Driving forward

If you squinted real hard while watching the steady parade of exotic-looking electric vehicles zoom around the forecourt of the Walt Disney World Dolphin last month, you might have thought that the future was already here. Instead, it was a procession of one-of-a-kind prototypes and experimental cars that just might be getting ready to seize the gas guzzlers by their dirty tailpipes. Welcome to the annual rollout of the world's clean cars, EVS-14!

Electric vehicles, or EVs, are nothing new. In 1900 they made up 28 percent of the car market, and were heavily favored by women who didn't want to get dirty tinkering with hand cranks and leaky carburetors. Homemade EVs had a brief revival in the early '70s, when the Mideast oil crisis produced soaring prices and long lines at gas stations. But now, with America floating on an ocean of cheap imported fuel, most people are more likely to buy a 10-mile-per-gallon sport-utility than a quirky EV.

Yet we can hardly continue to belch out pollutants at the current rate, let alone meet the auto demand 10 years hence, when much of the developing world will be hitting the road in private cars. The world's 5.5 billion people already own nearly 500 million cars, a number that has left more than half the big cities on the planet with unsafe air.

If automakers aren't made to do much about dirty air now, they soon will be. The international agreement on global warming, which requires the United States to cut back to 7 percent below 1990 emission levels by 2012, was reached in Kyoto, Japan, during the week of EVS-14. There also are tightening state emission standards dictated by the Clean Air Act, and the upcoming California mandate, which requires that 10 percent of the cars sold in that state by 2004 be "zero polluting." New York wants carmakers to sell EVs in the state right now -- a dictate that sparked litigation from the American Automobile Manufacturers Association.

The carmakers certainly are right in predicting consumer resistance to EVs, which are so far available commercially only in a couple of western states. The EV-1 produced by General Motors is on the market in California and Arizona, but in its first year only 300 have been leased. Honda's doing a bit better; in its first six months in California, it leased 79 of its EV Plus commuter cars, which come with advanced nickel-metal-hydride batteries.

In Orlando, Frank Pereira, GM's brand manager for advanced technology, compared the EV to the cellular telephone which, he noted, "Luddites claimed would never replace the regular telephone." Consumer acceptance is slow to build for many products, from copiers to microwave ovens; it obviously didn't help the cause in California when both the Big Three automakers and big oil launched media campaigns against EVs that were meant to overturn the state mandates.

But EVs are coming, according to a new poll from Acurex Environmental Corporation. Its survey of 45 auto industry observers revealed a consensus that there could be two to three million EVs on the road by 2007, and that by then EVs will have captured 3 to 5 percent of California car sales, and 1.5 to 2 percent of the national market. (These figures don't take into account possible hybrid or fuel cell sales, which could push overall sales numbers much higher.)

If Americans are slow to warm to EVs, the Japanese are proving wildly enthusiastic. Even though environmental consciousness in Japan is still pretty low, the Japanese auto industry has gotten into EVs in a big way. Could Honda and Toyota be ready to seize the time on clean cars, the same way they cornered the world market on subcompacts in the 1970s? Toyota's research and development head, Shinichi Kato, said in Orlando that "green cars" are "a matter of corporate commitment, not a response to regulations."

Toyota may just be thinking ahead. "We think that EVs will eventually become commercially viable anyway," says Alden Meyer, director of government relations at the Union of Concerned Scientists, "but penetration rates and timing is crucial. If they can come on the market soon, you forego a lot of emissions."

Speaking of foregoing emissions, Toyota used EVS-14 to show off its compact Prius, an unremarkable-looking, Corolla-like sedan that just happens to have the world's first commercial hybrid drive train under its hood. You can buy a Prius in Japan right now for $17,000, and they'll probably be on the U.S. market by 2000. What's a hybrid? Picture a car with two motors, one electric, one gas-powered. In the series hybrid, the gas motor isn't connected to the wheels; it's just there as a generator to keep the batteries charged up and extend the vehicle's range. In the parallel hybrid, a computer switches between the two motors, both of which can drive the car.

The Prius is a sophisticated cross between the two, and offers some spectacular advantages. Emissions of carbon dioxide, the principal global warming gas, are cut in half, and other pollutants are reduced to a tenth. Unlike regular EVs, which are hamstrung by 60-to-80-mile ranges, the Prius gets 66 miles per gallon and can cover 700 miles. When driving a Prius, the most remarkable thing is getting used to Japanese-market controls (steering on the right, turn signals on the left). Driving it is a fairly transparent experience -- you could be behind the wheel of a Tercel, for all the dramatic effect. And that's good for consumers who've had 100 years of the internal-combustion engine and are afraid to try new things.

Toyota also was touting an electric version of its RAV4 sport utility, already on sale to large fleet buyers in California. For a pure EV, it's quite competent, and so easy to pilot that "Toonces, the driving cat" could get one safely home.

But far more alluring was the car Toyota didn't show, a RAV4 powered by a fuel cell. Fuel cells, which have been around for years in stationary applications, convert hydrogen into electricity, and produce only warm water and a very small amount of CO2 as a byproduct.

Fuel cell cars are still in prototype stage, but the technology is developing quickly. In Orlando, Ford announced a partnership with Daimler-Benz and the Canadian-based Ballard Power Systems to invest $420 million in the development of a fuel cell EV. Ballard, which is now partly owned by Mercedes, has also sold its fuel cells to Volvo, Volkswagen, Honda and GM (all of whom are being cagey about what they're doing with them). But Mercedes, with a $700 million commitment to fuel cells, recently announced that it will be producing 100,000 fuel cell engines a year by 2004. Ford has made similar statements.

The prospect of actually having cars for sale has turned some EV boosters positively giddy. "The key message is that the alternative-fuel industry has now turned a corner and has started developing commercial products," said Bob Haden, executive vice president of the Electric Vehicle Association of the Americas, the conference's sponsoring group.

Some pundits at the show predicted that the various forms of EV will capture 25 to 30 percent of the car market by 2005. And the range of real cars -- not just non-working prototypes -- at the show was staggering. Honda offered rides in its Civic-like EV Plus, which is available for lease in California, and even flew in a Los Angeles family of four to offer testimonials.

"We had been talking a good environmental game," said driver Janet Gray, an Ernst and Young management consultant, "but this car really forced us to put our money where our mouths were." So what's it like behind the wheel of an EV Plus, Ms. Gray? "It's like driving a car," she said. Indeed, the EV Plus, which boasts high-tech nickel-metal-hydride batteries, feels like a credible family car, and that's quite an advance from the rattly kit-car impression many small company conversions give.

If any independent company has a chance to make it selling EVs, it's Massachusetts-based Solectria, which debuted its swoopy new Sunrise at the show. Solectria, which has sold about 300 converted Geo Metros and Chevy S-10 pickups, mostly to utilities, hopes the Sunrise will catapult it into the big leagues. The company thinks it can sell 20,000 of these curvy coupes a year, even though now there's just two of them. (The Sunrise made available for test driving was plainly cobbled together, with a crudely built interior, but it accelerated with great alacrity.)

At the show, Solectria's boyish founder, James Worden (who recently drove a Sunrise from Boston to New York on a single electric charge), brought out Jose Maria Figueres, the president of Costa Rica, to talk about his sustainability-minded country's commitment to EVs. Figueres said he would cut import duty on EVs, and offer a $10 million line of credit to any EV manufacturer that wanted to set up there.

Not to be outdone, Unique Mobility presented former Chrysler pitchman Lee Iaccoca to hawk its two-seater hybrid Ethos, which featured a snazzy lime-green body by Italian design firm Pininfarina. Iaccoca compared the current EV scramble to the early days of the car industry, when nameplates proliferated. Iaccoca's web search turned up 88 companies making EVs. "I believe there is a market today, and I've decided to come clean," he said.

Will America come clean, too? There certainly was lots of cool stuff on view at EVS-14, from a glorified golf cart called the Bombardier to a camouflage-painted Hummer hybrid EV that out-drag-raced the gas version. The bottom line is that after years of dismissing clean cars and, indeed, spending millions to try and make them go away, the international car industry is finally getting behind them with some serious capital. The clean car really is coming.