Magazine article The Futurist

The Road Ahead for Gasoline-Free Cars: In a Few Years, One out of Every Two Cars on the Road Could Be a Hybrid or Electric

Magazine article The Futurist

The Road Ahead for Gasoline-Free Cars: In a Few Years, One out of Every Two Cars on the Road Could Be a Hybrid or Electric

Article excerpt

Until recently, most people experienced clean-energy cars at auto shows, in the pages of magazines, or as image advertising--they weren't tangible. All that's changed now: You can actually see electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles on the street, picking up groceries with early adopters at the wheel, taking the kids to Little League, and--lo and behold--even charging up at public stations.

The basic types of clean-energy cars are as follows:

* Battery electrics. These cars have electric motors and battery packs, and no other means of propulsion. The range is generally 100 miles, but that's not likely to remain the standard for long. The Tesla Roadster can deliver 245 miles on a charge.

* Plug-in hybrids. The plug-in hybrid car acts like an electric car for the first 15 to 50 miles, but then can switch to an onboard internal-combustion engine that, in many cases, acts as a generator instead of directly driving the wheels. The Chevrolet Volt is an example of the plug-in hybrid, as is the Fisker Karma.

* Hybrids. Hybrids either use their electric motors as assists for the gas engine, or allow short bursts of electric-only driving. The Toyota Prius and Ford Fusion hybrids are examples of this car type.

* Hydrogen fuel-cell cars. The fuel cell, which produces electricity from hydrogen, replaces the battery pack. Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe; we'll never run out of it. The main challenge is not having enough hydrogen filling stations.

Nearly every major auto maker is planning new clean-energy models. Ford, for instance, intends to roll out five new models in 2012. Roland Berger Strategy Consultants forecasts that 10% of new cars globally will be electric by 2025, and the larger category that includes hybrids and plug-in hybrids will have grabbed 40% of the market by then. That would mean that half of new cars heading into showrooms around the world would be at least partly electric, but it's a pretty optimistic forecast--what ultimately rolls out depends to a great extent on what happens with gas prices.

Hydrogen fuel-cell cars should be ready for mass use in just a few more years. In addition, four car companies--Daimler, Toyota, Honda, and Hyundai--plan to roll out tens of thousands of hydrogen-powered cars by 2015.

The near-term challenge is the lack of a hydrogen infrastructure. There are currently fewer than a hundred hydrogen stations in all of the United States, and only a handful are public. Some entrepreneurs are attempting to change that. Tom Sullivan, the founder of Lumber Liquidators, has just started SunHydro, a private chain of hydrogen fueling stations along the U.S. east coast.

As it stands, though, the upcoming hydrogen-powered cars may end up being sold in Europe, South Korea, or Japan, where public commitments on hydrogen infrastructure are much stronger than in the United States. The U.S. government has had an on-again, off-again relationship with hydrogen-powered cars.

That's not to say that American consumers don't like electric cars. Demand is higher in the United States than anywhere else. But demand in China could surpass U.S. demand very quickly. China will likely become the world's largest electric-car market: It has put in place some of the world's best incentives for electric cars, and quite a few manufacturers are lining up to sell them to Chinese buyers.

Demographic trends might also help the electric car market, as more people move to cities. Electrics will help fill the need for vehicles that can take people short distances at low speeds due to traffic and pedestrians. …

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