The effects of the Information Age may finally be working their way into the defining icon of the Industrial Age - the automobile.
"We're on the cusp of a technological revolution in the automotive industry," says Dan Sperling, head of the Institute for Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis, in an interview with EVWorld.com, a Web site devoted to electric cars.
The first harbingers of this revolution are two hybrid-electric vehicles hitting US streets this year: the Honda Insight, which went on sale last December, and the Toyota Prius, coming this fall. (See story, page 15.)
What may follow can be found at dozens of small manufacturing plants and design studios that are working on ways to reduce US dependence on gasoline. Several are building electric vehicles designed for limited applications where they excel. Others are working on alternatives to driving altogether - telecommuting, electronic shopping, better public transportation.
The technology for an automotive revolution is readily available. The automakers are interested. The official will is in place, reflected in several government initiatives. All that's missing: enough consumers to buy early prototypes that lag behind the utopian visions.
Still, there are early signs that Americans' legendary love affair with the automobile is waning as people grow frustrated with high gas prices, long commutes that go slower every year, and urban skies filled with car exhaust.
Several upstart electric-car manufacturers are jumping in with potential solutions.
These new electric cars are meant to serve as second vehicles rather than replacements for family cars, so they may be more successful than earlier efforts.
AC Propulsion of San Dimas, Calif., has two prototypes of an electric sports car that it claims accelerates faster than any other production car sold in the United States. "We staged a race with a Ferrari, and it wasn't even close," says Alec Brooks, the chief engineer. His tZero beat both the Ferrari F355 and a Porsche 911 in a one-eighth-mile race. The company has fans from Silicon Valley and Hollywood lining up to pay $80,000 - more than enough to pay for expensive battery packs.
But the tZero requires years of development before it can meet federal safety regulations.
Global Electric Mobility (GEM) of Fargo, N.D., builds a "neighborhood electric vehicle" that goes 35 miles per hour, seats two or four, and has all the usual car-safety features. It's marketed as an improvement over a golf cart for the 5 million Americans who live in gated communities.
And Corbin Motors, a motorcycle-accessory manufacturer in Hollister, Calif., offers a single-seat electric commuter, the Sparrow, that goes 70 miles an hour, registers as a motorcycle, and can use most carpool lanes.
"We're not trying to replace the family car," says Mike Corbin, the designer and inventor of what he calls the "personal transport module." Its range and single seat, though, make it an ideal second car for 80 percent of commuters, he says.
Unfortunately, all of these vehicles are expensive. The Sparrow sells for $13,900, the price of a traditional compact. And for a little more money than the $7,000 GEM, buyers could make their way into a Hyundai.
But "all the clean cars in the world will do nothing for congestion and land-use problems," says Dan Sturges, head of New Mobility at frog design in Detroit.
That's why Mr. Sturges is working on what he calls a "new mobility" transportation system aimed at reducing car travel altogether. His system utilizes telecommuting and e-commerce to reduce trips, as well as:
*Towns designed to promote walking and discourage driving. Vancouver, British Columbia, among other cities, has banned cars from the city center. And several suburban neighborhoods in Pittsburgh have turned thoroughfares into cul-de-sacs.
*Neighborhood "harbors" designed for people to leave their cars outside and walk, bike, or use low-speed electric vehicles inside. Most of these neighborhoods are retirement communities in the Sun Belt with names like Laguna Woods and Boca Dunes.
*Expanded public transportation, possibly in the form of buses in high-occupancy-vehicle (HOV) lanes freed up by reducing traffic on existing roads.
*HOV tolls that would raise money for public transportation by allowing single-passenger cars to use HOV lanes for a fee.
*Hybrid-electric or large fuel-cell vehicles for taking long trips that are still necessary.
*Car-sharing initiatives that would allow multiple drivers to make maximum use of existing vehicles. The concept goes like this: One driver could drive to a train station in the morning and leave the car keys in a lockbox, then take the train to work. Another worker could arrive at the station, drive the car to work nearby, and leave the keys in another lockbox. At lunch, a third local employee could take the car to run errands and drop it again for the second worker to drive back to the train, and so on.
Switzerland already has a comprehensive car-sharing system. Hertz is trying it in a couple of US cities. And the Bay Area Rapid Transit system in San Francisco is running a pilot program.
Modern computing power makes it possible to control the logistics of such a system, Sturges says. Families could even trade their daily commuters for an SUV on vacations, a pickup when they have errands to run, and a convertible on weekends.
"This is not [just] about a conference on cleaning the air," says Dan Sturges. "The goal is to make life better. Cars were for another era."
The obstacle to all these systems is the fact that public has to want them, says Jim Motavalli, editor of E, an environmental magazine, and author of "Forward Drive" (Harper-Collins, 2000) about the greening of the auto industry. "If you're waiting for people to buy a really horrible car because it's environmentally correct, it's not going to happen."
Today's hybrid cars aren't horrible. But they are tiny, and they command at least a $3,000 premium over comparable gasoline cars.
They won't make a dent in pollution as long as they're niche vehicles, says Glen Rhea, a Ford environmental spokesman in Dearborn, Mich.
The hybrid and fuel-cell vehicles that succeed will be those that answer consumers' constant desire for large vehicles like sport-utilities and pickup trucks, says Thad Malesh, a consumer researcher with J.D. Power and Associates in Agoura Hills, Calif. DaimlerChrysler, for instance, has shown a gasoline-electric Dodge Durango SUV that it says it could sell immediately if government incentives brought the price down to that of its gasoline-only counterparts.
But Mr. Motavalli says other automakers realize they will have to subsidize hybrids for now.
Each of Detroit's Big Three have showed 80-mile-per-gallon hybrids as roomy as midsize sedans, but more costly. What's needed is more consumer education to drive sales up and prices down, says Mr. Malesh. Fully three-quarters of consumers he's surveyed don't yet know about hybrids.
Eventually fuel-cell vehicles are expected to replace hybrids as the ultimate in clean transportation. Basically they mix hydrogen and oxygen to create a chemical reaction that produces electricity. The car emits no pollutants other than carbon dioxide and hot water. Filling them with hydrogen is problematic.
Malesh sees an "avalanche" of interest from manufacturers and suppliers in these technologies. "They're solving ... the technical problems and looking at what market segments to go into," he says. "That was not true six months ago."
Honda and Toyota expect to lose money on every hybrid they sell in the US. But "they're willing to do their homework for the long term," says Malesh.
Of course, it doesn't hurt that they make money on the hybrid cars they sell in Japan, where trips are short and gas costs $3.57 a gallon.
Today the driving force behind sales of cleaner vehicles is a California mandate that 10 percent of all vehicles sold in the state have no emissions starting in 2004. The only vehicles that can meet that mandate now are battery-powered electric cars. (Even though they contribute to pollution at power plants, environmentalists say the pollution is reduced.)
DaimlerChrysler and General Motors expect to have zero-emissions fuel-cell vehicles on sale by 2004. But Malesh says they will only be in corporate fleets; they won't be user-friendly enough for consumers.
The cars, likely to run on hydrogen, would require special fuel stations. Hydrogen won't make it to the corner gas station by then. But corporate buyers can build refueling stations and train employees.
Malesh thinks California will reduce or postpone its mandate and allow manufacturers to earn a few "zero-emissions" credits with hybrid-powered vehicles that consumers will likely buy.
Today, manufacturers "are so blinded by their technical abilities" to produce clean cars, that they've just begun to ask about buyers' interest, he says.
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