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Solar-powered carts leave golf course for streets

At around $3 per gallon, the price of gasoline is both a boon and a bane to Sarasota-based solar and electric vehicle maker Cruise Car Inc.
This solar-powered cart is made by Cruise Car Inc. of Sarasota, Fla.
This solar-powered cart is made by Cruise Car Inc. of Sarasota, Fla.Cruise Car Inc.
/ Source: The Associated Press

At around $3 per gallon, the price of gasoline is both a boon and a bane to Sarasota-based solar and electric vehicle maker Cruise Car Inc.

The benefit is obvious: As the numbers on the signboards outside stations move upward, more and more people start looking for ways to ditch their gas guzzlers, be they eight-cylinder sport utility vehicles or two-seater golf carts.

But because Cruise Car's parts are made in China and shipped around the world and cross-country to a Venice assembly plant, the rising cost of fuel means consumers may also have to pay more for what the two-year-old company's founder acknowledges is a largely unknown — and unproven — commodity.

"Gas is our biggest enemy and our greatest ally right now," said Cruise Car founder Kenneth Chester. "The higher the price goes, the more people say they need an alternative to fossil fuel vehicles."

Chester and sales director Tom McCoy believe they have the answer in a solar-powered line dubbed Sunray and an electric vehicle named Kudo, both of which can be made street-legal and come with features ranging from aluminum rims to headlights, and even seat belts.

Fully charged by the sun, the solar-powered carts can go for three hours at a stretch, and reach speeds of 25 mph. And they're carbon free, as in no greenhouse gases tied to global warming.

The technology is deceptively simple, too. Solar panels installed in the flat roof of a cart transfer as many as 180 watts of energy — enough to light a lamp or run a hand mixer full out — to batteries, which in turn power the vehicle.

$3,495 for solar cart
But Cruise Car's products are not cheap. A customized Sunray golf cart starts at $3,495, and a 14-seat electric tram costs about $15,000.

McCoy notes that federal tax credits to promote solar power and sales tax rebates can knock hundreds of dollars off that cost, though.

And there's a security factor he considers priceless.

"On a sunny day, you never have to worry about running out of juice — never," McCoy said. "And if it's cloudy, you run off the batteries."

Chester sees big potential. Big.

"This is going to revolutionize how people live," he said.

They just may. As political leaders as diverse as former Vice President Al Gore and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger join forces to rally for environmental-inspired change, Cruise Car's products appear to fit right in with a burgeoning interest in "green" living.

Dead gas cart inspired founder
Chester serendipitously broke into the solar power business a little less than three years ago on the 15th hole of a golf course, when his gas-powered cart up and died.

He had retired from high-level jobs in pharmaceuticals with Pfizer and generic drug maker Schein, where he was an executive vice president, and had taken on a series of second careers.

He dabbled with an import-export business with ties to China. He developed a small shopping center near U.S. 41 and Stickney Point Road. He bought the Boar's Head Lounge on Gateway Avenue.

Nothing satisfied him. At 61, the New York native was bored and restless — until that fateful day on the back nine.

Working some overseas contacts, Chester found a Chinese manufacturer that had been selling solar-equipped vehicles throughout Europe and Asia since 1999, and sealed a deal for U.S. distribution.

Cruise Car was born.

Tom McCoy has been involved with solar energy since the late 1970s. He has installed sun-based power systems in Africa, hooked up condos to solar in the Dominican Republic, and even received a patent for a solar-paneled golf cart in 1988.

By chance, he happened to be dining in the Boar's Head one day in early 2006 when he struck up a conversation with Chester, who mentioned, casually, that he had recently started a company to sell solar golf carts.

McCoy could not believe it.

"I told him it wasn't a matter of if I would work with him, but when," said McCoy, 55.

30 dealerships
Together, they and five other employees — and about 30 dealerships in the United States and the Caribbean — have been beating the bushes to sell or lease Cruise Car's products.

They have talked with Florida Power & Light, a university in New Jersey, resorts in Mexico and Puerto Rico, Hollywood studios like Disney and Paramount, and the U.S. General Services Administration.

Closer to home, Cruise Car has made sales pitches to Sarasota County, the Ringling Museum of Art, and the cities of Sarasota, Crystal River and West Palm Beach.

Chester said the company has recorded "hundreds of sales," though he declines to reveal exact figures or the privately held company's financial results.

"We're an unproven entity, so we know we have to show that (the vehicles) have endurability," Chester said. "The question is, which community is going to step up to the plate and be cutting edge?"

The answer may be right here in Sarasota.

"We've looked into them, and they seem to work very well," said Norman West, Sarasota County's vehicle replacement coordinator. "Some of them go relatively fast. We're considering buying at least one or two, as a trial, though right now we're downsizing our fleet."

"But we'll keep them in mind," West added. "Their prices are competitive for like pieces of equipment that are gas-powered."

Cruise Car is looking beyond local government to develop a customer base, too.

"We have one of their carts here, and we've been totally impressed with the quality," said TenaWilson, director of human resources, front desk and security at Sarasota retirement community Plymouth Harbor.

"It felt like we went from a Hyundai to a Cadillac; it was just that much difference," Wilson added. "And the whole solar aspect, to be part of an environmental solution, was so important to us."

Conversion kit planned
Chester and McCoy hope to convert that desire to save the planet into sales, and to do so, they are ramping up infrastructure and product lines.

Their first step involves leasing warehouse space in California, both to establish a sales base and to assemble vehicles.

Before long, they hope to roll out a conversion kit that can transform a gas-powered golf cart to a solar one, for roughly $1,200 after tax rebates and credits.

Moreover, Chester said his Chinese manufacturer is preparing to unveil a 22-seat vehicle that Cruise Car would sell, which could replace many gas-powered buses and trams used by transit authorities nationwide.

So while a planned Chevrolet solar-powered automobile will likely take years to reach dealerships — a prototype model is available at a cool $250,000 — Cruise Car intends to take advantage of the surging interest in alternative energy vehicles now.

"We've touched just the tip of the iceberg here," Chester said.