Battery-powered cars have never had wow factor. Now, says Ruth Brandon, all that is changing

There were several reasons why the internal combustion engine so decisively won the three-cornered race between itself, steam and electrics. And, in the case of electrics, those reasons were not merely technical.

Of course, there were technical disadvantages to electrics. Their range between charges was limited and they didn't go much above 30mph. And the weight and bulk of the necessary batteries meant that they tended to be both cramped and ungainly.

But technical problems can be overcome. All you need are engineering skills and money. However, these have tended to be masculine domains, and electrics didn't catch the male imagination. Electrics were sedate; they had associations with electrically powered household gadgets; they had problems with hills; there was no satisfying engine noise. In a word, they were dickless, and in so far as they were ever in general use (that is, until around 1915), it was as ladies' cars. Mrs Ford drove an electric. Mr Ford emphatically did not.

As the current vogue for the G-Wiz shows, even ungainliness and low speeds need not preclude commercial success. As roads become more noisy, crowded and polluted, and fuel costs rise, electrics' cleanliness and silence make them desirable, while the urban commute is usually well within their range.

However, a few green-minded European urbanites were never going to change the face of motoring. The only things that can do that are legislation, fuel costs - and the American market.

In the case of electrics, whose chief virtue is that they cut urban pollution, legislation has been tried - and failed. A decade ago, the state of California planned to introduce a zero-emissions quota for all cars sold: the result was General Motors' electric EV1 two-seater. But oil and car lobbies got the quota dumped, and GM withdrew the EV1.

The $3 gallon, however, is universally hated and feared. Meanwhile, battery technology has moved on. The lithium-ion battery, as used in laptop computers, has dramatically increased electrics' range. So now someone is tackling the problem of manufacturing an electric car that will compete at the top, speedy end of the market. At current US fuel and electricity prices, the two-seater Tesla Roadster will travel 150 miles for $3 - the price of a gallon of regular unleaded.

The Roadster is a spin-off of Silicon Valley. It has 6,831 Li-Ion batteries arranged in what its inventor, Martin Eberhard, calls a "complex network" and weighing 900lb (409kg). It has a 185kw (248hp) drivetrain, and does 0-60 in four seconds - "wicked fast", says Eberhard. The engine runs at 360 volts, and has a safety system that shuts down the battery pack in a crash. Its range is around 250 miles between charges.

The fact that it will be cheap to run will not be a top priority for those able to afford the Roadster at its projected price - between $85,000 and $100,000. But Eberhard doesn't expect to produce vast numbers. For him, the way to get a product into the mass market is to begin by targeting those who can afford it.

If Eberhard is right, and the future is electric, we'll need many more power stations. But if they are powered by fossil fuels, this will solve neither the oil or pollution problem. Electric cars are one of the least efficient ways of using fossil-fuel energy, and they don't reduce pollution, just displace it. So electrics have implications for more than just the car lobby - and one of them is a whole lot more windmills.

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