The little blue car that could

These days, South Bend residents probably have been noticing a little sky-blue Think City car tooling around town.

Despite its diminutive size and unassuming appearance, a number of features make this electric car, used by the City of South Bend for reading water meters, a pretty phenomenal commodity.

Energy savings

Why is the Think City car four times more energy efficient than a conventional vehicle?

For one thing, it doesn’t use any gasoline.

Instead, the vehicle runs on an electric motor powered by a lithium-ion battery, which can be charged overnight using any standard electrical outlet. Operating the car costs only about 2–3 cents a mile, which is significantly less than conventional gasoline-powered cars, which cost about 14 cents a mile to operate.

For another thing, the car allows City employees to read water meters without ever having to stop the vehicle and walk up to individual meters. According to meter reader Dennis Van Goey, powerful antennae affixed to the car roof can pick up signals from water meters within a circumference of a couple of city blocks.

“In rural areas, where there’s less interference from things like cell phones, TVs and computers, I can pick up signals from even farther away without getting out of the car,” Van Goey says.

All that efficiency translates to other savings, too, in terms of reducing employees’ time spent collecting meter readings. Less time spent reading meters means more time can be spent on other projects, in keeping with the City’s drive to work smarter and leaner.

Fueled by a partnership

Finally, the vehicle is impressive for its cost. Thanks to a partnership involving several energy-conscious organizations, the City of South Bend was able to buy the car for $1. Those organizations, which formed a partnership to encourage the adoption of electric vehicles throughout Indiana, were:

  • Think North America Inc., the auto’s manufacturer
  • Indiana Office of Energy Development
  • Greater Indiana Clean Cities Coalition
  • South Shore Clean Cities

According to Jon Burke, South Bend’s energy director, the new Think City electric car is part of a long-term fuel conservation strategy using more energy-efficient vehicles throughout the City’s fleet. He notes that the car requires eight hours to recharge fully.

“Theoretically, the car can cover 100 miles per charge per day,” Burke says. “In actual practice, because the car is equipped with a number of devices that also draw on the battery — including the laptops for meter reading, a data-tracking system for monitoring and analyzing the functions of the vehicle itself, and a heater on cold days — the mileage has been roughly half that.

“We expect to be able to get more miles per charge in optimal driving conditions,” he adds.

Obviously, the Think City car creates fewer greenhouse gas emissions, due to its use of electricity. To further reduce these emissions, many of the auto’s components (including the exterior body panels) are fabricated from 100-percent recyclable plastic. The car’s color is molded right into the plastic, thereby eliminating environmentally damaging paint emissions from the manufacturing process.

Already in heavy use

According to Scott Horvath, locator and interim meter-reader supervisor, the car has been in steady use since its purchase.

“Typically, the car handles about 7,000 meter readings every week,” he says. “It has managed to read as many as 2,500 water meters in a single day, although that’s a little above the norm.”

For his part, Van Goey says he spends about 10 to 12 hours every week behind the wheel of the Think City car.

“I like to take it out around the noon hour to increase the visibility,” Van Goey says.

By logging about 200 miles every week in the electric car, Van Goey saves about a tank of gas by not driving his other vehicle.

“And that’s a fuel-efficient vehicle,” he emphasizes. “This is serious energy savings.”

The car of the future?

Will the City of South Bend add more Think City electric cars to its fleet?

Possibly, Burke says.

“Right now, this technology is at a very early stage,” Burke says. “Here in South Bend, we’re charging the car using coal-based energy. That doesn’t accomplish as much as we’d like in reducing the auto’s carbon footprint. We’re still looking for a renewable, clean energy source.” 

One possibility is the proposed 45-kilowatt Howard Park hydroelectric power generator, which could pave the way for a much larger, 1.78-megawatt hydro turbine.

It would be feasible, Burke says, to someday build a small garage and charging station at the site for a fleet of 10 to 12 cars. At that point, the energy savings and carbon reduction would be substantial.

Horvath says he believes the electric car has many potential applications for widespread use.

“The electric car could become the family car sometime in the future,” he says. “But the technology still has a ways to go.”

To find out more about the Think City car, click here.

Publication Date: 
January 2012
Article Type: 
Innovation in Government