On National Plug In Day, the newest in electric vehicles were on display Sunday at De Anza College in Cupertino. What used to be a gathering of geeks who built eccentric vehicles in their garages has become more like a regular, commercial car show.
"I don't know where all the hobbyists went," said Frank Bletsch, who sat quietly behind his hand-built "Electric Urban Micro Hauler," a tall, three-wheeled contraption with a short cargo bed. "It's become more commercial."
Most visitors to the 40th show put on by the Silicon Valley chapter of the Electric Auto Association gravitated to commercially manufactured or customized electric cars, motorcycles or bicycles that could get them to work and back on the same day, or to Lake Tahoe with speed and style.
People lined up for free rides in electric Toyotas and Tesla's roadster.
"I'm here for the fast ride," said Gopal Shan, who commutes to work in a Toyota Prius hybrid. He jumped into a Tesla roadster owned and driven by Steve Casner, who gave Shan a spin on the wild side of the oh-so-responsibly green business.
Casner calmly maneuvered the roadster out of the parking lot, moved quietly over to the onramp to Highway 85, and then floored it. The roadster bolted ever so briefly before taking the next exit, but long enough to give passengers a sense of the car's powerful acceleration.
A software engineer, Casner volunteered to give free rides to promote electric personal transportation. Although he's owned a few electric cars since 1998, he and his wife have a gasoline-powered car for their long hauls. He insists that's no contradiction.
"You can commute in an electric every day and then drive the gasoline car to the mountains, or you can rent one," argues Casner. "That's the practical way to go."
Much of talk between ordinary folks looking to go electric and the company spokesmen was about range -- how far electric vehicles can go before their batteries must be recharged.
Jerry Pohorsky, a past president of the local chapter, said it won't be long before an affordable electric car can go from Silicon Valley to Lake Tahoe and back without a fresh charge. By his reckoning, electric-vehicle technology is improving 8 percent every year.
"I give it a few years," he said, referring to Bay Area-Tahoe round-trips.
Elsewhere at the show, visitors got a glimpse of how far and wide the electric transportation industry is going.
Douglas Schwartz of ELV Motors in Santa Clara brought several electric bikes that people got to ride free on a short course. A popular one proved to be the foldable VeloMini, which weighs 33 pounds and collapses to the size of a medium-size suitcase.
"I put one on a plane just the other day," Schwartz said as he folded one in front of a young family.
A few booths away, an independent film crew was captivated by an electric paddleboard designed for the disabled, with help from GoodLife Mobility, a nonprofit organization. With an internal propeller and a slender, embedded battery pack, the board is controlled by a wireless remote in the handle of the paddle.
At another booth, the thinking was literally bigger -- electric school buses.
Bob Garzee of the Electronic Transportation Development Center didn't have the company's prototype on hand -- it's in Napa -- but he brought along a plastic model to help explain. Basically, he said, his company has invented electric kits that can be inserted into existing school buses.
"School districts can't afford to go electric if they have to buy new, $250,000 buses," he said.
Watching the 40th show with great pride was 85-year-old Warren Winovich, a founding member of the chapter. The first show in 1967 featured only five cars converted to electric power, including his Nash Rambler.
The main differences after four decades, he said, is that manufacturers have embraced electric power and that batteries have become lighter and more powerful.
"My main interest in electric cars is they're fun to drive," said Winovich, a retired aerospace engineer and businessman. "They're also efficient, which satisfies my technological curiosity." Contact Joe Rodriguez at 408-920-5767. Follow him on Twitter.com/JoeRodMercury.