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Electric Cars? What A Gas!

Electric cars are by no means new. Americans built efficient "electric carriages" as far back as 1890, when William Morrison built one in Des Moines that could go for 13 hours at 14 miles per hour.

As early as 1899, electric taxis, trams, and omnibuses were commonly seen in major cities, and electric and steam-powered cars outsold gasoline buggies.

Between 1900 and 1915, more than 60 American companies were building electric vehicles, including the Andrew Riker Company (1896-1901), which offered a wide range of styles and models. In 1901, the company's electric-powered racer, the Riker Torpedo, set a record run for the mile at 57.14 miles per hour. Another firm, the Walker Baker Company (1899-1914), created an electric-powered racer that could go over 75 miles per hour, and was the first car to have passenger seat belts.

Although electric cars were clean, quiet, and simple to operate, the drawback then, as now, was their limited range and long charging time. After 1915, they fell out of vogue as cars powered by internal-combustion engines and fueled with cheap gasoline gained favor.

As concerns in recent years have grown about global warming caused by carbon-dioxide emissions, scientists have begun to reconsider electricity as a fuel for vehicles. But today's drivers expect a vehicle that is fuel efficient, and a fuel that is readily available in numerous locations and allows instant refueling.

Although electric cars are fairly efficient, they require frequent refueling, and the process is far from instantaneous. They are expensive, too, since normal use causes their US$2,000 lead-acid batteries to wear out in just a few years. And, ironically, electric cars do very little to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, because most electricity in the U.S. is generated by burning coal and other fossil fuels.

To gain consumer acceptance, the car of the future will need to balance the benefits of electric cars with consumer demands for distance and dynamo. The hybrid electric vehicle holds promise as a solution to both these needs.

A hybrid electric vehicle combines two sources of energy, such as a battery-powered electric motor and a conventional internal combustion engine. They enable the driver to decide which source of power is appropriate for the requirements of a journey. Short jaunts to the grocery store or the post office could use the electric motor, while weekends in the country may require the internal combustion engine.

Major American auto manufacturers are now developing production-feasible hybrid electric vehicles, and some are exploring fuel-cell technology for their electric cars.

Chrysler Corporation and Delphi Automotive Systems are collaborating to build a prototype car that would use fuel cells to produce electricity to run the automobile's electric motor. Chrysler has been working with Arthur D. Little, the technology-based consulting firm, to develop this technology. Their goal is to design a fuel-cell systm in which the fuel cell, batteries and electric motor are all packaged to fit into a mid-size car.

The fuel cell will use an on-board fuel processor in a multi-stage, chemical reactive process to convert gasoline to water, carbon dioxide, and hydrogen, which will then be used to create electricity to power the car. The fuel cells would thereby deliver the same range as conventional gasoline-powered cars and could significantly improve fuel economy.

Current fuel cells are impractical for a number of reasons. First is the cost: current fuel cells would need to be one-tenth of their current price to be a practical alternative. There is hope, however. Prices have fallen dramatically over the past ten years, and are now only about one percent of 1987 costs.

Another obstacle is technology. Current fuel cells require hydrogen or methanol, which are not readily available to consumers. (When is the last time you saw hydrogen for sale at the local filling station?) Furthermore, these fuels are required in large quantities, so space limitations make it difficult to store sufficient amounts onboard the vehicle.

Fuel cells designed to use gasoline offer obvious advantages (one could "fill up" an electric car at the pump with a standard-sized tank), but they do not yet exist.

Another technological hurdle involves start-up time. Fuel cells need about five minutes to warm up before they can be used, so additional batteries may be needed to heat the system to operating temperatures.

Despite these challenges, fuel cells are regarded as one of the most promising future technologies. If the prototype development succeeds, it will revolutionize the automobile industry, offering affordable, environmentally-friendly cars with the range, rapid refueling, and performance of conventional vehicles.

This service is produced by Information Please, a partner of CBS.com


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