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Wednesday, Nov. 12, 2008 08:15 am

Plug and play

Fun with an electric vehicle in Springfield

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David Brunson has grown accustomed to the staring, the pointing, the laughing, the questions, and the picture taking. When he bought his electric car three years ago, he had no idea it would command so much attention. And now, in a year that has seen record-high gas prices, Brunson is getting the last laugh.

Brunson, who lives near Washington Park, decided a change was in order after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Like many Americans, he sought a solution to the problem of America’s foreign oil dependency. He found it on the Internet in the form of a yellow Comuta Car.

After the 1974 oil embargo, a man in Florida started manufacturing the Comuta, eventually producing 6,000 electric vehicles, or “EVs.” Now, Brunson is one of many people who have restored one of the pint-size pluggable cars because they became “fed up for whatever reason.”

Brunson said he became fed up when gas hit $1.90 a gallon. He drives his Comuta, with a top speed of 43 mph, year round. “It’s just a car after a while,” says Brunson as we drive though Washington Park on a Saturday. Some people avert their eyes, others stop for a look, a group of kids chase us. The reactions, he says, are the most fun part of owning the unusual automobile.

Brunson seems a bit sad that EVs never became more popular, saying that his car is good for 30 miles on a single charge (he hangs an extension cord from his office window when it needs a pick-me-up). The electric car did have a shot at the American markets, but popularity waned when big manufacturers, feeling threatened, pushed Congress to enforce safety standards written for bigger cars. Still, Montana has passed laws allowing new production of EVs, and Brunson has written to Illinois legislators asking them to follow suit.

He blames the lack of popularity on American lifestyles. “People want to hop in and go 400 miles, plug in for five minutes, and drive back home.” Brunson, meanwhile, is happy to spend the equivalent of 2.5 cents per mile to operate his Comuta Car. “It takes less to run my car than it does my daughter’s hair dryer,” he laughs.

And what about the family? Brunson says that there is a gender gap when it comes to his car; men love it and women hate it. As Brunson shows me the car’s eight small batteries and a six-inch oscillating fan (his “air conditioner”), his daughter emerges from the house.

“What do you think of your dad’s car?” I ask.

She thinks for a minute, her eyes rolling back as she searches for something nice to say.

“Um. It’s shiny?”

Still, Brunson remains determined to do his part. For those who might not be ready to take the EV plunge, he recommends taking easy steps like replacing traditional light bulbs with compact fluorescent units. But the truth is any vehicle can be converted to an EV with a special kit. There are nationwide clubs for electric car owners, a manufacturer in the Chicago suburbs (Zap of Oak Forest, www.zapofoakforest.com), and even a few locals like Joe Clennon, who has made his Chevy S-10 fully electric.

“People are curious,” Brunson says, “They really are. But now that gas has gone back down, people will just go back to sleep.”

One might think that Brunson is an electrical whiz, but that’s not the case. “It’s simple technology from the 1970s. I didn’t know what I was doing at first either.”

As I leave our interview, I hop back into my 2002 Volvo S-60 and head home. I’ll need a fill-up on the way, and as I slide my debit card into the fuel pump, I can’t help but think of David Brunson and his little yellow electric car. The whole way home, nobody stares at me, nobody points. And I go back to sleep.

Zach Baliva is a filmmaker living in Springfield.

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