'Green' cars are still up on blocks, but not for long

FORWARD DRIVE: The Race to Build 'Clean' Cars for the future By Jim Motavalli Sierra Club Books 273 pp., $25

The day automakers put the earth at the top of their agenda will go down in history. Reading this book, one gets the sense that day is coming.

Big automakers - still no paragons of environmentalism - have gotten the message that replacing the dirty internal-combustion engine is an urgent priority. With less than 5 percent of the world's population, Americans produce 14 percent of all global warming carbon-dioxide gas. And car tailpipes pump out more than 30 percent of US air pollution.

In his new book, "Forward Drive: The Race to Build 'Clean' Cars for the Future," environmentalist Jim Motavalli concludes that capitalist competition is taking over from government mandates to clean up that exhaust.

Motavalli chronicles the movement for cleaner cars: the few visionaries and zealots building and driving home-built battery-powered cars; the divided giant automakers working tirelessly to develop clean cars while fighting regulatory efforts to require them; university researchers conducting studies; and the regulators trying to speed their adoption.

"Forward Drive" covers the technological advances of the hybrid and fuel-cell electric vehicles poised to take over from the internal-combustion engine.

In some ways, Motavalli is an unlikely narrator. A self-avowed car nut who stumbled into a job editing E, the Environmental Magazine, he seems biased on both sides of the issue. But ultimately, that's what makes him best suited to tell this story.

Motavalli's concern for the environment is sincere, and his knowledge of cars is refreshingly accurate. The most interesting passages follow his transformation from internal-combustion devotee to environmental autocynic and battery-car zealot to hopeful future-car realist.

"It was disconcerting, to say the least, to learn that my hobby of collecting classic cars and my growing concern for the environment didn't necessarily mesh," Motavalli writes. "The car has certainly been good to me, but I'm becoming disenchanted."

In the preface, he notes that he set out to write a book critical of the auto industry for teaming up with Big Oil to block development of clean cars. But when he dug in to do more research, he found a different story. Namely that automakers in Detroit, Japan, and Europe are in a heated race to start selling cars that are more environmentally correct.

Unfortunately, Motavalli glosses over issues of consumer demand. He never mentions that today's electric cars and gasoline-electric hybrids cost far more than internal-combustion cars of equal or greater capability. He spends a whole chapter interviewing early adopters of electric cars in California. He notes their utter dedication to their electric cars and implies that the rest of the buying public should simply be as enthusiastic, without addressing issues of price or the various ways families use their cars.

He strongly favors California's mandate that 10 percent of all vehicles sold in the state be zero-emission-vehicles-battery or fuel-cell electrics, not hybrids -even though he writes, "Ultimately, ... vehicles halfheartedly designed to meet a mandate would fail in the marketplace."

And he gives short shrift to the point that clean cars do nothing to ease congestion and sprawl.

In a telephone interview, Motavalli concedes that technology is progressing faster than book deadlines allowed him to keep up with. If anything, automakers are working harder to develop hybrid-electrics. And mass-market hybrid-drive systems will likely first show up in the big sport utility vehicles that Motavalli rails against.

Nevertheless, he now believes that the automakers with the deepest pockets have the best chance of building better cars for tomorrow.

"The new, clean cars will emerge not from a tinkerer's garage, but from the well-funded research labs of the same big auto companies that initially fought their introduction," he says.

*Eric C. Evarts is a Monitor staff writer. You can reach him at evarts@csmonitor.com

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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