They look cool and they're super cheap but will low-speed electric cars have what it takes to rev up commuter interest?
For the first time on July 17, Quebec will make two cars available to consumers -- the urban-friendly ZENN (Zero Emissions No Noise) and the heavier Nemo. Motorists will only be allowed to drive them on public roads with a posted speed of 50 kilometres.
The move is part of a three-year pilot project sponsored by the provincial government. At the end of the term, if the project is deemed a success, then the government will have an option of extending the vehicles' run for an additional two years.
However, each Quebec municipality has the right to opt out of the pilot project, said Real Gregoire, spokesperson for the province's transportation ministry.
The vehicles don't run fast enough to compete with the regular cars on the city's main roads or highways but they should do the trick for city dwellers, said Gregoire.
The president of the Electric Vehicle Council of Ottawa said these cars are eco-friendly, efficient and a lot less expensive in the long run.
"They use far less energy, less battery power," said Juergen Weichert in an interview with CTV.ca. "There's no gas tank, no exhaust, no pistons, no radiator. Hundreds of moving parts are replaced with an electric motor and a bank of batteries. Just the labour costs alone would be a huge savings."
The ZENN costs about $15,000. For the first year, the Zenn will be available through the manufacturer in Saint-Jerome, Que., about 40 minutes from Montreal. The company plans to look at dealership locations across the province where there is a strong demand.
Weichert's organization has been pushing Canadian governments to legalize the low-speed vehicles. Up until now, B.C. has been the only province to allow them on local roads, he said.
"There are many Canadian manufacturers who make these small, lightweight cars but they can't sell it here," he said. "That's the biggest challenge."
The ZENN, manufactured in Quebec, is currently distributed in Mexico, Europe and some American states.
"We're very excited about (the pilot project)," Weichert continued. "We wish other provinces like Ontario could show that kind of leadership."
There are other challenges in making these cars a popular alternative, he said. The public has become accustomed to "hyper mobility," he said, where motorists drive long distances at high speeds.
The ZENN is a two-seat hatchback that can travel a distance of 60 kilometres on a fully charged battery. The car can reach a top speed of 40 kilometres an hour.
The Nemo, a small pick-up truck that can carry a half-ton load, can travel 115 kilometres, but also at a top speed of 40 kilometres an hour.
"If we can just scale back a little and learn to live locally, an electric car is ideal," said Weichert.
But the technology in battery power poses another challenge. While the technology is available, it's expensive. Mass production of the battery would bring the cost down but without the support of provincial governments, large-scale production is not viable.
Ontario, home to Canada's flailing auto industry, is the latest province to show some interest in testing out the lightweight electric cars.
Eco-activist groups put the pressure on Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty at Toronto's Green Living Show in April by circulating a petition asking him to change the laws to allow low-speed cars on the road.
McGuinty was quoted in the media shortly after the show, saying that the laws need to be balanced so that they don't impede the province's responsibility to the environment. He was expected to discuss the matter with Donna Cansfield, Ontario's transport minister.
"The public wants these options right now but regulators aren't allowing us to do this," said Weichert.
He pointed to the recent job cuts at General Motors as a reason for Ontario to pursue electric vehicles.
"SUVs are on the way out, that's been proven," Weichert said. "Auto plants are shutting down. Why do all of these people have to be out of a job when they can be building these cars?"
Gregoire told CTV.ca that there were a number of reasons why the Quebec government decided to pursue this route.
"We had to try and find other systems to help us fight greenhouse gas emissions," he said. "With the price of oil being so high, this was a great reason to try this."
He said researchers will try to determine how efficient and practical the car is.
"It's a great opportunity for investment," he said. "But first we will have to see if it's economically viable before we can adopt it formally."