- The Washington Times - Friday, January 12, 2001

Would you buy a tiny car that cost $22,000 more than a comparable gasoline model, has mediocre performance and can only go 70 miles before it needs refueling?

The answer is so obvious you would think there wouldn't be a question, but surprisingly, there is. Such a car is what environmentalists have been proposing to California consumers for years now. It is an electric car called a ZEV, for zero emissions vehicle, and it is the darling of the enviros. This is important to the rest of the nation, since California often sets the standard when it comes to auto matters.

In the land of the hot rod, sports car and sport utility vehicle, no one else is interested in the concept. Consumers (including enviros) aren't buying electric cars even when they are underwritten by huge industry discounts. Electric cars haven't sold and never will.

California officials are finally coming to their senses and realizing that there is a limited future if any future at all for electric cars in the state. They have rolled back requirements to have 20,000 of the turkeys on the market by 2003.

Instead, they are encouraging automakers to come up with alternatives such as Toyota's on-the-market-today Prius. Prius combines a small internal combustion engine with an electric motor to give it boost. Apparently, the performance is at least acceptable, if not great, and the car's efficiency is terrific. Add to this the fact that you can refuel anywhere (it burns gas, just like other cars) and Toyota may just have come up with a winning solution.

In an effort to meet cleaner goals for cars, manufacturers also are exploring improvements to gasoline internal combustion performance, as well as using new energy sources, including biofuels, electricity, hydrogen and even natural gas. The ultimate solution may be fuel cells that derive electricity from hydrogen and power electric motors to propel a car down the road.

Internal combustion gas engines have been made much cleaner by the use of direct injection and catalyzers. Electronic and computer controls also have been greatly helped by optimizing combustion.

Electric cars, which have never caught on, nevertheless have some good attributes. They are quiet, and are quick off the mark but generally slow in acceleration above 30 mph. They also have a limited range and take hours to charge. These factors probably make them useful only as an urban vehicle, if at all. On the upside, the service life of an electric motor is about 625,000 miles.

Then there is natural gas, which is mostly methane (82 percent to 95 percent), is abundant and available, and five times less polluting than gasoline. Natural gas is probably the cleanest of all fossil fuels, so we are probably going to be gassing up in one form or another for a long time to come.


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