WSU prof couple driven to sustain

PULLMAN — Robert and Cecilia Richards make a bold statement about energy sustainability, every time they go for a drive.  The couple, both professors in WSU’s School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, recently purchased their eye-popping pink, eerily-quiet electric car, called the Xebra, in an effort to reduce emissions and do their part for the environment.  

“We’re concerned about global warming and greenhouse gases,” Robert said. “As engineers we want to find solutions that really work for people.”

“Even if [a solution] is really good, if it’s hard to use, people won’t,” Robert said.  “So for us, this is an experiment,” Cecilia said. 

The four-door, three-wheeled Zap Xebra is the first of its kind in Pullman, a city that suits the car perfectly, Cecilia said.  “There’s not a speed limit over 35,” she said with a laugh. 

The surprisingly-spacious 1,800 pound Chinese import, roughly the size of a Geo Metro, has a top speed of 40 miles per hour, meaning “it can go fast enough that it’s not considered a golf cart,” Cecilia said. And with a weight capacity of 500 pounds, the whole family of four can ride green, Robert said.

With a maximum travel distance of 25 miles per charge, road trips are probably out of the question.  That’s fine for the Richards family though:  “Our plan is all in-town driving,” Cecilia said.  If they ever do decide to take a long drive, say, to Moscow, the lead acid batteries can be recharged simply by plugging the car in to any normal electrical outlet.

The couple is getting used to excited reactions to the quirky car by passersby.  “A lot of people laugh and smile and wave,” Robert said, silently driving by a group of students who turned their heads and shouted.  

At a cost of about two cents per mile for electricity, the Zapcar, as it’s also called, gets a gold star for economic efficiency.  In the world of gas guzzlers, which usually average at least 10 to 12 cents per mile for fuel, that’s the equivalent of getting 160 to 180 miles per gallon, Cecilia said.  

But saving money wasn’t the primary motive behind Richards’ purchase. “The real advantage from our point of view, as engineers, is that when you deal with electricity you don’t have all the emissions,” Cecilia said.  Electric cars use electricity produced from power plants which have more thoroughly regulated emissions standards than automobiles, she said.  “It’s a practical way of getting away from oil and gas,” Robert said.

Electricity isn’t the only sustainable alternative fuel source that Robert is testing.  He, along with a number of WSU engineering students, are developing a biodiesel processing system that could use cooking grease to fuel garbage trucks from the facility motor pool, he said.  The current system would use leftover frying oils from the Hillside Café.  If successful, the project could expand to provide fuel for the entire WSU Facilities Operations motor pool, Cecilia said.  “There are a lot of dining facilities on campus,” she said. “And a lot of greasy food.”

Retail price for the Zap Xebra is around $10,000.  It is also available in Ocean Blue, Zebra Flash and Kiwi Green. For more information on Zap cars go to




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