Clean, green driving machines

Fleets of electric cars to rent could be a cure for city pollution
The best way to encourage city folk to buy zero-emission electric cars is, in the short term, not to sell them any. Much better, say France's big car makers, for people to rent them. That way, say Peugeot and Renault, by the year 2000 many European cities could be full of clean-running small electric cars, partly (possibly completely) replacing the current petrol and diesel burners. The French car giants are encouraging French and other European cities to set up electric car infrastructures. Some cities, including La Rochelle, have done just that.

Why rent and not buy? Simple: electric cars are too pricey, too impractical. Batteries alone cost thousands (the battery pack for an electric Peugeot 106 in France costs pounds 7,000 - which is why most customers end up renting them, for about pounds 80 a month). Even without the batteries, electric cars cost more than better-performing, roomier (those battery packs steal a lot of space) petrol ones that not only have three times the range between "refills", but can be refuelled in minutes rather than recharged in hours.

Recharging (usually at night) is also impractical for anyone without a garage and accompanying power point. . The first wave of electric cars to hit the market (in France, Italy and Germany) have a range of about 100 miles. Peugeot's and Renault's vision is for city authorities (or private hire firms, such as Hertz or Budget) to run fleets of specially designed city electric cars. Peugeot's new prototype, a light two-seater made from special glassfibre, is called the Tulip. Renault unveiled a family of little electric cars, called the Amperatrices, at last autumn's Paris Show.

Depots around the city would have cars to hire. Customers would key their personal codes into a control pad and drive the car to another depot (or back to the original depot, if that were more convenient) after their journey ended. The customer is automatically debited for his or her journey and the car would then be recharged.

Hiring obviates the problem of high purchase cost and overnight recharging. Peugeot says it is undertaking the study for "long-term commercial" gain. It believes that more and more city authorities will penalise petrol or diesel-burning cars in town centres, making the cleaner (at source) electric cars viable - especially if they were rented.

The French idea contrasts with California's more draconianapproach. Come 1998, 2 per cent of sales of the leading car makers in California must be electric cars. The big makers are all bleating (predictably). They claim that by then the technology simply will not be good enough to sell so many cars to private customers. To sell them at a reasonable price, makers will have to put a surcharge on their petrol models.

The French initiative strikes me as the cleverest approach yet to achieving this goal. It accepts electric cars for what they are, short-hop city runabouts, no more or less, and yet encourages development and understanding of a power-train that could, with the right technical breakthrough, consign exhaust pollution to the scrap-heap.