Search is on for higher-speed Zenn

GLENDALE — A small automotive dealer in southeast Glendale is leading a coalition seeking to create a new federal classification for its all-electric vehicles that would allow the cars to drive faster on city streets.

Environmental Motors, which sells the diminutive electrical cars under the ZAP and ZENN brand names, has filed a petition with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to allow the latest models to be manufactured and delivered with the ability to travel up to 35 mph.

Currently, the ZENN models are already capable of speeds of up to 40 mph, but are electronically capped at 25 mph under federal regulations that classify them as “low-speed vehicles.”

“There’s no reason to hold the technology back,” Environmental Motors Director Taryn Sokolow said.

Most of Sokolow’s customers have not waited for the outcome, instead looking to the aftermarket to modify their small three-door ZENN hatchbacks to reach the 35-mph limit in violation of the federal safety code.

When David Kaufmann bought his ZENN in 2007, he and his wife quickly realized the 25-mph limit would be have to be altered as larger cars came right up on them even on average city street, where the speed limit is posted at 35 mph.

“She was scared to death to drive the car,” he said.

The car — which travels about 35 miles on a single charge — is similar in size to a two-door Honda Civic, and so proportion wasn’t the problem, he said, it was the inability to keep up with traffic.

Kaufmann has since spent close to $3,000 on aftermarket upgrades that now enable the car to move at 35 mph with slightly more horsepower, allowing the car to better handle the hills around his La Canada home, he said.

Chia Mei Jui, who purchased a ZENN through Environmental Motors in January, has spent $3,200 to modify the engine and allow for the 35-mph limit, she said, adding to its $13,000 out-the-door sticker price.

“It just increases my ability to use the car,” the Santa Monica resident said. “I consider it money well-spent.”

But not all customers are so willing to take newly purchased cars straight to the aftermarket and can’t get past the 25-mph restriction, Sokolow said.

That’s why a coalition of local industry stakeholders, together with Environmental Motors, is lobbying the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to create a new “medium-speed electric vehicle” classification for the cars that would legalize what many ZENN owners are already doing, she said.

Enforcement of the 25-mph limit has hardly registered with the Glendale Police Department, in part because it is a little-known law, and relatively few of the electric cars dot the city’s streets, Sgt. Dennis Smith said.

“We’re not looking out for renegade electric vehicles,” he said.

The standard speed limit for most city streets is 35 mph, anyway, Sokolow said, so ZENN drivers are really only keeping up with law-abiding drivers.

“I haven’t seen anybody getting pulled over for going 35 in a 35,” she added.

Several states, including Washington and Montana, already allow for the higher speeds, but Sokolow said the Medium Speed Electric Vehicle Coalition is pushing for a federal change to ensure the manufacturing and shipping of the models from Canada won’t be hampered.

But moving electric vehicles like the ZENN out of the low-speed classification would subject the cars to the same safety regulations governing passenger vehicles, which are required to have air bags — a feature currently not offered on the ZENN models.

Ontario-based ZENN Motor Co. Inc. is also exploring the possibility of bringing its models into the mainstream-mph bracketZENN CEO Ian Clifford said in a statement that the company “will wait for a consultation process with the [National Highway Traffic Safety Administration] on enhancements to satisfy the safety requirements for the proposed [medium-speed electrical vehicle] classification and make those decisions at that point in time.”

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is addressing the petitions, spokeswoman Elly Martin said.

In the meantime, Kaufmann said he will continue to reduce his carbon footprint by driving his ZENN to and from work, up and down hills, at 35 mph.

“This is the way it should be,” he said. “It’s like a no-brainer.”


 JASON WELLS covers City Hall. He may be reached at (818) 637-3235 or by e-mail at jason.wells@latimes.com.

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