Last week, DaimlerChrysler executives visited Washington with some great ideas for a new power source for electric vehicles. They are great believers in the fuel cell, and they think that within a half-dozen years, it's actually going to reach the marketplace.
General Motors has had some real experience with electric cars, and although GM may be collecting some valuable data, the market results with the EV1 have been less than spectacular. GM has replaced the original batteries with nickel-metal-hydride batteries that expand the range, but it still is nothing to write home about. Don't plan to take it cross-country anytime soon.
The Toyota Prius hybrid, already on sale in Japan, will come to the United States soon. It is far more practical, although purists complain it's not a zero-emissions vehicle. It combines an electric motor and batteries with a small petroleum engine that combines both worlds. It runs on electricity at low speeds and switches to internal combustion at higher speeds. It's a simple, creative solution that gets only a B+ from the environmentalists.
There will have to be some spectacular developments in alternative powerplants before gasoline and diesel engines are put out to pasture. Petroleum-powered engines have a 100-year head start. Replacing them will take a lot of time, energy, smarts and, most important, money.
Today's consensus is that the electric car will be the next vehicle with any sort of volume production. The trouble is, no one is quite sure what is going to create and store the electricity. Right now, there are several choices: various batteries, fuel cells and, yes, petroleum engines to generate electricity like a locomotive, or to drive the vehicle and generate electricity.
But there's not a lot of pressure on the automobile industry to pull out all the stops for some sort of zero-emissions vehicle. It's simply too expensive today, and the public wouldn't buy it. Yet.
Even the California Air Resources Board had to acknowledge that its plan to force manufacturers to sell 2 to 10 percent zero-emissions vehicles starting in 1998 just wouldn't fly.
The electric car is coming, but not in any real numbers for at least 10 years.
It's exciting when you consider all the talent working on the problem. There may not be a single solution, and that's fine for the consumer. After all, even with electrics, choice is the name of the game.