There are no good electric cars because manufacturers are stuck on bad, old ideas.

Steve Dallas is out to change that

By Mathieu Yuill
April 6, 2011

Searching for an e-mail on his computer, Steve Dallas has his eyes focused intensely on his computer screen. “Ah, here it is.” Rotating his monitor, he shows off a series of photographs featuring Canadian racing legend Paul Tracy behind the wheel of a Shelby SuperCars car lined up against Dallas, who’s in his homemade electric car. “I killed him; the track was wet that day so his wheels just spun.”

Dallas is the president of Toronto Electric, a company that manufactures, services and installs electric winches, bridge cranes and the like. The majority of the 24,000-square-foot Toronto Electric facility is dedicated to the company’s main products, but tucked away in the shipping and receiving corridor is a two-door yellow coupe with a hatch reminiscent of a 1990 Honda CRX and sporting a four-point seat belt. About six years ago, Dallas decided he could design and build a better electric car than the big manufacturers.

Dallas grew up on a farm, and with access to a shop full of tools, he spent hours tinkering away. He cut his entrepreneurial teeth in the 1990s heading up a telecommunications firm, which he eventually sold.

Thinking differently

Instead of a key and ignition switch, Dallas’ prototype employs a login panel. Users punch in a code to activate the car, which in turn defines the set of parameters for the user. For example, one user may be able to drive the car outside city limits and have an uncapped top speed, but another user may only be able to operate the car within a certain geographical area with a top speed of 60 km/hr.

Similar technology exists now in Ford’s MyKey, but that solution is in the key, not in the car itself. Defeating that system simply means getting Mom or Dad’s key. Dallas’ car requires a password, and that’s tougher to grab.

The tail lights are another exercise in problem solving. There are 28 individual bulbs in each tail light and every one of them is independent. Open up the trunk, peer in the tail light compartment and you’ll find a matrix of wires. Why such overkill on the tail lights? “In today’s cars, if a bulb burns out you lose the whole brake light,” Dallas said. “It’s just common sense to do it differently.”

Better than the majors

Dallas’ office walls are bone white and mostly bare, save an acoustic and electric guitar hanging on the wall. Mention the instruments and you discover Dallas is also working with a friend to build guitars. “It’s easy when you have the software and a router to cut the template.”

A telescope on a tripod points out the floor-to-ceiling window as Dallas takes off his translucent plastic-framed glasses. He leans forward to make a statement, a move made less intimidating by his strictly casual attire. Not business casual, actual casual: a green sweater, brown jeans and work boots.

“A major manufacturer just put out a recall because of fluid leaking from the car,” he said. “It’s ridiculous that fluid always leaks from every car. Have you ever looked at your driveway? If my cranes leaked fluid there would be fines, sanctions and it would threaten our business. Some of our cranes move over food; you can’t have stuff leaking from it. We have a crane that moves art in art galleries from floor to floor; could you imagine if fluid leaked on the paintings? We just can’t do it.”

All of which contributes to Dallas’ core conviction: car manufacturers have got it wrong and he figures he can do it better with an electric car.

Paul Duffy is an entrepreneur himself and part of the team helping bring Dallas’ car to market. He thinks Dallas is the right man for the job. “We often meet with fleet people at the municipal level, from the top guys right down to the people who will actually be driving the vehicles. I’ll do the five-to-seven-minute presentation and then turn it over to Steve.

“He stands up and says, ‘Hi, I’m Steve Dallas and I’m the president of Toronto Electric, we make electric winches and cranes.’”

From there, all eyes in the room light up because they understand that Dallas understands how to move heavy things around using electric power. It just makes sense that this guy is working on a car now.

Dallas doesn’t personally weld chassis in his garage at night. The chassis was built by Lowdown Hot Rods, a company accustomed to making them for 3,000-horsepower dragsters, and the body was designed by Paul Deutschman, noted Montreal-based automobile designer.

Commercial focus

The bad news for consumers is that Dallas is not targeting them. “This is designed for commercial applications. People ask me a lot ‘Can it go 700 kilometres?’ When was the last time you drove that far [in a commercial setting]?”

In fact, Dallas likens the eventual owners to airplane pilots. For example, he points out the interior light. “See, it’s red, just like in a plane, so your eyes won’t dilate.” This quirkiness is a large part of Dallas’ charm. His friends say in five minutes he can go from discussing World War I strategies to the cones used in a guitar amp to how to structure a business contract, all without missing a beat.

It’s just how he sees the world. Nowhere on the car does this ring truer than on the LCD panel on the dash. “Open the door and the panel turns on and from there you can log in,” he said. “You can set your preferences for heat, air conditioning, lights and backup camera, and you can see the status of the battery and even drill in further to check on the cell status.

“Oh, and it’s also got Facebook.”

Photograph of Steve Dallas: Matthieu Yuill

Also read:
Electric cars are back

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