Xebra motorcycle



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Description: Special to The Plain Dealer The Zap! Xebra PK pickup and the Xebra sedan sit in a parking lot near the company's headquarters in California. The first Ohio resident to try to register one of the

Special to The Plain Dealer The Zap! Xebra PK pickup and the Xebra sedan sit in a parking lot near the company's headquarters in California. The first Ohio resident to try to register one of the three-wheeled electric cars in the state failed because Ohio law does not consider the Xebras to be cars or motorcycles.

But the first person who tried to register the best-selling electric vehicle in the United States had his title and registration pulled without ever getting the vehicle on the road - all because of the shape of its seats.

"They say it's not a motorcycle based on the Ohio definition," said Alan Fuller, a 46-year-old father of two and a computer technician for the National Weather Service in Wilmington. about 50 miles northeast of Cincinnati.

Ohio's ruling could threaten not only Fuller's car but electric three-wheelers made in Tallmadge and a handful of other gasoline and electric-powered vehicles that are growing more popular at a time of record fuel prices.

In February, Fuller received his Zap! Xebra pickup, a three-wheeled electric vehicle with a top speed of 40 mph and a 25-mile range. He paid $11,000 for it and quickly paid $773.99 in sales taxes. Title and registration fees cost him $31 more. A few days later, the motorcycle plate 43NQH sat on its back bumper.

Today, Fuller is trying to finalize the sale of the Xebra to a landscaper in Oregon, a state that will let her register the vehicle without incident.

About six weeks after he got his pickup from a dealer in Chicago, the Bureau of Motor Vehicles in Columbus sent Fuller a letter telling him to send the title back. His Xebra wasn't fit for Ohio roads. Read the letter here (PDF)

Josh Engel, chief legal counsel for the BMV. said Ohio supports alternative fuels and advanced vehicles, but state law is clear.

The key issue was the Xebra's motorcycle status. Federal regulators defines a motorcycle as any motorized vehicle with three or fewer wheels and a saddle or a seat. Ohio law says a motorcycle has to have a saddle.

With a traditional car seat, the BMV ruled that the Xebra wasn't a motorcycle. It also wasn't a car or anything else. It couldn't be titled for use on Ohio roads.

Winning motorcycle status is key for electric vehicle manufacturers. Motorcycles don't need airbags or other safety devices, and they can go faster. Four-wheeled neighborhood electric vehicles can go no faster than 25 mph.

Myers Motors of Tallmadge sells a three-wheel electric vehicle called the NmG (no more gas) that can go 76 mph. The single-passenger vehicle costs $36,000, but company owner Dana Myers said he's working to get the cost down this year.

Tom Hunter, communications director for the BMV, said his agency is working with Myers and the governor's office to come up with a short-term solution to the titling problem.

Simply changing the state's interpretation of a saddle won't solve the problem, Engel said. If the state allows Xebra and NmG owners to register vehicles as motorcycles, drivers would have to get motorcycle endorsements on their licenses.

"That means for the first year you're driving, you'd be considered provisional and you'd have to wear a helmet inside the vehicle," he said.

Dick Staley, owner of electric vehicle dealership North Central Zenn in New London, stopped selling Xebras this year. He still sells the Canadian-made Zenn four-wheel electric car.

He sells Zap! vehicles to people in other states, but he said he wouldn't sell them to Ohio residents until he gets state assurances that people can get them titled.

"The people who are driving them now are the pioneers who are laying the groundwork for economically viable electric vehicles," Staley said.

Zap! Chairman Gary Starr said he has run into problems before with state definitions. California, where his company is based, also uses the "saddle" distinction for motorcycles.

But in every other case, regulators have favored the environmental benefits of electric vehicles over narrow interpretations of state laws.

"The No. 1 definition of a saddle is a seat that you put on an animal that you straddle," Starr said. "No motorcycle in the country could pass that definition."

Engel said the best solution to the problem would be legislative action. Lawmakers could craft rules that would allow registration of three-wheeled electric vehicles and eliminate the need of a motorcycle helmet.

Although he's given up on the Xebra, Fuller said he isn't ready to call it quits when it comes to getting an electric pickup. A kit to convert an old Chevrolet pickup into an electric vehicle costs about $9,500.






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