The three-wheeled Zap Xebra has found a few loyal customers in Massachusetts who zipped carelessly by $4 gas signs. That is, until the state unplugged their green machines unexpectedly last week, suspending their vehicle registrations and calling the cars illegal.
Greenhouse gases and melting polar ice caps were never pressing concerns for Hingham carpenter Ben Burnham. Still, Burnham found himself buying an electric-powered ZAP Xebra last month to do his small part for the environment.
The three-wheeled vehicle has become a neighborhood oddity, a futuristic looking pickup truck with no tailpipe and a row of batteries instead of a gas tank. Drivers point cell phone cameras at Burnham as he zips nonchalantly past $4.19-a-gallon gas pumps, albeit at a top speed of 40 mph.
But the state has put the brakes on Burnham’s electric escapade. The Registry of Motor Vehicles has notified him and a handful of other Xebra owners their registration is to be revoked in light of its discovery that the cars don’t meet the legal definition of a car or motorcycle.
Unplugged, just like that.
Xebra owners, who paid up to $12,500 for the Chinese-made cars, seemed incredulous at the news. How can a state that bills itself as a leader in green initiatives – a flurry of recent state laws call for increased energy efficiency, expanded renewable fuel use and growth of the biofuels industry – outlaw one of the few affordable, emission-free vehicles on the market?
In interviews, three Xebra owners called for lawmakers to legalize the vehicles, as in most states.
“We’ve invested money, spent time, and now something that is better for the environment is sitting in the garage. It drives me crazy,” said Kathy Doyle, who lives in Milton and bought a Xebra in January from a dealer in New Hampshire.
State Sen. Robert Hedlund and state Rep. Garrett Bradley said they have filed bills to legalize the cars. But the Legislature’s formal session ends Thursday, leaving scant time for the measure to pass.
At issue is the state’s definition of a motorcycle, which Xebras are classified as under federal standards. Unlike the federal definition, Massachusetts excludes vehicles in which “the operator and passenger ride within an enclosed cab.” Xebras have two front seats.
“We need to catch up with 42 other states and allow these zero-emission green vehicles to be part of our transportation mix,” Hedlund, a Weymouth Republican, said.
In Kentucky, a charged debate is under way on whether to allow the vehicles on the road, and Gov. Steve Beshear is considering signing an executive order to legalize them, a spokeswoman said.
First imported in 2006 by ZAP, a Santa Rosa, Calif., company, the Xebra is marketed as emitting 98 percent fewer pollutants than a gas-powered car. It travels up to 40 mph, but holds a charge for only 25 miles.
On the upside, it costs pennies per mile in electricity to drive.
Douglas Hart, an investment manager from Duxbury, was the first person in Massachusetts to buy a Xebra, in September 2006, according to ZAP.
Hart said the three-wheeler has been ideal for scooting around town to pick up groceries, drop in on friends, and swing by the beach.
“My dog rides with me,” Hart, 55, said. “I get all kinds of waves and hand gestures.”
Like Burnham, Hart got a letter Friday from Registrar Rachel Kaprielian saying his vehicle registration will be suspended next month. The form letter said he is entitled to an appeal.
“I’m somewhat annoyed,” Hart said. “I have it legally registered. That’s like $9,000 down the drain.”
Kaprielian said the registry is simply following the law. She said an oversight led to the registration of a few Xebras, still a relatively rare and unknown vehicle. And she points out there have been no national safety studies of the vehicle.
Even in states where they are legal, Xebras are not typically permitted on highways because of their slow speed.
For Doyle and her husband, David DeSantis, the car was exactly the sort of frugal, green transportation they pictured employees at their Taunton-based property management company using to zip between properties. But police have pulled the workers over more than once, Doyle said, and recently warned they would be arrested next time without a letter of clearance from the registry.
Doyle is frustrated and said the purchase had been one of principle. The couple’s home in Milton is powered by solar panels; she fuels her Mercedes with homemade bio-diesel.
“We’re walking the walk. To push green initiatives, you need to lead by example,” Doyle said. “But at every turn we are facing obstacles. This is just the latest.”
Alex Campbell, a ZAP spokesman, said he is perplexed by the “crackdown” in Massachusetts, where there has been a “tremendous amount” of consumer interest.
Nationwide, the company said it has sold more than 700 Xebras.
“They’re a stitch to drive,” said Don Stokes, who opened an electric vehicle dealership in Topsfield this spring. “They run silent and you get to pass right by every gas station.”
Stokes has sold only one Xebra, to a doctor from New Hampshire who wanted it to put-put around his farm. He is confident Massachusetts will legalize them.
“How can you be an advocate for renewable energy but outlaw the first alternative form of viable transportation?” Stokes said.
Burnham, the 40-year-old Hingham carpenter, said Tuesday he chose to turn over his license plates to the registry. He recently bought a one-seat electric car, the Corbin Sparrow, which meets the state’s motorcycle definition.
“I’m not trying to change the world. I just thought it was cool, a plus for the environment, and that I could save a couple of bucks,” Burnham said.
John P. Kelly may be reached at email@example.com.
XEBRAS ON THE LOOSE
PRICE: $11,700 MSRP
SPEED: Up to 40 mph
SEATING: Up to 4 people
RANGE: 25 miles per charge, 40 miles per day
WEIGHT: About 2,805 pounds
POWERED BY: DC motor, with lead acid battery
COLORS: Ocean Blue, black-and- white Zebra Flash, Kiwi Green, Lipstick Red
PRODUCED BY: ZAP, which stands for Zero Air Pollution