When Mike Barkley drives to Dallas to meet with fellow electric car enthusiasts at the North Texas Electric Auto Association, he has to do so in a gasoline-powered car.
It's too far for his all-electric 1994 Mitsubishi Eclipse, which he converted to electric power himself. Barkley, who lives just outside of Durant, has to be content with an underpowered electric car because the state of Oklahoma won't let him build one that's capable of highway speeds.
"I built it just to prove I could build a vehicle, but I go to the meetings in Dallas, and see all these guys with these fast, highway-capable vehicles. "¦ It's disgruntling to think I can't do that up here. Maybe eventually we can get that law overturned," Barkley said.
Texas, Barkley said, is beating the pants off Oklahoma in the electric car game. A computer technician by trade, and an electrician by hobby, Barkley recently helped a fellow hobbyist in Texas replace the heavy bank of lead-acid batteries in an all-electric Pontiac Fiero sports car with a much lighter lithium-ion one.
"His (battery) pack weighed about 1,200 pounds. We put the equivalent pack of lithium in there and it weighed 250 pounds. It increases range and performance. He basically lost a thousand pounds. That's about like getting rid of five passengers in that Fiero," Barkley said. "We hope them to be the Holy Grail of electric cars."
Indeed, the Chevy Volt, due to dealerships by 2010, is purported to use the new lithium-ion battery to allow its driver to commute more than 40 miles at highway speeds without ever switching on its gasoline engine. A person living within 20 miles of work could drive to work, park, drive home and plug it into an outlet " gasoline-free. The electricity could cost only a few cents a day for the charge.
But watch it. If you plug it into your home's outlet, you might be in violation of Oklahoma law. Is that plug a "physical device that provides a connection from a power source to an electric vehicle," as Oklahoma law states?
For that matter, if you work on your Honda, Toyota or Ford hybrid, or your General Motors Corp. Flex-Fuel vehicle, you might go to jail. Aren't they "any motor vehicle converted or designed to operate on an alternative fuel?"
According to the Oklahoma Alternative Fuels Technician Certification Act, people found breaking these, and any of the other provisions, can be found guilty of a misdemeanor.
Are those servicing Toyota, Honda, GM and others breaking the law?
Perhaps all of them, according to those who enforce the law.
STATUTE OF LIMITATIONS
Gerry Smedley, public information officer for the Oklahoma Department of Central Services, said it's right there in black-and-white.
"Anyone who works on a hybrid vehicle has to be certified," Smedley said. "That is because with the hybrids, all the electric (systems) in the hybrids are greater than 80 volts when you open them up. That's why."
According to the Alternative Fuels Technician Certification Act, passed by the Oklahoma Legislature in 1998, a person who works on any battery-operated vehicle of more than 80 volts " which includes modern hybrids such as the Ford Escape, Toyota Prius or Honda Civic Hybrid " must be certified by a state test after taking a class taught by a certified state instructor.
"The intent of the legislation "¦ (was for) anyone working on the vehicles that all the repairs are done accordingly to fire safety," Smedley said. "The way they defined it, it says 'any person' has to be certified. When it defines the technician, it says 'any person who installs, services, modifies repairs or renovates.'"
And for those violating Oklahoma's alternative fuel law? "Upon conviction thereof the person shall be punished by imprisonment in the county jail not to exceed one (1) year, or by a fine of not more than one thousand dollars ($1,000.00) or by both such fine and imprisonment for each offense."
In light of the fact that much of GM's fleet are flex-fuelled vehicles that can operate on alcohol as well as gasoline, and that the popular hybrids are flying out of dealers' lots as fast as they ship, could Oklahoma's law be considered overly broad?
"I would say these statutes will probably be looked it," Smedley admitted.
THE ONLY DOOR IS HALF-SHUT
To his knowledge, instructor David Castiaux at the Mid-Del Technology Center runs the only electric car certification program in Oklahoma. Established by the law, a student pays nearly $700 to complete the program, plus $100 for the license, in order to gain certification in electronic systems.
"As far as teaching full-time in our school, we've tried to schedule classes to get people to understand electric vehicles " it's just so hard for people to get off and come," Castiaux said. "You end up canceling classes, and upset some people who can make it. It just didn't seem to work out as far as keeping classes full."
So, they've cut Castiaux's schedule to half-time.
"I'm part-time because, believe it or not, there wasn't enough work to really stay fully employed," he said.
Barkley said such requirements of the law hurt a lot of innovation that could be taking place in this state instead of Dallas.
"I don't have the time and money to go to Oklahoma City and take that course. I wouldn't mind having the certification. But it puts a damper on things," Barkley said. "To be honest, the law really hurts us up here in that regard. Most people want to build a highway-capable vehicle."
The original Oklahoma Senate sponsor of the law, retired Sen. Dave Herbert, D-Midwest City, said the intent of the legislation was for safety.
"Of course, understand, you're a lawmaker and you got a bunch of people coming to you and saying, 'Look, this is dangerous stuff. People who don't know what they are doing are going to catch the house on fire, or themselves, or blow something up. There needs to be some sort of licensing process so that if somebody works on somebody else's car, they know they've been through the training program,'" Herbert said.
'PROBABLY NEEDS TO BE CHANGED'
However, Herbert said, now he can see that the law probably needs to be changed, if for nothing else than for private citizens like Barkley to work on his own car. Herbert said a lot of laws, after first being introduced, need to be tweaked in order to work out the bugs. The Alternative Fuels Act may need just such tweaking, he said.
"So the law went on the books and it probably continues to restrain this kind of imagination because of it. Somebody ought to pick up the ball and change that law. Somebody who's got some vision. Somebody needs to put an amendment in there that you are allowed to work on your own vehicle without certification or license," Herbert said. "I believe it currently restricts the imagination of some of our folks out there who may have the answer to our fuel crisis and just can't do it."
House Speaker Chris Benge, R-Tulsa, said he and other legislators intend to look at the law and see what sorts of changes might be necessary. Benge said the fuel crisis needs to be addressed on both the individual level and statewide.
"When these acts were passed, we were not under the economic conditions that we see today or the urgency as far as finding alternative sources to meet our transportation fuel needs. Oklahoma families are hurting," Benge said. "We are looking at it in a big picture mode right now. We want to participate in this discussion and we think Oklahoma has an opportunity to lead in this area. Without a doubt, people are paying too much for gasoline."
WHAT THE LAW SAYS
Oklahoma law states alternative fuels are "fuels which result in comparably lower emissions of oxides of nitrogen, volatile organic compounds, carbon monoxide, or particulate matter or any combination thereof and includes CNG (compressed natural gas), LPG (liquid propane gas), LNG (liquid natural gas), methanol, ethanol, reformulated gasoline and electricity."
Although any conventional, piston-driven car owner can work on his or her own car without danger of arrest, the owner of an alternative fuel car " which includes cars running on any of the alternative fuels listed above " must be certified by the state to do so.
Those who work on their own car, or fuel it, face:
""¦Imprisonment in the county jail not to exceed one (1) year, or by a fine of not more than one thousand dollars ($1,000.00) or by both such fine and imprisonment for each offense."
""¦One hundred dollars ($100.00) for each day that said violation occurs."
"The maximum civil penalty shall not exceed ten thousand dollars ($10,000) for any related series of violations." "Ben Fenwick