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Electric cars a hot item in Fargo
By Bob Reha
Minnesota Public Radio
August 8, 2001
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Fargo, N.D. may never replace Detroit as the car capital of the world, but Fargo-based Global Electric MotorCars or GEM is gaining international attention. After being bought by Daimler-Chrysler last October, GEM has nearly doubled production. Now the company is negoitating to move to a bigger building and double its work force.

GEM electric cars on the lot at the company's factory in Fargo. The cars are classified as low-speed neighborhood electric vehicles, and can be driven on roads that are posted at 35 mph. The cars are approved for use in 37 states.
(MPR Photo/Bob Reha)
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WORK MOVES AT A HECTIC PACE AT THE GLOBAL ELECTRIC MOTORCARS PLANT in Fargo. One worker finishes a console for a vehilce, while another pounds a part of the frame into place, and a third uses an impact wrench to bolt another component in place.The work continues even as employees roam through the production area. It is all in marked contrast to the finished electric cars, which glide almost silently onto a semi trailer for shipment.

Mike Clevenger, director of field operations for GEM, says becoming part of Daimler-Chrysler has created new possibilities for the company. Gaining access to an established network of dealerships is just one example. The parent company's economic clout is another. Clevenger says it has all led to an explosive production increase. In the company's first three years, GEM produced 5,000 cars. Last year alone, production increased to 4,000.

"The market is growing. There's been more sensitivity into alternative fuels and green areas and environmental issues. The government's become very politically involved because of environmental issues," says Clevenger.

As federal and state officials push for cleaner air standards, Clevenger says GEM's market is expanding - sometimes in unexpected ways.

"Even OSHA (Occupational Health and Safety Administration) is becoming involved with the level of hydrocarbons and pollutants inside the plants, so they want other than combustion vehicles," he says.

One major corporation - Boeing - is buying GEM electric cars for their fleet use. Another is Walmart.
"They're going to be using roughly 400 of these for security vehicles throughout the country," says Clevenger. "Military bases - Air Force, Army, Marines, Coast Guard - that type of thing. We've gotten into the arena of specialty vehicles we're building these as ambulances, hazardous materials vehicles and fire rescue vehicles."

Clevenger says GEM cars are now street legal in 37 states, and he anticipates they'll be legal in all 50 states by next year. The demand is so great, he says the company is negotiating to move into a new building, because it doesn't have time to build a new plant. He says once the move is completed and staff hired, the company will produce up to 130 cars a day.

GEM cars being built on the factory floor. Global Electric MotorCars employs more than 100 people, and plans to double its workforce and production over the next several months.
(MPR Photo/Bob Reha)
GEM's success is a source of local pride. Don Berg of the Fargo-Cass County Economic Development Corporation says GEM's success story debunks common myths about the region.

"A lot of people don't know anything about us except the movie Fargo, or the weather," says Berg. "I can mention several good businesses here in town that are world class including GEM. This is our latest coup with a company that is growing and has gotten national recognition, and turns out a national product."

Berg says when a company like Daimler-Chrysler make a committment to a community like Fargo, it's easier to recruit other businesses to the area. GEM's Mike Clevenger sees a future full of potential.

Not one everyone shares that viewpoint. Paul Eisenstein is publisher of Eisenstein says there are reasons to be skeptical.

"These are not automobiles in the conventional sense. That means they specifically don't have some of the important safety features that you would find on a regular passenger car - they don't even have to have doors," says Eisenstein.

Eisenstein says if members of the public perceive the cars as dangerous they'll lose interest. He says there is also uncertainty about governmental policies that currently benefit electric cars. But GEM officials remain optimistic. They note that Ford is preparing to launch its own similar electric vehicle. Mike Clevenger believes that only adds credibility to the future of electric cars.