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The electric car arrives - again.

The first mass-produced electric cars in modern times are here. They are expensive, limited in capability, and unfamiliar to most consumers. But so were the early Model Ts and personal computers.

It was two bicycle mechanics from Massachusetts, Charles and Frank Duryea, who rolled out the first commercially manufactured automobiles - (13) of their Duryea Motor Wagons - in Detroit in June of 1896. Dubbed "horseless carriages," they ran on a noisy new invention known as the internal-combustion engine - and a pungent fuel called gasoline. Soon, cars were spreading across the countryside - their costs falling rapidly, thanks to Henry Ford's assembly lines - and the world was moving toward a heavy dependence on oil.

One casualty of the internal-combustion engine's triumph was the electric car, which had become quite popular in the 1890s. Proclaimed as quieter, cleaner, and simpler than the engine-driven car, the electric vehicle was widely expected to dominate the automotive market of the twentieth century. Instead, it quietly disappeared as automobile companies chose to pour billions of dollars into developing, and incrementally improving, the internal combustion engine. The electric auto, it seemed, was destined for the scrap heap of technological wrong turns.

It may have taken a century, but suddenly the electric car has returned from the dead. Its comeback has been fueled in large part by the engine-induced smog now filling urban areas like Athens, Bangkok, and Los Angeles - just as the manure piling up in the streets of America's cities a hundred years ago prodded the search for alternatives to the horsedrawn carriage. After years of false starts and heated debate, electric cars are on the road again: already an estimated 7,500 "engineless carriages" are now in use worldwide.

The most telling sign of life for this comeback invention came last December with the appearance of General Motors' long-awaited electric sports car, the EV1, in Saturn showrooms in southern California and Arizona. With its high-profile launch, the world's biggest automaker joined a rapidly growing list of companies around the world marketing, or set to market, electric cars - among them Honda, Mercedes, Peugeot, and Renault. These giants will do battle with a quickly growing army of some 250 entrepreneurial startups, each with visions of becoming the next Henry Ford.

While the electric cars on the market so far are expensive and can only travel limited distances, they are taking carmakers in new directions. With the push of government mandates soon to be overtaken by the pull of market opportunities, the drive to produce the most practical, economical electric car is quickly becoming a competitive auto race. As Michael Gage, President of CALSTART, a California electric vehicle consortium, puts it, "We are entering the tornado."

The Whirring Nineties

This time it was a maker of flying machines, Paul MacCready, who got the creaky wheels of car innovation turning. MacCready, inventor of the first human-powered aircraft to fly across the English Channel - a bicycle-like device that earned him "engineer of the century" plaudits from his contemporaries - had designed a solar-powered car, the Sunraycer, for GM. In 1987, the Sunraycer won the first Solar Challenge race, crossing Australia on the equivalent of five gallons of gasoline. GM then asked MacCready's firm, AeroVironment, to build a concept electric car for the company.

Three years later, the resulting prototype - called the Impact - was greeted with such unexpected plaudits at a Los Angeles auto show that then-President Jack Smith brashly vowed to begin mass-producing the car immediately. In doing so, he gave this second automotive revolution a much-needed push. The actual jumpstart came later that year, when the California Air Resources Board - at the time facing worsening air pollution in Los Angeles and other cities, and greatly encouraged by GM's vow - passed the toughest auto emissions standards in the world. Most notable was the industry-shaking requirement that 2 percent of cars sold in the state by the seven major carmakers in 1998 be "zero-emission," with the share rising to 10 percent by 2003.

Auto-industry lobbyists immediately turned on their own creation and - joined by the oil industry - began a bitter fight to roll back the electric car mandate. At times, it seemed some of these companies had devoted more money to badmouthing zero-emission cars than to designing them. This certainly appeared to be the case for Chrysler, whose chairman - in the midst of scaling back its program - went so far as to declare, "There is absolutely no economic basis for electric vehicles in the world."

Eventually, the lobbying paid off, and California legislators lifted the 1998 mandate. But the big automakers are still required to make the more stringent 10 percent target in 2003, which means that some 800,000 zero-emissions cars should be on California's roads by 2010. This would be a giant leap from the approximately 2,300 electric cars in use in the entire country today.

Road Blocks

Whether these targets will be met depends on whether prospective consumers can be helped around the immediate barriers of cost and range. At today's low-volume production levels, electric cars are more expensive to buy or lease than conventional cars with internal-combustion engines. The problem is not the electric motor, a highly evolved technology used in everything from tiny dentist drills to huge freight locomotives. In fact, today's electric motors are already between four and five times as efficient as internal combustion engines.

The biggest road block for electric cars is, and always has been, storing the electricity needed to run them. The EV1 - the product of the California mandate and a $345 million investment by GM - carries 1,175 pounds of lead-acid batteries (the same kind used to start conventional cars), but has a range of just 70 to 90 miles between recharges (the electric equivalent of refueling, recharging takes three hours, using a 220-volt inductive "paddle" at home or in public charging stations - of which California already has more than 400). In part because of the cost of the battery, the EV1s now on the market in California and Arizona lease for as much as $34,000 over 3 years.

But the energy-weight ratio of lead-acid batteries has been cut by 60 percent over the last decade, and further gains are likely down the road. Virtually all of the major carmakers are working hard to lower the cost of more advanced batteries with greater energy density - including nickel-metal-hydride models that could double the EV1's range to between 150 and 200 miles. Other alternatives in the works include nickel-cadmium and lithium-ion batteries, and even flywheels - mechanical batteries consisting of a rapidly spinning disk made of synthetic materials.

These new batteries are still too expensive for wide commercial use, but experts at California's Air Resources Board believe that they should be on the market soon. The next advance is expected to come from Honda, whose Formula One race car engineers are now fully devoting their work to electric cars, and whose solar car has displaced GM's as the Solar Challenge champion. Honda plans to launch its EV Plus in California this May. Billed as the first family-oriented electric car, the compact four-seater will be equipped with nickel-metal-hydride batteries which give it a range of 125 miles - but at substantial cost: the batteries alone go for an eyepopping $40,000. Whether people will be willing to pay $500 a month (though this does include insurance and roadside service) to lease a car that is virtually indistinguishable from a standard economy car is uncertain; Honda expects to lease just 300 of the cars over the next three years.

Ironically, the limitations of today's batteries have made these first electric cars far more advanced than they otherwise might have been. Forced to stretch the range of bulky batteries, designers threw away the book on conventional automotive design and construction. In the search for a commercially viable electric car, automakers - for the first time in decades - turned their engineers loose on truly revolutionary concepts.

Author Michael Schnayerson, who was given inside access to GM's program, notes in his book The Car That Could how engineers struggled for eight years to fuse unconventionality and practicality, garnering 23 electronics and aerospace patents and a slew of engineering achievements. The EV1's aluminum car frame is the world's lightest; its teardrop-shaped body has aerodynamics equal to a modern fighter plane; and its brakes can regenerate, recharging the battery. With a super-efficient electric motor and low-resistance fires, it accelerates from zero to sixty miles per hour in less than nine seconds - faster than most conventional cars.

With these technological wonders, the EV1 has impressed most of those who have test-driven it. But the far greater challenge ahead for electric cars will be to make their way from the engineering track to the suburban garage. Although many buyers may be lured by the "zero-emission" label, performance, convenience, and cost are the benchmarks by which the cars must ultimately be judged.

Alternate Routes

Automakers are taking a variety of approaches to "niche marketing" their first-generation electric cars. GM, for example, appears to be aiming at young, wealthy environmentalists - perhaps Hollywood stars and executives looking for a fast, sporty, pollution-free car that can speed through Beverly Hills. This is, after all, a group already accustomed to spending $30,000 to $40,000 for a Mercedes or Lexus. (Including tax incentives, the monthly lease rate for the EV1 falls to between $480 and $640 per month - less than the figure for luxury cars like the Cadillac DeVille.)

So far, the strategy seems to be working. Thanks to a major ad campaign, demand for the EV1 has been stronger than GM anticipated, with about 50 cars leased out on the very first day. GM's electric car expert, Robert Purcell, believes the EV1 will assume a "second car" role for commuting (the average U.S. commute is less than 35 miles) and for short trips. Purcell notes similarities to the microwave oven, which was unpopular at first but which eventually caught on as a second oven. While production plans have been kept under wraps, Detroit's labor press estimates that at least 80 EVs were made last year.

European automakers appear to be targeting a different set: green-oriented urban dwellers. The City Bee, for example, is a lightweight, fully recyclable two-seater with limited range, developed by the Norwegian consortium-PIVCO. Scheduled for assembly in Europe and California later this year, it will cost around $10,000 at a production volume of 10,000, and is intended only for use in the inner city, and for quick rental at rail stations.

A multitude of other small companies, meanwhile, are preparing their own models for production. And the "urban car" niche has now begun to attract bigger players as well, resulting in some intriguing partnerships. German auto giant Mercedes-Benz and Swiss watchmaker Swatch have teamed up to develop a "Smart" car: a two-seater that can be built in under five hours, using plastic parts with interchangeable color schemes like those of the Swatch watches. The Smart car has proven crashworthy even though it is less than 10 feet long. Cast as a modern version of the "runabouts" seen at the turn of the century, and aimed at a younger audience, it can use electric as well as other drive systems. Some 200,000 Smart cars, a sizable percentage of which could be electric, are scheduled to roll out in Europe in March 1998 at a price of between $10,000 and $13,000.

Other European automakers are taking a more conservative approach to marketing electric cars, at much lower cost, by converting conventional cars into electrics. One of the leaders is Peugeot, which has put out a car using nickel-cadmium batteries, with a range of 50 miles. Having successfully tested 500 of its cars in the city of La Rochelle, the Peugeot-Citroen group believes there will be around 100,000 electric cars in Europe by 2000 and plans to grab a quarter of the market; it produced more than 4,000 in 1996.

Renault, meanwhile, sold 215 of its electric conversions in the first six months of last year. It will make 1,000 cars this year, and expects to continue increasing output in 1998. On a smaller scale, Fiat and Volkswagen are selling conversions, which they are reportedly making at a rate of about one a day, in Swiss cities. These conversions have a more limited range than cars designed to be electric from the start, but they allow the automakers to enter the market and gain experience without a huge up-front investment.

Much as L.A.'s smog sped the move to electric cars, air pollution and congestion in Europe have prompted some carmakers to rethink the car's conventional ownership and role in transportation. In France, Peugeot and Citroen are involved with the design of a transit system that will allow Parisian commuters to rent electric cars over short distances under a credit card-like system. Renault plans, as part of a consortium of electric utilities, carmakers, and government agencies, to operate 50 such "multiuser" cars in one of the city's high-tech suburbs. Similar efforts are underway in Switzerland. Swiss carmaker Horlacher will soon offer a lightweight "instant taxi," while Fiat has begun to rent electric cars in Geneva.

Whatever the route to consumers, proponents note that, despite their current high price and limited range, electric cars already have a number of advantages over today's cars. Their relative noiselessness, practicality, and simplicity appeal to many drivers. Electric cars cost less to refuel and service, and have many fewer parts to break down. Their owners are likely to spend less time on maintenance, and if they recharge at home, will rarely have to go to the service station. These time savings have real value in today's busy world. On a lifecycle basis, then, the cost gap between cars that pollute and those that don't is not all that great, even now; with another decade of battery development and mass production, it could be closed entirely.

Air regulators in California and New England argue further that if the avoided costs of urban air pollution, acid rain, and global climate change were included, electric cars would look like a steal. Of course, a fair comparison must include the emissions from the power plants that arc used to charge the batteries. Fortunately, emissions from stationary power sources are easier to control than those from vehicles.

More importantly, running cars on electricity opens up a host of new fuel options not based on oil - including renewable resources such as wind power and solar energy. Already, some of the municipal governments promoting electric cars are erecting solar cells on the roofs of their parking garages to recharge them. The California city of Sacramento, for example, through the involvement of automakers, utilities, and local authorities, has installed more than 70 charging stations.

Tool Kits

As the Sacramento example suggests, governments can play an important role in accelerating the transition to electric cars. Several of them, in fact, offer incentives that can lessen the electric car's initial cost. In the United States, federal and state tax credits and local rebates are available in many areas: customers in Los Angeles, for example, can use a [TABULAR DATA OMITTED] 10 percent federal tax credit and a $5,000 rebate from the South Coast Air Quality Management District.

A 5,000-franc subsidy, meanwhile, is available to those buying electric cars in France. Paris and several other French cities add on tax credits, as do Switzerland, Austria, and Denmark. Switzerland already has about 2,000 electric cars in operation, and aims to use tax incentives to help make 8 percent of its cars electric by 2010. Germany, with more than 2,400 electric cars, gives its customers federal tax exemptions and state-level subsidies. Electric cars are exempt from sales taxes (which are typically high in Europe) in Italy, Norway, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. In Japan, which has the ambitious if distant goal of producing 200,000 electric vehicles by 2000, buyers may see costs cut in half by federal tax credits, incentives, and depreciation allowances - and even further by municipal governments.

Spurred by these and other less-noticed but important policies and programs - installing recharging stations, setting up demonstration projects, funding battery research and development - an electric car industry appears to be taking shape. Consortiums like CALSTART - a network of 200 government agencies, environmental groups, and aerospace, defense, and electric power companies - are helping these groups work horizontally (in contrast to today's "vertical" auto industry) to start programs and attract funding. Electric-vehicle associations in North America, Europe, and Asia report growing memberships, and are holding well-attended conferences and exhibitions each year to share the latest surveys, technologies, and production plans.

Surprisingly, the production hub for cost-competitive electric cars may turn out not to be in today's auto industry powers, the United States and Japan, but in the developing countries. With the world's most polluted urban air, some of these countries are just starting to develop automobile industries and make the associated investment in oil refineries, service stations, and the like - and therefore have less vested interest in the internal-combustion engine. Their industrialists recognize that if they are already making computers and televisions, electric cars should be within reach.

This notion has already taken hold in Asia, where prospective electric-car manufacturers have held extensive discussions with potential manufacturing partners. Thailand, which offers tax exemptions to electric car makers, is producing electric versions of its three-wheeled "tuk-tuk" taxi. Korean car makers Daewoo and Hyundai are working to produce lightweight electric cars for sale by the end of 1997 and 1998, respectively. China, which hopes to have several carmaking plants by 2000, plans to link domestic and foreign makers. One fledgling Chinese car maker has cut a deal with Peugeot-Citroen to produce a small electric model.

As their production picks up, electric cars' prices will fall noticeably. Comparing their price history with that of the traditional automobile, Daniel Sperling of the University of California at Davis estimates full-scale production could reduce the cost of electric cars to well below half the current level. And new technological breakthroughs will not be needed for costs to plummet, according to Tufts University's Global Development and Environment Institute. The institute projects price declines analogous to those that have occurred in personal computers, for example, with the costs of an electric car approaching - and with government support, falling below - those of conventional cars. And some analysts believe electric cars will be competing with gasoline-powered cars, without subsidies, within a decade.

Back to the Future?

Once the electric car catches up to today's cars by lowering upfront costs and extending range, its continued success will depend on the ability of manufacturers to lure consumers with inexpensive, battery-powered versions of commuter, family, or sports cars. Gage of CALSTART foresees "an improved driving experience" analogous to the shift from long-playing records and cassettes to the compact disc: the former worked, but the latter is better. Carmakers may also, however, find themselves dusting off hundred-year-old advertising pitches. As Scientific American observed in 1896, "The electric automobile...has the great advantage of being silent, free from odor, simple in construction, capable of ready control, and having a considerable range of speed."

Perhaps that praise was premature, but precisely a century later, Scientific American has returned to the topics - and suggests that the tables have turned. Writes Sperling of UC-Davis in a recent issue: "...it seems certain that electric-drive technology will supplant internal-combustion engines - perhaps not quickly, uniformly, nor entirely - but inevitably. The question is when, in what form and how to manage the transition." Those words, ironically, recall a very similar statement anticipating the adoption of the internal combustion engine a century ago. After watching the Duryea brothers race their wagons one afternoon in 1895, a young inventor named Thomas Edison boldly announced, "it is only a question of time when the carriages and trucks in every large city will be run with motors."

While technological dreams do not always come true, the electric car now seems to have more than a fighting chance. The major limitations of today's models are within sight of being overcome: indeed, a host of companies are betting billions of dollars on their ability to make that happen. And they cannot but be pleasantly surprised by the initial response to the EV1: according to Saturn dealers, the waiting list of several hundred hopeful lease holders continues to grow. As any car executive will tell you, the Model T took off when its costs were cut in half and cheap gasoline became an available fuel: now, they seem to be musing, might the electric car do likewise once its prices fall and batteries improve dramatically?

But larger forces, as much as the battery, will determine how far the electric car ultimately goes. On these counts, it seems to have a good deal riding in its favor. Its biggest constituency has always been women, who have far more purchasing power today. And its advantages, curious virtues in 1897, have become serious necessities by now, as the burdens of the gasoline culture grow heavier. Urban air pollution, congestion, dependence on oil imports, and global warming: these mounting societal concerns are recharging the electric car.

Still, if it is to avoid the fate of its predecessors, the EV1 and its companions must now handle the rocky road test of the market by selling, leasing, or renting. Making inroads on today's car population will not happen overnight, yet GM's model is already gracing the pages of the The New York Times' Automobile Section, alongside the conventional competition. This, perhaps, is the real story of the electric car's reemergence, lost amid the press conferences and television ads: that, true to the invention's own nature, its entry into the mainstream may resemble less a loud revving than a quiet hum.

Key Sources

CALSTART. Electric Vehicles: An Industry Prospectus. (Burbank; CALSTART, Inc., October 1996).

Flavin, Christopher and Nicholas Lenssen. Power Surge: Guide to the Coming Energy Revolution. (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1994).

MacKenzie, James. The Keys to the Car. (Washington, DC: World Resources Institute, 1994).

Natural Resources Defense Council. Green Auto Racing. (Washington, DC: NRDC, 1996).

Schiffer, Michael Brian. Taking Charge: The Electric Automobile in America (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994).

Shnayerson, Michael. The Car that Could: The Inside Story of GM's Revolutionary Electric Vehicle. (New York: Random House, 1996).

Sperling, Daniel. Future Drive: Electric Cars and Sustainable Transportation. (Washington, DC: Island Press, 1995).

Seth Dunn is a staff researcher at the Worldwatch Institute.
COPYRIGHT 1997 Worldwatch Institute
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Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Dunn, Seth
Publication:World Watch
Date:Mar 1, 1997
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