Driving down Northfield's Oakcrest Avenue, little stands out as strange or unfamiliar. SUVs, traditional sedans and van-sized vehicles take up a significant amount of space on the street, each parked outside the standard home.
But the residence of one Northfield family hardly blends in with its neighbors.
Attached to the side of Ron Hutchison's traditional home sits a sleek, small black charging box. Two plug-in electric vehicles - one not larger than a golf cart - sit in his driveway. And lining two sides of the house's roof are 22 self-installed solar panels, providing enough energy to charge the family's unconventional modes of transportation.
"Everyone loves the car," Ron's youngest son, Neil, said, mentioning that his family's smooth and practically silent moving car often receive head turns. "They think it's so cool."
The 17-year-old, a junior at Mainland Regional High School, recently obtained his New Jersey State driver's license. The car of choice? A black 2011 Think City, a two-seated electric minicar, equipped with roof racks to fasten surfboards and enough trunk space to hold the stand-up bass of his 20-year-old brother, Colin.
"The guy laughed when he first saw the car," Neil said, recalling the driving examiner's reaction to his pint-sized ride. Yet, the small car, both a cash saver and an environment preserver, proved to be helpful. The often-dreaded parallel parking portion of the test came with ease, the teen said.
"Three people in front of me couldn't do it," he said. The size of a car makes the difference.
"(One car) was an Escalade or something," his father added. "They kept backing in and out."
Besides leaving with a license, Neil and his father left the local DMV potentially making history. The supervisor informed them, anecdotally, that Neil was the first ever in the state, and possibly even the country to take his test in an electric car, Ron said.
The New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission confirmed that records of that type are not kept. The vehicle simply must be licensed, registered and come equipped with an emergency break in its center console in order for it to be used for driving tests.
The makeup of its engine is irrelevant.
But the reason Neil may be the first is not due to the fact that electric cars are necessarily new to the road; rather, it's the uniqueness of their particular model, they said.
The Nissan Leaf, a popular version of electric car, and a model that also sits in the Hutchison driveway, has an electric break. The Think City, a May 2011 purchase from a factory in Elkhart, Ind., was manufactured with the required center hand break.
Traveling out of state in order to bring home these particular electric vehicles also supports the likelihood that not many New Jersey drivers are pulling in to take their tests in battery-operated vehicles, Ron said.
The typical driver behind the wheel of an electric car, he added, is rarely a high school student.
"It's funny. The electric car demographic tends to be scientists, engineers and airline pilots," he said.
The father, a biology professor at Richard Stockton College and one of five co-founders of a local 350.org chapter - an environmental group that advocates lowering CO2 levels in the atmosphere - certainly fits the mold.
"As a scientist, I've become more and more worried about climate change," he said. The professor eats a strictly vegan diet, along with his wife, Melissa, and son, Colin, a choice he describes as the simplest way to ease the strain on the planet's finite resources.
For now, at least, the days of waiting and paying to fill up at a gas station are behind them. Saving time and money, however, is not the main objective for Ron.
Although in the six months since Ron and Neil climbed a ladder to hoist and install their 60-pound solar panels - a task Ron deemed "easier than hooking up a stereo" - their system has produced 2,600 kilowatt hours of electricity, allowing them to drive a combined 8,300 miles in their Nissan Leaf and Think City thus far, Ron said.
The average American drives 30 miles per day, he added. Pointing to their Volkswagen Beetle-shaped Think City, he said, "This thing gets a 100 miles in a good day."
The charging process, he claims, is comparable to a cell phone. "We charge up overnight and get up in the morning and we have full charge," he said. "We essentially drive on the power of the sun."
But, for Ron, there are still better alternatives.
"In the last few years, as the crisis has gotten worse. I've really become more concerned about (the environment)," he said, noting that typically he saves the cars for long-distance traveling and opts to ride his bike for shorter trips.
Neil, still an omnivore, is not completely sold on the environmentally conscious mind-set and the steps his father takes, although Ron is not ruling out the possibility of his son joining him. Yet, Neil can't help but admit, "It's important because we are the next generation," he said. "It's important for us to know about it."
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