Geography aside, Eugene, Oregon, is about as far away from Detroit as you can get. The biggest industry in that sleepy town on the banks of the Willamette is education, not auto manufacturing. You’re more likely to see dreadlocks at a typical Eugene business than a hard hat. In fact, perhaps the only thing Eugene and Detroit have in common is a decaying urban core, although in Eugene that core is spanned by about six city blocks. With today’s launch of the Arcimoto Pulse, however, Eugene took what local politicians describe as a first step towards challenging to Detroit’s automaking dominance. And if they are to be believed, and Arcimoto’s three-wheeled Pulse EV is the future of the American mobility, suffice it to say that nobody saw it coming.
The Pulse launch took place today in downtown Portland’s Pioneer Courthouse Square. One hundred or so onlookers gathered around a small stage and a strange looking vehicle, which glistened in the early afternoon sun. The three-wheeled Pulse looks nothing like anything Detroit has produced, although it does bear a faint resemblance to a Toyota Yaris from the front. From behind it looks a bit like the long-awaited (by ZAP investors) Zap Alias three-wheeler. Which is to say, like any other three-wheeled car with a single rear drive wheel.
Launches of small, unconventional EV companies have become something of a regular occurrence over the past three years or so, and if the genre has a defining characteristic it’s the emphasis on principle. The Pulse launch officially kicked off with a quick welcome from Arcimoto CEO Erik Stafl, but the first actual speeches came from EV activist Paul Scott and a number of local politicians. In fact four speakers were given the opportunity to wax eloquent about the benefits of electricity and environmental responsibility before Stafl took the stage again to give details about the Pulse.
“We’ve never had a war over electricity,” Scott told the cheering crowd in the first speech of the event. The Plug In America VP went on to denounce Detroit and America’s oil-producing “enemies” with equal vigor. “Arcimoto isn’t just building a car,” claimed former Senate candidate Steve Novick, “they’re saving the salmon and saving Oregon’s agriculture.” There was talk of Arcimoto’s contribution to Oregon’s “green economy,” and Portland Mayor Sam Adams said he would “rub [The Pulse] in the face of San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom.” (Apparently the two are involved in some sort of EV accumulation contest.)
After the impromptu political rally, Stafl took back the podium and officially introduced his company and its car. A recent graduate of MIT, Stafl looked improbably young as he launched into his speech (indeed, he graduated from South Eugene High School in 2004, some three years after I did). With the optimism that is the birthright of the young, Stafl began by pointing out that Detroit had no gas stations when Henry Ford launched his eponymous motor company. Interestingly though, Portland has a number of electric charging stations and the Pulse plugs into a standard outlet. Arcimoto, like the Fords of 1903, represents a vision, said Stafl. Driving a vehicle like Pulse “shows your dedication” to that vision. Needless to say, the preceding politicians left little doubt as to what that vision is.
But enough of “the vision thing.” The car itself is a tandem two-seater, three-wheeled, 96-volt electric vehicle with a starting price of “under $20,000.” Although the issue was not brought up during the launch speeches, Stafl confirmed afterwords that, for crash test and other regulatory purposes, the Pulse is a motorcycle, not a car. I couldn’t help but wonder if the word “motorcycle” didn’t do as well in marketing clinics as “the environment.” Arcimoto claims the Pulse will go 50 miles on a charge and hit 55 mph, although they were clear that it wasn’t designed for inter-city driving. 100 amp/hours of current is available from a liquid electrolyte-free lead-acid battery, reportedly sourced from an M1A1 tank. The $1,600 battery will be upgradeable in the future, and currently takes 6–8 hours to fully charge. Production of 300 Pulses is planned for the first year, and though Arcimoto is taking deposits now it won’t be offering test drives to the public until next year (I have requested a test drive for TTAC).
All in all, the launch of Arcimoto’s first vehicle was exactly what you might expect from a small, upstart EV maker: an unconventional vehicle, a value proposition built on principle, and a supporting cast of green-tinged politicians. But as I watched the proceedings, I realized I had an opportunity to feel something that had never been a factor in my coverage of the auto industry before. This was as close as I was ever going to get to feeling the hometown pride that has made Detroit cheerleading such a presence in American auto journalism. And yet it never showed up.
I love the promise of what electric vehicles can offer. I love impractical, toylike vehicles. I love motorcycles (I rode my ’72 Honda Scrambler to the event), and I love that the Arcimoto Pulse isn’t a Neighborhood Electric Vehicle. Heck, there are even days where I remember really loving Eugene. But somehow I didn’t feel any emotional reaction to the Pulse or the way it was marketed. It reminded me of how isolated things can get at the southern end of the Willamette Valley, and how insular the thinking and attitudes there can be. For the sake of my friends who still live there, I hope Arcimoto does well and is able to make the vision of “green jobs” a reality in that unlikely locale. But until the vehicle can stand on its own without being propped up by a heavy dose of green guilt, that vision seems doomed to the same gradual decay as Eugene, and Detroit’s, urban centers.