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Local News

Cruisin’ in a BMW and a cement truck

Newest electric vehicles tested at Autobahn Country Club

JOLIET – The BMW I3 is a joy to drive.

The fully electric vehicle surges forward with the slightest nudge of the accelerator. Take your foot off the “gas” and it automatically slows down as its motor changes over to energy generation mode. There’s no coasting, not even downhill.

The instant torque takes some getting used to, but once you figure it out it almost feels like the car is an extension of your foot. It moves when you push, it slows when you let up.

During a 10-minute drive around the track at the Autobahn Country Club on Thursday, we didn’t even have to use the brakes. The car will even park itself, if you are one of those challenged by the geometry of parallel parking.

The Kenworth Class 8 cement mixer also is a joy to drive.

Both the Beamer and the cement mixer were featured vehicles at the Illinois Chamber of Commerce’s Taking the Future Out For a Spin event, which showcased the latest in electric, compressed natural gas and hybrid vehicles.

The compressed natural gas powered engine drives just like an automatic, so simple even a reporter can handle it. The air brakes takes some getting used to though, as does the push button transmission. And the turning radius.

During a 10-minute drive around the Autobahn parking lot, I managed to avoid hitting several vintage Porsches and other expensive cars. And while it doesn’t park itself, few cars would want to fight over a parking space with the multi-ton monster.

While the cars and trucks at Taking the Future Out For a Spin are designed for road use, presenting them at a race track still makes a lot of sense, said Mark Basso, the Autobahn’s founder and president.

“Racing is the harshest proving ground you can use to prove new technology,” Basso said.

The event featured many electric cars, including the Tesla Model S, Chevrolet Volt, Nissan Leaf and Ford Focus.

Stuart Irwin, business operations manager of Clipper Creek, a company that sells charging stations for electric vehicles, said the new technology is here to stay.

“It’s faster out of the gate, it’s silent, there’s no smell and you’re not pulling up to a gas pump to drop $50 a visit,” Irwin said. Improvements in battery technology are increasing driving ranges and bringing down the overall cost of the vehicle, he noted.

Tim Ozinga, of Ozinga Ready Mix Concrete, Inc., of Mokena, is an early adopter of the new technologies. His company was the first in Illinois to switch from diesel to compressed natural gas powered cement mixers. The decision was predicated both by fuel costs and more stringent clean air restrictions on diesel vehicles, Ozinga said.

The new technology is ideal for short-run operations, such as garbage trucks, snow plows and other “spoke and hub” uses where trucks are driving around a set area and then returning home each night, said Steve Flammersfeld, a district vocational manager for Freightliner.

“If you put on enough miles or hours, the break-even point can come within two years,” Flammersfeld said.

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