With an eagerly awaited affordable Tesla on the way, 2017 may be the tipping point for an electric car revolution that seriously challenges the gas-guzzling status quo. Methacton High School, though, was way out in front of it, starting in 2002 when a local businessman donated a green, three-wheeled, plug-in novelty called a Lomax.
With that, the Montgomery County school launched the Electric Car Club. It now has two vehicles, plus a newly renovated, vegetable-oil-powered truck that uses solar energy to charge the Lomax. Bought for $400 on Craigslist, the former Tastykake truck is not only a standardbearer for renewable fuels but also is kitted out with fun exhibits to serve as a mobile classroom.
As one of the few remaining high school clubs of its kind in the region, the group has been asked to exhibit its vehicles - including a solar-powered Ford Ranger - at the Philadelphia Auto Show, from Jan. 28 to Feb. 5 at the Convention Center. Other schools bringing alternative-energy vehicles to the show are the Workshop School, a charter school in Philadelphia; the University of Pennsylvania; and Temple, Villanova, and Rutgers Universities.
"It's a great way to show to the public that there are young people involved and the technology that is being innovated . . . is not only at the manufacturing level but also at the high school and college level," said Kevin Mazzucola, the Auto Show's executive director.
In seven of the last 13 years, Methacton students have taken first place in an annual competition for cars powered by alternative-energy sources, run most recently by Pennsylvania State University.
Amanda Amornwichet, 18, the only female in the 10-member group, plans to study material engineering, with a focus on renewable energy, in college. "People in this club," she said, "are pretty great."
What they are not is motor heads. Or grease monkeys. In fact, not one professes a love of cars. It's the hands-on problem-solving and the chance to work on emerging technology that give them a charge.
"The whole renewable-power aspect will be huge in the next few decades, so this is a great learning experience," said Jerrod Carney, 16.
He and the other club members had gathered in a back parking lot where the Lomax sat beside the old Tastykake truck that charges it. They have been finishing up the exhibits inside the truck, including a stationary bike that powers different types of lightbulbs, from LED to old-fangled incandescent - guess which bulb is least efficient and requires a lot more pedaling? - and a solar-powered slot-car race track. The $15,000 needed to transform the truck came from a $10,000 donation from Ambler Savings Bank and a whole lot of fund-raising.
The truck's fuel, used vegetable oil, is donated by the catering company where the wife of the club's sponsor, Methacton science coordinator Steve Savitz, works.
In the 1990s, many high schools had electric car clubs, but by the mid-2000s funding cuts had greatly deflated their number. Besides, many techie-minded students were switching to the newest hot thing, robotics, said Oliver Perry, president of the Eastern Electric Vehicle Club, which includes individuals and private clubs in the region. He said he doesn't know how many high school clubs exist today but could name only Methacton.
The club started when a local businessman, John Murphy, donated the Lomax kit car, which he had built and exhibited. Over the years, students have made the convertible two-seater - resembling an old-fashioned English roadster, with wooden dashboard and leather seats - more energy-efficient. Today, it has a range of 75 miles per charge and reaches speeds up to 60 mph.
The club's second vehicle arrived three years ago when a school in Maine folded its electric car program and donated the Ford Ranger. The former owners had installed batteries in the bed and covered it with solar panels to provide sun power. By redistributing weight, the Methacton students hope to make it more efficient and longer-driving.
A longer battery range - and lower price - is the Holy Grail of all electric car makers, whether it's the Nissan Leaf, which gets about 100 miles per charge, or the Tesla, which can go as high as 315. Because of their price and limited driving distance, demand for the cars has been weak: Fewer than 400,000 electric and hybrid models were sold last year, just 2 percent of the total market. But newer versions, such as Tesla's $35,000 Model 3, which will be available this year, are expected to send a jolt through the industry.
For the Methacton students, tinkering with the cars is far more fun than driving them, although they all get turns taking the Lomax on the road. The more it is used, the better its range; its lead acid batteries have their own "memory" that stores a charge better when the car is run frequently, according to Savitz.
With one exception, the students said neither they nor their families own an electric car. Amanda Amorniwchet admitted to driving a Toyota Prius. The mention of the hybrid elicited snickering.
"There's a stigma that comes with a Prius," said Anuraag Nadkarni, 16.
Amorniwchet agreed. "You can't be a teenager," she said, "and blast music from a Prius."