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The biggest names in the automotive industry want to change the way you drive – or more specifically, what you drive.  These companies hope the popularity of the hybrid – a car that operates on batteries and gasoline – could signal  the public’s willingness to embrace the fully electric car.

Electric vehicles – those powered exclusively through fuel cells or batteries – seem to be a logical next step in the evolution of American motoring.  As more emphasis is being placed on ‘greening’ every facet of our lives, some of the largest automakers are hoping to capitalize on this new trend by building highway-capable electric cars.  However, the field is not limited to these industrial giants; several smaller companies are concentrating exclusively on cleaner, reliable transportation. And this new focus in the industry has many electric car proponents excited for a return to a concept that is actually much older than we realize.



BG Electric Vehicle Introduction

The electric car was an early precursor to the gasoline-powered automobile, setting numerous land speed records and making motorized transportation a significant lifestyle change for thousands of urban dwellers in the late 1800′s. Appreciated for its ease of use and quiet operation, the electric car enjoyed popularity through the 1920′s, until Charles Kettering‘s invention of the electric starter, and the discovery of oil in Texas led to a decline in gas prices. Gasoline-fueled cars, which had been noisy, odorous, and difficult to operate, also gained market share as improvements in manufacturing led to steep price cuts, making the vehicles more affordable than their electric counterparts.

Today, rising gas prices and a fear of limited fuel resources in the future are causing us to rethink battery-powered automobiles. In contrast to vehicles run by an internal combustion engine, these cars are ideal for operating through alternative-fuel options – including solar power, making them an important addition to our eco-conscious efforts. Manufacturing and maintenance of electric cars would also mark a significant change, as they use fewer mechanical parts, and require less trips to the auto shop than their gasoline equivalents. However, the current limitations of the demonstration vehicles – namely the inability to travel at great distances, limited top cruising speeds, and the need for frequent battery charges, have slowed their release to an increasingly interested public.

An additional factor in the delay is the lack of infrastructure to support long-distance travel. While these cars are eminently suitable to city driving, engineers have yet to find a feasible way to charge the vehicles en-route. Gas stations are located in even the most rural areas, but developing a fast, convenient method of servicing electric cars is still in the planning stages, needing billions in funding before coast-to-coast trips become possible.

Battery replacement is a considered option – stations would replace depleted cells with fully charged ones for a small fee. Charging the batteries through an electric outlet is not as viable a solution – stations would have to be outfitted with a charging station that could carry a higher electrical current, and most batteries cannot receive a full charge in a short time frame. The convenience of a 10 – 15 minute gas stop could quickly turn into an hour-plus delay, if not significantly longer.

California has given the most support to promoting electric car adoption, offering charging stations at select locations in the Los Angeles area after the 1990 passing of the ZEV mandate that required car makers to actively develop and release battery-operated vehicles. Unfortunately, the industry was unable to meet the requirements, and though several thousand of electric cars were sold, the remaining stock was destroyed by the companies when the mandate was overturned.

Another crucial problem is the inability to develop a more efficient battery – one that will hold a charge for a longer duration and allow cross-country travel. Right now, fuel cells for these cars are bulky, adding unwanted weight and limiting the options for car designers, especially important in a car culture as developed as the American one.

With the big three US automakers – GM, Ford, and Daimler Chrysler – facing severe financial difficulties, it remains to be seen whether they will continue to put money into the research and development of the electric car – and to beat their foreign competitors in the race to release an economical and eco-friendly machine.  Battery-powered cars may not be rolling off the assembly lines today, but as the competition heats up – and public fervor gains ground, we may soon be looking at driving in a whole new light.  And if that weren’t enough, the administration is signalling new concerns about the dangers of runaway global warming, driven in part by carbon based emissions from automobiles.  All of these factors promise a more electric future for personal transporation.