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Triac, an electric car made in Salinas, getting ready to hit the streets

Is there a Triac in your future? Maybe — if your conscience has evolved to a deep shade of green and you have $25,000 to spare on a locally manufactured, three-wheeled gasless electric vehicle with a 100-mile range.

I drove one around Los Gatos the other day with Mike Ryan, president of Green Vehicles, the Salinas company that makes them. A prototype, one of just a dozen made so far, it had a stick shift that will be replaced in the upcoming Triac 2.0 with an automatic transmission.

It’s no Tesla, but that’s the point, Ryan says. The Triac is a less costly vehicle for an environmentally conscious lifestyle.

“It’s centered around what we call the Green Core. They want to better their environment and lower
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their carbon footprint. We want to do that within the limits of sustainable manufacturing, careful materials selection and affordability,” he said.

A computer science and electrical engineering graduate from UC Berkeley, Ryan cofounded Green Vehicles in 2007 with valley intellectual property lawyer Ehab Youssef after selling a small chip company in Irvine to Broadcom and dabbling in real estate for a while.

“I was looking for something I was passionate about. The environment is top on my list,” Ryan said.

Analyst John Gartner of Pike Research said, “We see the market really taking off in 2011, thanks to all the investment being made by companies like General Motors, Mitsubishi and Nissan.” He said the biggest restriction
is cost, but he expects the price to come down over the next few years.

Paul Scott, vice president of the San Francisco based Plug In America, said “the market is quite robust” for lightweight commuter vehicles like the Triac. “It’s going to look different, that limits its appeal somewhat, but given the efficiency of those vehicles — they are very lightweight — you’re going to get a lot of people wanting to buy those as the cost of gasoline goes up.” And there’s a $7,500 federal tax credit and California rebate of up to $5,000 for qualifying EVs, he noted.

In my test drive, the Triac handled the uneven streets of Los Gatos well. It has a roomy passenger cabin despite its small size. It’s zippy. And it felt good to have weaned myself from the gas pump, if only for 10 or 15 minutes.

Behind the wheel, it felt like a gasoline-powered car, with a few differences. It was silent. Braking was counterintuitive for someone who has driven stick shifts for many decades. As I pulled to a stop sign, my instinct with the manual shift engaged was to press on the clutch. But as with an automatic shift transmission, all I had to do was step on the brake.

The vehicle took a speed bump handily even though I didn’t slow down for it, and it exhibited excellent acceleration. It’s supposed to do 80 on the freeway, but I stayed in town and kept it under 35 mph.

The 100-mile range is due to its light weight and powerful lithium-ion battery, made by Leyden Energy in Fremont. The two companies have California Energy Commission grants totaling $5 million to make the batteries and vehicles in California. Leyden says the battery can operate at up to 140 degrees Fahrenheit without degradation of the cells, eliminating the need for a battery cooling system.

Range is a touchy subject among EV makers. “The reason I say an ‘honest’ hundred miles is there has been a tendency in some cases for folks to overestimate their range by calculating it in an advantageous situation, say, 30 mph on a flat surface with no stops,” Ryan said. —‰’Honest’ means this is what drivers will actually experience driving it around.”

The first Triac prototypes were made in China, but the company moved manufacturing operations to California to lower its carbon footprint as soon as it got funding from the energy commission. Building the Triac in the state with the greatest market for electric vehicles will minimize the cost of transporting materials and vehicles, Ryan said.

“We’re a California manufacturing company,” he said. “A lot of people are going to like that.”

Green Vehicles and Leyden announced their Triac partnership two weeks ago at Green Vehicles’ 80,000-square-foot plant in Salinas. The vehicles are expected to begin rolling off the assembly line at the end of next year at a rate of 2,000 a year.

The Triac will include a Vehicle Efficiency Data Assistant — VEDA — interface to the battery management system as well as diagnostic and navigational data. VEDA is an electronic learning system that captures a person’s driving habits and commute patterns to accurately predict miles left before recharging.
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