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Electric cars: the drive toward fresh air.

No tune-ups. No corroded mufflers. No oil spills. No smog. Imagine a world without gasoline cars. Envision a planet with electric cars purring quietly and cleanly along our roadways.

What is the up-to-date status of electric cars? To answer this question, I visited US. Electricar, Inc., at its head, quarters in Sebastopol, California. U.S. Electricar has assembled roughly 50,000 electric vehicles since 1946. Sebastopol is a rural town north of San Francisco. As I entered the town, I was greeted by a sign: "Sebastopol: Population 7,000. Nuclear Free Zone." Sebastopol is celebrated mainly for its Gravenstein apple orchards and its relaxed life-style. I half expected to see horse-drawn carriages carrying its citizens to and fro.

U.S. Electricar gave me and a few high-school students a tour of its facilities plus a test ride in one of its electric cars. For years, the company's niche was retrofitting Ford Escorts and similar car models for electric propulsion. This means that U.S. Electricar replaced the gasoline engine, alternator, and supporting parts in a regular automobile with an electric engine. I surveyed one of their refurbished cars. Under the hood, I examined a few batteries, an electrical control box, and many wires. The engine area looked simpler and less congested than in my Toyota. Next I opened the trunk. To my surprise, it was a standard, roomy trunk. I had expected the trunk to be crammed with batteries, but it turns out that the batteries are stored mostly under the car. Remember that an electric car does not have an exhaust pipe or a muffler.

Five of us climbed into the car for a test drive. It was a cold day, but the engine started immediately. The car accelerated smoothly, even more gently than a conventional automatic transmission. As we motored up and down residential streets, one passenger noted, "This sounds like a spaceship." The engine emits a quiet whirling sound. It's easy to hear other cars, singing birds, or the radio, as the engine is so quiet. One challenge was to turn left and accelerate uphill into fast-moving traffic. The car performed beautifully. It can go from zero to 60 miles per hour in roughly 14 seconds. We continued onto a high, way, where we blended into the traffic flow at 55 miles per hour. "This car will make it," said one of the high-school kids, a car buff. "People have to like this car." I quite agree. Whoever has the idea that electric cars are glorified golf carts is simply misinformed.

Why doesn't everyone drive these cars? That is the question all five of us asked as we drove through town. Let's put this question - and possible answers - into historical, technological, and economic perspective. I am, of course, expressing my views - not necessarily those of any company.

Electric cars are, in fact, an old idea. They have been around for a century. At the turn of the twentieth century, 38 percent of American automobiles used electricity, 40 percent employed steam power, and 22 percent consumed gasoline. The world's fastest cars were battery-powered. In 1990, the First National Automobile Show was produced in New York. At this show, electric cars were praised for being "noiseless, odor, less, and free from smoke." Electric cars remained popular until the 1920s; even Henry Ford's wife, Clara, preferred to drive her clean and simple electric car.

Gasoline automobiles (and the internal-combustion engine which burns gasoline) took over the auto industry for three primary reasons: (1) in 1901, vast oil reserves were discovered in Texas; (2) in 1912, a viable electric starter for gasoline engines was introduced; and (3) Henry Ford decided to mass-produce gasoline-burning cars. Technologically, we still buy gasoline-powered cars because they provide high performance and can go long distances without refueling. Politically, we purchase gasoline cars because the auto industry from Detroit to Tokyo has high-performance lobbyists who can refuel political campaigns.

Let's examine a few advantages of electric cars.

Electric cars pollute less. Air pollution has reached hazardous levels in many cities. Automobile transportation accounts counts for more than half of all urban smog. The California Air Resources Board estimates that, compared to gasoline-powered vehicles, electric-powered vehicles emit 98 percent less hydrocarbons (the key contributors to ozone depletion and smog), 89 percent less nitrogen dioxide, 99 percent less carbon monoxide, and less than half as much carbon dioxide. Assume that a car lasts for 100,000 miles. Over this lifetime, the cleanest gasoline-powered car currently on our roads will emit roughly 200 times more pollution than an electric car!

Electric cars conserve energy. Gasoline-powered cars use internal-combustion engines, which mix oxygen from the air with gasoline. The ensuing explosion is converted into mechanical energy which drives pistons and, ultimately, the car's wheels. In the best gasoline-powered vehicles, only about 15 percent of the energy consumed is converted into mechanical energy. An electric car is more efficient. The electric car does not consume energy when it stops in traffic (where, in urban traffic, about 20 percent of the fuel in gasoline-powered cars is lost). In addition, an electric car is able to recapture part of the energy lost during deceleration (in urban driving, about 23 percent of the time is spent breaking). Tests indicate that an electric car consumes about 35 percent less energy than the equivalent gasoline-powered car.

Electric cars are cheaper to operate electric cars require almost no maintenance. Their electric motors are run by batteries, which can be recharged, usually overnight, in one's garage. In La Rochelle, France, a pilot project launched by the city, Electricite de France, and PSA Peugeot Citroen has installed public recharging points. It's the biggest urban electric car trial yet devised, with 50 electric Citroens and Peugeots rented out on a monthly basis to selected drivers.

The cost to recharge these batteries (one must pay for electricity) is, in France, roughly one-fifth the cost of gasoline. Even when factoring in the replacement costs of batteries, the total operating cost is much less than that of a gasoline-powered car.

So given these obvious advantages, why are electric cars still rare?

Advertisers hype extreme performance. The auto industry keeps telling us, via advertising, that we need "sexy" cars that go 100 miles per hour, that accelerate to 60 miles per hour in seven seconds, and that travel 500 miles without refueling. In practice, most car owners drive 30 to 40 miles per day in traffic-congested areas where "high, performance" gas guzzlers are senseless.

Electric cars cost more to purchase Electric cars cost more to buy because companies similar to US. Electricar lack the money required to mass-produce electric cars.

Auto and oil companies have no incentive to switch. Gasoline-powered cars are harder to build, require more maintenance, and far apart quicker than electric cars. Gasoline cars become "obsolete" quicker than electric cars. Therefore, gasoline-powered car owners must spend more money replacing parts and cars than electric car owners. The Big Auto companies love to self parts and new vehicles. Thus, one cannot expect the auto industry - and its petroleum-selling friends - to cheer a shift to electric cars. The bottom line is clear: if the Big Auto and Big Oil companies wanted electric cars, we would have them now!

Many persons realize that the Big Auto companies prefer the status quo. To force the auto industry to switch to cleaner technologies, many states have taken action. California, in the lead, has ruled that 2 percent of all cars sold must emit zero pollution (this means electric cars) by the year 1998. This minimum quota must reach 5 percent by the year 2003 and 10 percent by the year 2008. Also, the U.S. government requires that 10 percent of all vehicles purchased by the state and federal governments must be zero emission by 1996. This quota increases to 75 percent by the year 2000. It is a safe bet that Detroit's auto industry will fight against these rules, just as it kicked and screamed against better gas mileage.

Can anybody get around Big Auto's stone wall and make electric cars more accessible to us? The computer industry provides an encouraging example. For decades, IBM ruled the computer roost by manufacturing only expensive, main, frame computers. Then a tiny outfit called Apple had a better idea: the personal computer. IBM laughed at the PC. Another tiny company called Microsoft decided to write software for computers. IBM dismissed this new upstart. Well, IBM is no longer laughing. The PC has taken over. Perhaps U.S. Electricar - or a company started by one of us - will market the electric car that will stop Big Auto's smog and give us fresh air!

Scientist Andre Bacard is the author of Hunger for Power: Who Rules the World and How. A guest on hundreds of radio talk shows, he can be reached at Box 3009, Stanford, CA 94309.
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Title Annotation:Technology & Society
Author:Bacard, Andre
Publication:The Humanist
Date:May 1, 1994
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