Electric vehicles occupy Dallas

"It’s about options," said Gary Haag, owner of E-FROGS, an electric shuttle service he started in June 2010. Rides are free. The business operates on tips.

Haag said people are surprised to learn there’s no cost, but Dallas ordinances prohibit charging a fee for the type of vehicle Haag operates.

"I felt not charging would be beneficial anyways," said Haag, who believes he generates more money with tips than he would with a flat fee.

Tips usually range from $5 to $20 depending on how many people are riding, he said.

Haag said he got the idea for his business last year while working as a valet in the Dallas Arts District. A tramlike vehicle there called the Art Cart shuttles people for free between restaurants in One Arts Plaza and the various performance venues.

Haag found a business partner, Pete Paul, and the two spent $20,000 to launch the service.

They started with three vehicles and are now up to six.

A spokeswoman for Polaris Industries, which manufactures the Global Electric Motorcars that E-FROGS uses, said it’s unusual for a business to be centered on the vehicles. Marlys Knutson said the usual buyers are "universities, industrial complexes, master-planned communities."

Global Electric vehicles generated $25 million in sales in 2010, she said.

In Dallas, the vehicles can travel only on streets with speed limits of 40 mph or less.

The company’s name, E-FROGS, is an acronym for "Eco-Friendly Rides On Green Shuttles."

Haag said he needed a catchy name because he didn’t have money to advertise. He still relies on word of mouth to build his business.

But the vehicles themselves are his biggest attention-getter. Haag said people stop to gawk at the futuristic-looking cars.

The sleek vehicles have some critics among Dallas taxicab owners and operators.

"I would have nightmares if I was responsible for operating one of those electric vehicles," said Karl Kuhlman, vice president of Cowboy Cab. "In an accident, all it would take is one of those vehicles to be broadsided by a car and you’ve got a lot of serious injuries."

Safety concerns aside, Kuhlman said there’s no doubt E-FROGS is competition for local taxi companies.

Operating hours for E-FROGS start at 5 p.m. daily. Fridays and Saturdays are the busiest, with about 50 rides each night. Weekdays, E-FROGS might provide 10 to 15 rides.

There are two models of the vehicles; one holds three passengers, the other five.

Foot traffic is key to generating business for the company, so when the vehicles aren’t in motion, they’re often parked in highly visible spots in Uptown, downtown or Deep Ellum.

Regular users can text or call to be picked up.

C.J. Reichwein, who lives downtown, said the vehicles caught his eye last summer.

"I thought it was interesting and I wanted to know more about it," Reichwein said. "It seemed people using it were in the know about something."

Reichwein, who owns season tickets for the Dallas Stars, said he likes to use E-FROGS to get from the bars on Main Street to the American Airlines Center.

Clinton Nemmer, who uses E-FROGS to get to his job at the Uptown restaurant Sfuzzi and to go out with friends, said he likes riding with Haag and Paul.

"They make transportation more personal than a lot of taxis do," Nemmer said.

Haag said he’s just now breaking even on E-FROGS.

Besides tips, advertising space sold on the backs of the vehicles is a main source of revenue. And the vehicles can also be rented for events.

Haag hopes to nearly double the number of vehicles he has on the road and expand permanently to Knox-Henderson and Lower Greenville Avenue.

"Dallas is unique in having four or five entertainment districts," he said. "Hopefully, it’s not ‘Let’s call a cab,’ it’s ‘Let’s call E-FROGS."’

MARK NORRIS, The Dallas Morning News