Detroit Auto Show: Chrysler’s GEM EVs

Compared to its competitors, Chrysler hasn’t been making much news on the electric-vehicle (EV) front, not since it said last March that it would develop an EV version of the Fiat 500 for release in 2012. But the company has a little-noticed subsidiary called Global Electric Motorcars (GEM), which claims market leadership in the not-so-glamorous low-speed vehicle category. And as automakers got set to show their wares at the North American International Auto Show, Chrysler unveiled its 2011 GEM line, touting just a little bit of whiz-bang technology.

The big new thing out of the GEM plant in Fargo, N.D., is an energy monitoring system for these quirky little four-wheelers often employed as fleet vehicles on college campuses, military bases and other institutional settings. The “e-meter” isn’t super-sophisticated – it’s an LCD readout that records the electricity in kilowatt hours (kWh) going into the GEM vehicle while charging. But by using the odometer’s trip data, drivers can figure out the vehicle’s energy efficiency.

Low-speed electric vehicle, Chrysler Global Electric Motorcars

image via Chrysler

“The 2011 model year marks our 13th year in designing and distributing 100 percent battery-electric GEM vehicles,” said GEM President and Chief Operating Officer Rick Kasper. “We’re always integrating new technologies and features into our product line that allow our customers to customize their vehicles and use them in a variety of capacities.”

There are six models in the GEM line, with the smallest, bare-bones version starting around $8,000. Could you drive one around town? Probably. Chrysler said the vehicles are classified as Low Speed Vehicles (LSV) or Neighborhood Electric Vehicles (NEV) by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and are street-legal in most states on roads posted 35 mph or less. They have a top speed of 25 mph, a range of about 30 miles on a charge and plug into a standard household outlet.

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Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.