Future Car

Long before last December's global warming conference in Kyoto, we started urging people to stay cool about what's required to buy some cautionary insurance for Mother Earth.

Don't be panicked by either side.

One tells you millions will lose jobs and prices will skyrocket because of the cost of converting factories, vehicles, and buildings to curb greenhouse gas emissions. The other side warns you of drowning in Indonesia, fried crops in Iowa, huge storms, forest decline, and pestilence.

Both are based on static projections: (1) That the cost of CO2 emission-cutting will remain high. (2) That the private sector will stand still and governments will bicker for years.

We've pointed out that the electric power industry has already learned a lot about cutting CO2 emissions. (Some 45 million tons of gases cut in North America.) The more agile firms can now reverse the standard wastage statistic: one-third of fuel produces electricity; two-thirds is wasted. They can now reach 70 percent efficiency.

But what about the headline subject of this editorial: cars? Their numbers are expected to grow by tens of millions as Chinese, Indians, and Brazilians begin to lead versions of Western lifestyles. So more efficiency on the road is a must - in terms of resources as well as climate change.

We've noted with interest recent announcements by Honda, Toyota, and Saab of new super-efficient engines. One of Honda's (scheduled for late 1998) gets 70 miles per gallon. Another, under development, uses three catalyzers to reduce emissions to about 1/10th what the world's most stringent restrictions (California's) allow.

That's important, because California has hit a setback in selling consumers zero-emission electric cars. Prices are still too high and trips between chargings to short to woo many buyers. GM's two-seat, battery-powered EV-1 found only 300 buyers in a year, well short of the goal of 1,200. State officials are considering whether to add "hybrids," with a small gas engine twinned with an electric motor.

For such cars to become standard, they will have to be reliable enough and cheap enough to attract mass buyers. That means Western consumers buying enough to bring about economies of scale. Then versions for mass markets in developing lands.

None of this is simple. But it's encouraging that major car firms are pouring big money into research on even more thrifty (and alternative-powered) future cars.

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