

After all, those horses aren’t going to haul themselves.

As you may remember, I’m from Madison, Wisconsin.  We have lots of noteworthy things in and around Madison: a university, Indian mounds, beautiful lakes.  And we have bikers.  Not the Hell’s Angels tattoo-sporting kind, the Lance Armstrong kind.  They’re everywhere, and that’s mostly a good thing (except when they travel in three abreast packs on country roads amongst cars).  Bicycles don’t produce carbon emissions, require only manpower, and do not use up dwindling energy resources.  As an added bonus, you get some exercise!

Happy cyclist

With help from LaHood, he can ride off into the sunset...

Ray LaHood, the Transportation Secretary, thinks that biking (and walking) are underrated ways of getting around – and he’s planning to give them the recognition (and resources) he believes they deserve.  In a recent blog post, LaHood said that Americans want more transportation options and he’s ready to give the people what they want: more bike paths, safer and better-maintained bike lanes, and perhaps most importantly, equal treatment for motorized and non-motorized forms of transportation.

That’s a pretty big statement, especially considering that almost 90% of people in the US drive to work and almost 80% of those drivers make the trip alone.  Some people have called LaHood delusional.  Still, he says that we as a country simply cannot create “livable and sustainable communities” without offering alternatives to vehicular transportation.  That makes sense; people cannot change their ways (even if they want to) if new forms of behavior are not supported or not viable.  And with obesity rates skyrocketing, encouraging exercise is a pretty good idea.

And as you can see in cities like Madison (and tandem-friendly San Fran), alternative forms of transportation seem to be increasing in popularity.  Still, you have to have the infrastructure to support those alternatives, like Madison’s extensive bike and walking path system.

Cars aren’t going anywhere.  LaHood knows that.  But he also knows what we know: we have pretty big problems in the transportation department with the climate change and the oil dependence and all that fun stuff.  In the hubbub of new cars, alternative fuels, and green technology, let’s not forget the solutions right in front of us.

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