Tom Skahen is used to turning heads as he drives through downtown St. Joseph.
Skahen’s little black car pokes past the SUVs and pickups that are common in central Minnesota.
“Without exception, I get rubber necks and shafts everywhere,” he said.
Skahen is CEO of Opus Motorcar Co. in St. Joseph, an innovative company that sells small, low-speed, all-electric vehicles designed for short trips around town, to the grocery store, or to pick up the kids from school.
With a top speed of 35 mph, the three-seater Opus No. 3 looks like a cross between a London cab and an early Smart car. It can travel about 25 miles on a single charge.
Opus’ vehicles may be small, but 25-year-old Skahen has big ambitions to change the way people think about public transport.
After graduating with an aerospace engineering degree from the University of Minnesota in 2020, Skahen became interested in micromobility—small, lightweight electric vehicles designed to travel to nearby destinations at low speeds. They typically have a hub motor like those used in electric scooters and e-bikes.
In some countries like China, such vehicles are widespread, Skahen said. But people have encountered problems when trying to import them into the United States.
“We thought, ‘Well, it can’t be that hard,’ he said with a wry laugh. “Two or three years later we’ll just go into sales.”
Skahen teamed up with his father, Sean, who owns a third generation manufacturing business in St. Joseph, to found Opus Motorcar Co.
They import cars that are mostly assembled, then put the batteries in and do a few other modifications. Skahen said it’s a low-risk way to measure consumer interest. Eventually, they hope to make small electric vehicles in Minnesota and sell conversion kits for some Volkswagen models.
The latest model, Opus #3, is tall enough for Skahen’s 6ft 2in frame to fit comfortably in the driver’s seat.
It’s like a golf cart with amenities like a roof, heater, power windows, keyless entry, backup camera and Bluetooth connectivity.
At $7,500, the price is significantly lower than a conventional vehicle. It can be charged by plugging it into a regular outlet and costs just three cents a mile to work, Skahen said.
According to national studies, almost half of all car trips in the US are less than three miles. As gas and new vehicle prices rise, Skahen believes more people will look for affordable alternatives for those short trips.
“We have no illusions that this is like a silver bullet for transportation,” he said. “But there is a clear market demand for it.”
The price of batteries for electric vehicles has fallen, said Will Northrop, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Transportation Studies. That has sparked an increase in electrified transportation options, from e-scooters and hoverboards to full-size Teslas, he said.
“It’s a new world out there in terms of mobility options for people,” Northrop said. He said the high price of gasoline is likely to fuel more interest in small electric vehicles, which use less energy per mile.
“These hub motors are pretty productive,” he said. “You get them from China, they’re made everywhere, and a lot of people are able to put these vehicles together. So there are a lot of small businesses starting up in this space.”
A small town in rural Minnesota might seem like an unusual place to market electric vehicles.
But Skahen said St Joseph, about eight miles west of St Cloud, is not only his hometown but also a good fit for Opus. It has a growing downtown area with shops, breweries and restaurants and well-educated residents interested in innovative transportation.
“People drive around in golf carts, they ride side by side and ATVs, e-bikes, snowmobiles in the winter,” Skahen said. “There’s all kinds of enthusiasm for different modes of transportation that doesn’t necessarily have to pull the whole car out of the garage.”
The company has local supporters, including Nate Keller, St. Joseph’s community development director. He said Opus provides mobility for people who don’t have the means to buy a more traditional car or truck and fits in with the city’s goals of sustainability and equity.
“It’s a very efficient way to not only get around and run small errands, but also economical,” Keller said. “We talk about access to vehicles and try to be fairer. And I think they have a solution that can do that and bridge a lot of the gaps.”
But there are obstacles to the small electric cars reaching the mass market, including local traffic laws.
They are currently designed primarily for off-road use and are legal on streets in St Joseph, St Paul, Wayzata, Sartell and a few other cities where golf carts or neighborhood vehicles are allowed. But they are not street legal in every city.
In addition, Opus is also met with skepticism from people who are used to larger cars. Some of Opus’ social media comments are brutal.
“It’s going to be great in the Minnesota snow LOL,” one person wrote on Facebook. And another: “Do you have a chance in an accident or is it ‘call the coroner’?”
Skahen said he understands the skepticism.
“It’s not a road vehicle and it’s not an e-bike,” he said. “It’s relatively unproven outside of a few small niche communities.”
Skahen spends a lot of time explaining that the cars’ winterized batteries can withstand the cold. They have regular safety features including seat belts, signals, wipers and lights. And they’re not meant to be driven on busy highways or county roads.
Skahen said it will take time for people to get used to seeing the vehicles on city streets.
But he thinks people in St. Joseph and other cities across the US are reevaluating what they really need to get where they need to go.
Some of the same people who posted critical comments about Opus cars also asked for a test drive, he said.
“Micro mobility with these e-bikes has caused so many people to re-evaluate how can I change my commute? Do I need a car for all this?” Skahen said. “And that’s the first step.”