Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Ditch the car?

Michael Bernheim’s solution to soaring gas prices will cost you $1,000.

It has four wheels, weighs 52 pounds and is covered in grip tape. It’s a 40-inch-long skateboard that runs on electricity and has a top speed of 22 MPH. It’ll take you 14 miles before its batteries need to be recharged. “Refueling” takes three hours, but it only costs about 20 cents.

“You don’t have to have insurance; it’s nonpolluting; it’s portable. And you can carry chicks on it,” said Bernheim, co-owner of California Motors Co.

On the niche company’s website, which is on the free and popular networking site, MySpace.com, Bernheim is marketing the electric-powered skateboard as a practical alternative to high gasoline prices.

The average price for a gallon of unleaded fuel in Los Angeles has mushroomed 53 cents during the past six weeks. Feeling the pinch at the pump has become cliché. Many Americans are seeking gimmicks, buying gadgets and simply gabbing amid their quest to afford the unbudgeted expenses.

In fact, there are many things that do increase fuel efficiency. The Environmental Protection Agency recommends drivers avoid quick acceleration and braking, properly inflate tire levels and drive at or below the speed limit, among many driving and maintenance advice.

But veer wide of what John Millett of the EPA calls “bogus contraptions” – gizmos that can be added to the fuel line or air filter. In 30 years, EPA tests have only found one that improved gas mileage, and that technology has since been incorporated into most vehicles.

As for the Fuel Genie, Platinum Gas Saver and Tornado Fuel Savers, “Don’t waste your money,” Consumer Reports said in November. “They don’t work.”

A motorized skateboard could help someone struggling with gasoline prices, said Carol Thorp, a spokeswoman for the Automobile Club of Southern California. “But given the commutes of most people, is riding a motorized skateboard a rational answer?”

It is for Bernheim, who uses his board to get to the grocery store, the library, the movie theater. If a business doesn’t want him lugging the board through their shop, he checks it like a bag.

Sometimes he skates the 10 miles from his Santa Monica house to Beverly Hills, where he is the marketing director for The Balance Disorders Institute of Los Angeles. While he works, the board’s batteries recharge.

Growing up in Burbank in the 1960s and ‘70s, Bernheim was an avid skater. He still looks the part: slate gray Pumas, light jeans, a plain, blue T-shirt, large Ray-Ban sunglasses and shoulder-length, wavy red hair.

As a teen, he rigged a board with a four-stroke lawnmower engine and another with a two-stroke weedwhacker engine. They proved cacophonous and precarious.

Two years ago, he and two partners decided to build their own skateboard engine and power it with two twelve-volt batteries. The engine purrs yet is powerful enough to climb Coldwater Canyon in Studio City, as Bernheim demonstrated Monday. The throttle and brakes are controlled by a remote plastic handle.

California Motors has sold 72 boards nationwide to people like Katie Hall, 20.

Several times a week, Hall drives from her home in Burbank to Cal Poly Pomona, where she uses her motorized skateboard to get around the hilly campus.

Obviously Hall couldn’t trade in her car for her skateboard with that 70-mile roundtrip commute. But what about using her board to get around Burbank?

“I'll ride it up and down my streets and stuff,” Hall said. “But I wouldn't use it for a different form of transportation if I was going to the mall or something because where am I going to park it?”