Power From The People

Wind, solar, tidal—all are battling for the renewable-energy crown, but what about the six billion highly efficient short-stroke engines in our midst? What about us?

ROW YOUR CAR : Charley Greenwood (right) and his son, Chuck, power-monkey the FM-4 HumanCar up to 40 mph on a hill near Cave Junction, Oregon. John B. Carnett

Cave Junction, Oregon, was once, long ago, the center of a gold rush boom that, like so many booms, ultimately consumed its host. Prospectors mined the land around the towns in an ever-tightening circle, until the only gold left was below the saloons, assayers and burlesque halls. Those fell next. The towns were mined right out from under themselves—with no trace left of the old frontier burgs but scars in the earth.

The people who trickled back, decades later, came to satisfy a different urge: not to pursue something but to escape it. Certain hardy members of the hippie diaspora of the ’60s realized that you could live out here entirely under the radar and off the grid. With no one to badger you, you could pursue your own idiosyncratic dreams. You could, in fact, quietly build your better mousetrap and wait until the right time to spring it on the world—the very moment when the world needed saving.

On a lonely stretch of blue highway near the treehouse he lives in and the workshop where he’s been refining that mousetrap, Charley Greenwood slips into the driver’s seat of the FM-4 HumanCar. Or rather, the seat the driver would occupy in a regular car. You don’t “drive” the HumanCar; you row it. It’s the pulling and pushing of the four passengers, converted by a four-gear transmission into rotational thrust, that powers the car at 25 or 30 mph easily, and up to 60 or so on a good downslope. (Where you go in the HumanCar is your business. But rest assured, it won’t be to the gym.)

Charley and I sit up front, his son (and HumanCar, Inc.’s CEO) Chuck in back—none of us so much in the car as on it, for the FM-4 is all bones, with no roof or sides or even fairings. It feels like a cross between a railway push car and a hospital bed. How do you steer a car that every passenger is busy rowing? By leaning in the direction of the turn, or “body steering,” which turns the front wheels. The riders in back don’t steer. They are simply, as Charley puts it, “power monkeys.” Charley grasps the handles the way you would ski poles. A mechanical engineer, he has the looks and manner of a professor but the hands of a laborer. Machine oil has turned his fingertips into blackened kielbasas.

A tiny part has gone missing from the car, preventing it from using all its gears, so we set it in third, which creates an inertia bear at the outset as we get the 300-pound vehicle moving. A kind of automated firing order distributes the torque like an engine as we heave on the oars in sequence—pop pop pop pop. The car picks up speed. And then it starts drifting lazily in the lane: my fault. The brute pull through the power zone and the finesse of the steering are too much for my brain. “There’s a learning curve, for sure,” Chuck says. “That’s why it’s not going to be something anyone can just buy and drive away in. People are going to have to get training, and you’re probably going to have to be licensed.”


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