Polaris Industries has quietly dispatched an army of petite electric cars and vans to U.S. colleges, hotels, retirement communities and cities around the country.
Think of the tiny, electric vans that shuttled hordes of Super Bowl LII fans last year from Nicollet Mall to the zipline launchpads across the Mississippi River.
These vehicles — which go a maximum of 25 miles an hour and haul up to six people — are workhorses for maintenance crews for large office parks or campuses. Others transport urban dwellers around downtowns — without smog and with colorful, fun advertisements that often wrap the cars.
Priced, on average, at $16,800, this “microtransit” niche now generates millions for Polaris. It is nowhere near the revenue generated by the all-terrain vehicles, snowmobiles and motorcycle products that drive the Medina company’s $6 billion business. But it is making headway.
There are 50,000 of Polaris’ Global Electric Motorcars (GEM) vehicles on the road today, said Keith Simon, vice president and general manager of Polaris’ commercial and government North America unit.
“We see the microtransit or urban mobility market as a growing market,” he said. “And we see the [all electric] GEM as being uniquely positioned to provide safer, cleaner and more sustainable vehicles to meet the demand.”
Polaris is investing accordingly, beefing up battery power and selling the petite rides to city public transit systems, universities, retirement communities and anywhere else that needs to shuttle people or materials within a 5- to 10-mile radius, Simon said.
Because mini-electric vehicles slash fuel costs and inch cities toward their carbon-emission reduction goals, “I think we are positioned to win in those segments,” Simon said. “There is a lot of runway.”
While Polaris competes with rugged behemoths Arctic Cat, Kawasaki, Honda, Harley-Davidson and Bombardier in the racing and thrill arenas of sports vehicles, it is increasingly battling against electric competitors such as Local Motors, E-Z-Go and Club Car as well.
The micro-electric vehicle market as a whole already generates $7.1 billion in global revenue and could reach $9 billion by 2024, according to research firm Market Study Report LLC.
Polaris first dipped into the market in 2011 when it bought GEM from Chrysler and French company Goupil Industrie’s line of ultralight industrial electric/hybrid trucks that sell in 18 European countries. In 2016, Polaris bought Taylor-Dunn’s gas and electric utility mobiles unit, which caters to U.S. factories, warehouses, airports and stadiums.
When it comes to street-legal microtransit, Goupil still largely operates in Europe, while the GEM vehicles made in Anaheim, Calif., are sold across the United States.
Simon would not disclose GEM sales, but said the company has “seen good adoption of these electric vehicles.” The electric division is part of Polaris’ larger global adjacent markets unit, which saw sales grow 12% to $444 million last year.
What is different, Simon said, is that mini-GEM vehicles “are more of a business-to-business play than [our usual] business-to-consumer product play.”
The University of California, Los Angeles, campus sports 200 Polaris GEMs among its fleet of 1,200 electric vehicles. The cities of Dallas and Austin, Texas, and Chandler, Ariz., bought a fleet of GEMs as part of their electric cab programs. GEMs also are used for the free Nickel Ride service that shuttles visitors and retirees in Cape Coral, Fort Myers and St. Petersburg, Fla.
Wanting safer, slow-speed transit options without the smog, the Anaheim Transportation Network (ATN) in January bought 10 six-seater GEMs to create an app-based “Free Ride Around the Neighborhood” for residents of the California city.
The vehicles pick up and drop off riders at select points within a mile radius in downtown Anaheim.
The “microtransit approach combines the convenience of private, app-based hailing services, such as Uber and Lyft, with the familiarity of public transportation,” said ATN Executive Director Diana Kotler. “We found that Polaris and [its] GEM cars were what we needed for our particular service” which gave rides within a square mile and included two wheelchair vans.
ATN asked Polaris to create an electric GEM van that was wheelchair accessible. Kotler also asked GEM to boost the battery so all 10 vehicles could carry passengers, a large exterior advertising billboard and interior monitors.
Polaris’ willingness accommodate ATN helped win its business. “The other [bidders] basically said ‘Good luck to you. Once you buy our car, you’re on your own.’ But Polaris was a lot more receptive” to customization, Kotler said.
In some cities, customizing took a futuristic turn. Companies in Boston; Columbus, Ohio; Detroit; and Albemarle, Va., bought and outfitted Polaris’ GEMs with driverless car technology as part of pilot projects testing the limits of automated public transit.
Simon from Polaris said his team is happy to work with different customers to customize the GEMs. The applications for the two- to six-seater vehicles are constantly changing, he said.
The University of North Carolina has 115 GEM cars and utility trucks as part of its 150-vehicle electric fleet at its Charlotte campus, said Christopher Facente, the university’s auto fleet supervisor.
Electric vehicles — which make up 24% of the university’s total vehicles — “fit in our sustainability goals on campus.”
The effort was partly driven by a 2025 environmental goal set by the state. The mini vehicles — think golf cart meets Smart Car meets van — helped the Charlotte campus save over $6,000 a year, Facente said.
Alex Esposito and James Mirras started the Free Ride app-based service in 2011 on Long Island. They now have 140 GEM six-seaters transporting people short distances in 20 locations from the Hamptons to West Palm Beach, Fla., and San Diego.
The idea was to replace big buses with environmentally friendly transit options.
“Why have three caterpillars when you can have 20 ants?” Esposito said. “We have been buying GEMs since 2011” when the exhaust-free units were under Chrysler.
Esposito said he appreciates changes Polaris has made since taking over the line. They have gone from “golf carty” to a smarter design and have more powerful batteries that allow for longer rides between recharging.
“I generally like them,” he said. His one gripe? “They can be hard to get.”