Taiwan zooming into electric car production

After selling electric toys for years, Taiwan is toying with the idea of selling electric cars -- fast ones. The world road race to build the first popular electric vehicle has a head start in Taiwan. With about 50 already on the road, pilot production of another 50 a month starts up this summer in a $5 million program. And by 1983 officials expect a full-fledged factory making at least 10,000 vehicles a year.

Dealers from all over Asia are beating a path to Taiwan's door to begin selling the fuelless cars in showrooms, says Dr. Ru-Yih Sun, chief electric vehicle researcher and head of mechanical engineering at Tsing Hua University.

Nothing special distinguishes Taiwan's electric vehicle from those being developed in the United States, Japan, or Europe -- except perhaps a little extra pep in acceleration that will do just fine in Taipei's helter-skelter traffic. Acceleration to 40 kilometers an hour takes only eight seconds, compared with 15 seconds for the average gasoline car today in Taipei.

As everywhere else, electric-vehicle engineers are trying to improve on the short-lived and heavy lead-acid battery that so far keeps the vehicles from gaining mass appeal --they just don't drive long enough for that once-a-week long trip to grandmother's house.

Taiwan officials, however, have four good reasons that that problem will not stop them from large-scale production:

* Taiwan's warm weather allows the batteries to run more efficiently.

* The nation's high oil dependency and acute city air pollution compel a shift away from petroleum-run cars.

* Three to five nuclear power plants come on line in the mid-1980s, with plenty of electricity to juice up a nation-full of electric cars. Currently, Taiwan's use of electric power is poor -- only 60 to 65 percent at night.

* Rising incomes, high population density, ready acceptance of small cars, and an average commuting distance of about 30 kilometers a day will likely make the Taiwanese people a ready market, as a 1977 survey already showed.

The new electric vehicles -- mainly small vans -- will be made at the government-owned Tang Eng Iron Works outside Taipei, selling for an estimated actual cost of about $5,000 (US) and running about 120 kilometers per charge. The top speed will be 80 kilometers an hour (50 m.p.h.). With flat countryside, Taiwan's specially designed electric motor will have less power and less weight than average for electric cars built elsewhere, but an increased efficiency of 12 percent over normal electric vehicles.

"It's a good car with a short range for an urban vehicle," Dr. Sun says.

Although Taiwan has a history of quickly introducing new technology when it wants to, some risks could spell trouble for its new program.

Recent introduction of electric motorcycles flopped when they proved too slow and lacking in power. Then, too, hundreds, of "battery stations" will need to be built. And Taiwan homes, most without garages, will have to build in special electric extension cords (the eight-battery pack takes five hours to recharge, with 250 recharges per battery).

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