By Amy Sacks
Special to DNAinfo New York
MANHATTAN — Imagine all of the glamour of a horse-drawn carriage ride through Central Park — without all of the concerns of animal rights advocates.
That's the vision from a Michigan-based motorized tour operator who's setting his sights on introducing his motorized horseless carriages in the Big Apple, in the wake of mayoral hopefuls Bill de Blasio and Joe Lhota's pledges to ban the controversial carriage horses from the city.
"It would keep the ambiance. It would keep the romance. It would be the same carriage ride, but without the horse," said David Ducharme, who runs Andre’s Carriage Tours from his base outside Detroit.
His plan is to retrofit the city's existing fleet of carriages with electric motors that are entirely emission free, replacing the city's approximately 250 horses. The design is the latest motorized vehicle proposed to help keep the decades-old carriage industry and lucrative tourist attraction alive, while pacifying advocates who say the horses used to draw the carriages are being abused.
Three years ago, Ducharme teamed up with an engineer from a customized golf cart company to create an old-world carriage that would ferry newlyweds and tourists through a downtown waterfront area.
Ducharme operates a six-seat white carriage with burgundy interior and large spoke wheels, and said it's got everything the city’s longstanding tourist carriages now offer, with the exception of the horse pulling in front.
The carriages, which can either run on lead-acid batteries that last 4 to 6 hours or lithium batteries that last for 8 to 10 hours, can match the pace of an ambling horse — about 5 miles an hour — or can speed up to 20 miles per hour. And they are simple to fix, he said.
"When something breaks down, you don’t need a mechanic," said Ducharme, who estimates the cost to personalize and retrofit an existing carriage to operate without a horse would cost about $15,000 — while a brand-new carriage would cost in the range of $25,000.
That's cheaper than the 68 faux-vintage electric cars proposed by Steve Nislick, a real estate developer and head of the nonprofit animal advocacy group NYCLASS, who projected the cost of his vehicles at roughly $200,000 apiece.
Nislick, an animal advocate, commissioned Brooklyn-born car designer Jason Wenig to create a $12,500 miniature green prototype he designed based on a 1909 Pierce Arrow and Packard carriage two years ago. The first antique-style car could be ready to hit the streets by early 2014, he said.
But both versions of the electric vehicles lack the permit required drive through Central Park, and any change would require a City Council vote.
That is proving a stumbling block for Ducharme, who admits he doesn’t have his foot in New York City politics.
NYCLASS, however, was a force behind the “New York City is Not for Sale” and “Anyone But Quinn” campaigns that helped derail the City Council speaker’s bid for mayor — a political agenda Nislick said was fueled exclusively by the speaker’s position on animal issues, particularly on her refusal to ban carriage horses.
Legislation currently winding its way through the City Council would ban horse-drawn carriages — in the latest salvo in a longstanding battle over the controversial tradition.
Scottish tourist Jacquee Cutler, who paid $90 for a carriage horse ride through Central Park with her daughter, Lori, on Sunday, said she loves the horses, but would consider riding an electric carriage.
"As long as it went as slow and at a nice speed so we could take in the sights," she said.
Cutler said she was worried about what would happen to the horses if they were no longer allowed to work pulling carriages, a concern shared by many advocates who fear the animals will be sent to slaughter if owners can't find them homes.
Carriage driver Christine Hansen worries the horses will suffer if they can't work anymore.
"Keeping a horse that’s young, fit and wants to work, these horses are going to be neglected," she said. "Finding good homes for the horses will be a problem."
Nislick has offered to pay carriage owners to turn over their horses — and has a list of adopters and sanctuaries willing take them. But he admitted that he has no control over whether they cooperate.
"I’m not confident at all," he said. "I’ll make the money available, make sanctuaries available, other than that I don’t know."
The horse-drawn carriage industry dismissed the bid to replace their carriages and has pledged to fight any legislation that would keep them from their livelihoods.
"They can have the lead ropes when they pry them out of our cold dead hands," said Eva Hughes, vice president of the Horse and Carriage Association, a group of carriage drivers and stable owners that promotes the horse-drawn carriage industry in New York City.