Cruisin’ down electric avenue

The brave new world is here — and it has me doing all sorts of things I never thought I was capable of. I signed a contract this week on a brand new plug-in hybrid car, the 2017 Prius Prime.

I’ve never had a new car before. My first car was a Nissan Sentra pushing 20 years old that had only one working windshield wiper, and an unfortunate tendency to sputter and die at traffic lights. I haven’t made much progress since then. I’m currently hanging onto a 1999 Honda CRV with 230,000 miles on it — a faithful if unlovely steed, with an iron constitution and a vague funk as if a bit of egg sandwich had once crept quietly into the air filter to die. The air conditioning doesn’t work. Neither does the driver’s side window, which is always fun at toll booths. With the Prius coming into the family, I suppose I’ll have to sell our other car, a Corolla whose front bumper is held together with zip ties.

We’re not exactly Tesla people, is what I’m saying. It feels like the right time, though. Technology has finally advanced far enough to get me to willingly walk into a car dealership.

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Somehow, in the last couple of years, electric cars have gotten alarmingly normal. While shopping around for our new car, we test-drove a plug-in hybrid Chevy Volt, which was satisfyingly vroomalicious but a bit out of our budget. The most incredible thing about it was how utterly regular it looked, from the outside. I don’t know what I was expecting: A 1981 DeLorean, maybe, or a really large immersion blender. It looked like a car.

The Prius Prime is also obviously a car, although there’s something insectine about the front end of it. That’s fine with me. I rather like the mandibles.

My sudden willingness to take on a monthly car payment might have something to do with the fact that my tiny little village recently got an electric vehicle charging station. In 2016, Transition Catskills — a local offshoot of the cheerful economy-greening Transition movement — installed electric vehicle plug-in stations in Margaretville, Delhi and Hobart. The stations were built with help from a grant from NYSERDA, but Transition Catskills has committed to pay for the electricity for the first four years, making them free for drivers through 2020.

Besides the three Transition Catskills spots, there are a few other public charging stations scattered around the region, many of them free to use. The Catskill Brewery, an easy walk from downtown Livingston Manor, has a station. So does the Catskill Center for Conservation and Development in Arkville. Kingston has several, including one at the Ulster County office building, right around the corner from Uptown.

After so many years of electric-vehicle hype and little action, it’s surprising to me that public investment in electric car infrastructure is suddenly, quietly happening. What’s even more surprising is that it’s happening here. In most arenas — culture, connectivity, access to new innovations in technology — rural upstate New York has a perennial feeling of being about five or ten years behind the times.

In the fast-moving realm of electric vehicles, we may actually be ahead of the curve. Delaware County is now home to the world’s first electric truck. Robert Bollinger’s B1, designed and made in Hobart — Hobart! — is a utilitarian, defiantly analog contraption that owes something of a design debt to the military-issue Humvee. Built like a box and studded with rivets, it’s about as far from the Seuss-and-Jetson world of typical electric vehicle prototypes as it’s possible to get. But then again, so is Hobart.

Last year, when my wife and I were still running the Watershed Post news website, we sent a reporter to Bollinger’s headquarters to report on how the electric truck was coming along. He came back with photos of a wooden mockup of the frame and a dinky little taped-together cardboard model of what the B1 might eventually look like. Everyone involved with the B1 project was clearly earnest and talented, but it was hard to believe the thing would ever get made.

A year later, the B1 is tantalizingly close to market. About a month ago, Bollinger unveiled the first B1 prototype at the Classic Car Club in New York City. Within two weeks, the company had a waiting list of 6000 interested potential buyers, hoping for a chance to snap up one of the first B1s when they start rolling off the production line in 2019. Heroic shots of the truck looking stalwart and useful surrounded by rolling Catskills farmland are inspiring car lust in readers of major media outlets like Outside, The Verge and Men’s Journal.

Incredible. They’re making sexy zero-emissions cars in the Catskills, and next week I’m going to drive my car home and plug it into a free public charger around the corner from my house. At least in this one little arena, the future rushing at us at a precipitous rate is a bright one. It feels good to be part of it.

Lissa Harris is the former editor of the Watershed Post. She lives in Margaretville with her wife and daughter. Send her Catskills news tips at lissa.e.harris@gmail.com.

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