Electric car technology coming back into popularity
The 21st century race to create a zero-emissions vehicle mimics the scramble to develop engine technology in the 1900s.
Electric cars have a bright future — again.
Electric vehicles have been the little engine that almost could, but never quite did. But now, according to auto industry observer Jim Motavalli, their time in the sun may have finally come.
"Electric cars were pretty successful on the market ‘til around 1920," Motavalli said.
Marketed as a woman's car, the original electric vehicles didn't need the notorious crank starter that its gas engine counterparts had. In addition, the cars were still modeled after high class carriages with velvet interiors and opera lamps.
"But, in many ways, they were not that different from the ones we had today. They had a range of about 50 or 60 miles on lead-acid batteries, and they would charge overnight," Motavalli said.
When automobile engines were first being developed, myriad options were available to the consumer.
"We had steam cars, electric cars, gas cars, diesel cars," Motavalli said. But in the end, the gas engine became dominant after acquiring a self-starter, greater power and a quieter engine.
Now with the Obama administration's challenge to the auto industry that new cars should get about 54.5 miles per gallon, the auto industry has gone back to its electric roots. Electric cars have gained much popularity in the last few years for the claim that they produce "zero emissions." But Motavalli noted that's not entirely true.
"That is something of a misnomer because they are all connected to power plants and you really are only as clean as the grid that your electricity comes from," Motavalli said.
Many of the old contenders are back in the running in the race to reach 54.5 mpg — such as electric, gas and diesel — but clean diesel, gas-electirc hybrids, ethanol-powered and hydrogen fuel cell-powered vehicles have also been offered as possible solutions.
"It seems like, we’re, again, back to the future," Motavalli said.
Motavalli's new book is called "High Voltage: the Fast Track to Plug in the Auto Industry."
Hosted by Bruce Gellerman, "Living on Earth" is an award-winning environmental news program that delves into the leading issues affecting the world we inhabit. More about "Living on Earth."