Some things never change at the Minnesota State Fair. The livestock and horticulture exhibits, the dairy queens sculpted in butter, the Old Mill water ride – all link us to the past and the comforting continuity of life in the Gopher State.
But some things do change, sometimes surprisingly, reflecting the latest headlines and foreshadowing the future. For example, in a year of $4 gasoline, the Dodge lot on Cooper St. is touting a 24-miles-per-gallon (highway) minivan instead of the gas-guzzling V8 Hemis of previous years.
The Fine Arts Building offers no fewer than four images relating to the I-35W bridge disaster a year ago. Three depict the twisted debris post-collapse; the fourth is a haunting black-and-white photograph of the bridge’s elaborate, doomed steel undercarriage, shot 107 days before the fall. Two of them won ribbons.
These pieces are in an all-transportation corner of the exhibit, 22 works featuring vehicles and thoroughfares. My favorite of the bunch is John Roy’s “American Iron Icons,” a raucous jumble of 20th-century cars, trucks, motorcycles, motels and gas pumps in a glassed-in 3-dimensional photo mix. It won a blue ribbon, and you can have it for $2,000.
Across Randall Av. at the Eco Experience, the likely future of automotive travel is on display: all-electric cars and motorcycles in varying states of development and marketability. A sign next to a modified 1987 Corvette suggests it could produce 800 horsepower hooked to a sufficient battery pack. But that apparently won’t be available anytime soon. The Minnesota Electric Auto Association (Land of 10,000 Outlets) website reports that in the Volt ‘Vette’s maiden run, 900 pounds of lead-acid batteries got it up to only 30 miles per hour.
Along more practical lines, there’s the Vectrix “maxi-scooter,” a plug-in two-wheeler said to hit 62 m.p.h. at the pleasing price of a penny a mile. A 3-to-5-hour charge is supposed to be good for 35 to 55 miles of zero-emissions transportation. You can learn more here and buy it at Scooterville in Minneapolis for $8,795.
The Zapino electric scooter (on sale at a “State Fair Special” price of $2,995, $500 off the list) claims a 30-mile range per charge and a top speed of 45 m.p.h. Check it out here.
An experimental enclosed two-wheeler developed by students at St. Thomas Academy boasts 50 miles of range on a three-hour charge and a top speed of 60 m.p.h.
A prototype converted 1997 Geo Metro is said to reach 70 m.p.h. for up to 50 miles per charge. The builder says it cost $15,500, including a $2,780 battery pack that has to be replaced after an estimated 1,000 charges. Figuring in that ongoing expense, the cost per mile is said to be 8.3 cents.
Then there’s the ZENN (Zero Emissions, No Noise), a 1,300-pound two-seat hatchback “neighborhood electric vehicle”. Cushman Motors in Minneapolis has sold about 15 of them since last December. The ZENN can run 35 miles at a top speed of 35 m.p.h. on an eight-hour charge costing about 60 cents. It costs $17,540, plus a $1,500 battery replacement every three years.
There are a lot of good arguments for going electric. Gasoline is polluting, greenhouse gas-emitting and costly, and probably only getting more expensive long term. Hydrogen fuel cells, touted by some as the future of motoring, are far from commercial development and would require massive new fuel-distribution infrastructure. By contrast, nearly every U.S. home and garage already tap the electric grid, which is cleaner-running and has excess nighttime capacity available for recharges.
Here’s another plus: If you buy no gasoline, you pay no gas taxes. That’s nice for the driver, not so nice for state and local governments, which need the revenue to maintain roads and bridges. The rise of electric vehicles will have to spur implementation of a mileage tax, now under study in Minnesota.
Meanwhile, though, I expect the most enthusiastic early adopters of voltage vehicles to be the merry pranksters of the Tax Evaders League of Minnesota. But it behooves the rest of us to envision how our society will continue to support motorways when drivers no longer pay for them at the gas pump.