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Raising awareness one ride at a time

Twike Ride in Champaign from Community Media Workshop on Vimeo.

Students, staff and a faculty member or two turned out last night for a leadership and communications training sponsored by the University YMCA just off the campus of University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana.

It was a great training, but for me the biggest surprise of the evening was when one of the participants, Matt Childress, gave me a lift back to my hotel in his personal Twike–a German-made electric, three-wheeled motorcycle that also moves by pedal power. He drives to and from his job doing IT in the university chancellor’s office most every day of the year.

Matt had told me earlier in the evening that he came out to the communications workshop “How To Really Get Heard” because he recently formed an Illinois EV (electric, or exotically-fueled, vehicle) club, and he wants to “learn how to get the word out, gain membership in the EV Club, and hopefully stop having to do all the work myself….well, maybe.” The club exists primarily as a Facebook group right now.

So what struck me–other than just how incredibly freaking cool it was to ride at about 45 mph through downtown Champaign in a space-age pod vehicle that totally turned heads — the University Y building is right next to a sorority house, and as we were getting in voices from the sorority were calling to Matt “hey, can I get a ride?” Along our route, such as when we stopped at red lights, people said “hey, what is that thing?” I think the reason I decided to blog about Matt’s twike, though, was because of how he uses it to evangelize for electric vehicles and getting us out of our gasoline cars generally.

While he was letting me drive it around an empty parking lot (sorry, no video of that!), Matt explained that when he was himself a student some years ago at the university, one professor had a mauve, psychedelically painted VW bus — which was so high profile in the small college town, everyone knew all about it. So part of Matt’s calculation in purchasing the twike, used, from a friend, was the potential for raising awareness around the campus that it represented.

My head is now full of intriguing miscellaneous facts, such as:

  • The state of Illinois has no license plate for an electric motorcycle currently–electric cars, yes, but not 3-wheeled electric motorcycles (I’m sure my facebook friend Gov. Quinn can get right on this–maybe he should join the EV club group)
  • A twike runs on C batteries–a lot of them–and you plug it in to keep it going–instead of gas a meter in the tiny onboard computer tells you how much volts you have, at rest or when it’s turned on–if you fall to about 250V (i think, or thereabouts), plan to power up or push pretty darn soon
  • Getting in or out is a lot like getting in or out of a canoe–lower yourself to the seat butt first (the body is made of light plastic)
  • It’s sort of like owning a foreign sports car used to be in the 1970s–hard to find a place to get parts and service! While there are lots of different kinds of EVs (electric vehicles) out there, the twike costs $35,000 new and you have to import it yourself from Europe. But it does last a long time. Maybe it helps if you own it in a college town–Matt has had some help with repairs (since the nearest repair shop is in England) from the guy who fixes the electron microscopes on campus.

But to get back to Matt as evangelist. At every stoplight, or anytime folks like the sorority house residents or others call out “What is that thing?” Matt explains.BTW, this whole explaining to passersby all the time thing is starting to get a little old for his 8-year-old daughter, Matt says (but I think she’ll love telling the story when she gets older–if she does not die of mortification when she’s 13 first).

Of course, the passersby don’t always understand what he’s talking about right off. My favorite response last night: “I don’t understand anything you said, but that looks really cool!” Raising awareness… it’s a process. But you don’t have to enjoy the ride in an EV for long to be convinced how cool it is… couple that with the communication efforts, and it’s a force to be reckoned with.

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