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1994 Solectria E10 and 1997 Chevrolet S10 Electric Pickups

Although it is the home of hulking C-130 cargo planes and scorching F-16 fighter jets, I headed out to the Selfridge Air National Guard Base in St. Clair, Michigan, for a drive in something more green than mean: electric Chevrolet S10 pickups.

The transportation department at Selfridge has been constantly tinkering with alternative fuel vehicles (including a hybrid-electric tow tractor, CNG-fueled pickups and hydrogen fuel cell-powered SUVs), but the use of the electric S10s came by chance.; When other military installations were finished with the trucks, they offered them up to Selfridge, who happily placed them on active duty around the base itself.

While at quick glance these trucks seem alike, Selfridge found itself with two different types of electric-powered S10s.; Three trucks are 1994 Solectria E10s, a conversion performed outside of GM's auspices by a company specializing in electric vehicles.

Like many of Solectria's past products, the E10's powertrain is simple, let alone somewhat crude.; A collection of 24 12-volt lead-acid batteries, remarkably similar to those found on golf carts, feed two electric motors connected to the rear axle.; Although I don't have figures on the truck's power, I'm told the E10 can travel approximately 50 miles on a single charge and reach a top-end of 70 mph.

Although the controllers and batteries are installed beneath the body lines of the S10, the crude nature of the installation becomes evident once you've driven an E10.; The entire start-up procedure is akin to that of a golf cart:; you turn the key to 'run,' select 'forward' or 'reverse' from a rotary switch, and hit the accelerator.

As rough as the conversion may be, once underway, the E10 is anything but.; I was able to run the truck on perimeter roads up to 30 mph or so, and the truck simply scoots along without much incident.; Sure, there's some noticeable whine from the motors doing their thing, but riding inside is almost pleasurable, in spite of the work-truck nature of the interior.; Certainly, it's more tolerable than driving a base '94 S10 with a 2.2-liter I-4.;

Perhaps my only real gripe is with the regenerative braking: lift up from the throttle ever so slightly, and the truck immediately begins braking hard.; Heck, given enough clearance and traffic timing, the E10 could possibly stop from 25 mph without using the service brakes.

We're told the 1997 S10 Electrics are much more sophisticated - not surprising, given the entire vehicle was completely engineered, designed, and fabricated by GM.;

Interestingly, the truck is little more than a GM EV1 in an S10 wrapper: the entire electric powertrain was lifted from the infamous coupe and placed, front-wheel-drive and all, into the S10's body.; The integration is seamless - fuel gauges now read for the battery charge level, while directional changes are managed (surprise!) by the column shifter.

Sadly, I wasn't able to sample how much sophisticated these trucks were.; I blame the batteries (pictured), an issue mechanics at Selfridge are currently struggling with.; While the Solectria's batteries are generic and easily sourced, the Panasonic lead-acid batteries originally used by GM are obsolete.;

Presently, the only option is to convert the truck to nickel-metal hydride batteries, a change which forces modifying the S10's power controller and charging system.; The cost for such changes runs close to $10,000 per truck, a significant figure in today's fiscal climate.; The mechanics at Selfridge hope to get the trucks up and running again - certainly, that would be better than the fate of most EV1s...