Electric car enters the slow lane

Emission-free driving is still impractical, writes David Bowen

GENERAL MOTORS' announcement on Thursday that it is to put the world's first electric car into volume production does not, experts say, mark the dawn of an era of pollution-free motoring. It is simply the pragmatic response by a car giant to government and other pressures to make a product that remains as commercially unappetising as ever.

The EV1 will go on sale later this year in Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix and Tucson. It will cost about $35,000 (pounds 22,500) and be similar to the Impact, a test vehicle that GM developed - and almost dropped - three years ago. But a spokesman said: "Fifty Impacts were given out as test cars, and they were so successful we decided to go into production." The company is also producing an electric pick-up truck.

Although the vehicles are in many ways technically advanced, the basic power system is the same as a milk float's. GM has eschewed new types of battery, and has not attempted to tackle the fundamental electric vehicle problem of high weight and limited range. The two-seater EV1 weighs a thumping 1.4 tons, 40 per cent of which consists of 26 lead acid batteries. The range is 70 to 90 miles, after which the car must be recharged for three hours.

It is difficult to see why anyone would willingly swap a petrol-engined $35,000 vehicle for an EV1, according to Garel Rhys, motor industry professor at Cardiff Business School. "Left to market forces, not many customers are going to buy it," he said. "Right now I don't see the electric car taking off except in a few niche markets."

GM's decision seems all the more baffling because the Californian authorities announced before Christmas that they were rescinding a law that requires 2 per cent of all cars sold in 1998 (and 5 per cent by 2002) to be zero- emission - electric. Instead a much more modest target of 3,700 vehicles over three years has been set.

Professor Rhys said, however, that there might be method in GM's madness. First, US cities could decide to penalise petrol-driven cars, or even exclude them from certain areas. Second, he said: "There is a latent fear there could be a breakthrough in electric technology, which means the big car makers want to stay in the market place."

GM's decision could also bring closer the day when electric cars do indeed make commercial sense by helping keep alive research programmes that might crack the weight/range problem. US government funding of electric vehicle R&D, which has been generous, is coming under Republican pressure. But a consortium formed by GM, Ford and Chrysler continues to plug away at new battery technologies. So do univer- sities and specialist companies.

Electric cars should be more commercially attractive in Europe, where average journeys are shorter and petrol is more expensive. Most big car companies have research programmes. Peugeot manufactures an electrical conversion of its 106 and hopes soon to launch the much more advanced Ion. Other companies such as Volkswagen favour hybrids, which can run on electric power in towns and petrol outside them, while Volvo has built a gas-turbine hybrid. In town this is purely electric, but in the countryside the batteries are charged by a small jet engine.

But as in the US, in the absence of a technological breakthrough electric cars will make sense only if governments decide they should. La Rochelle in France already has a scheme to rent out plug-in cars. If such initiatives become widespread, the new silent era could indeed arrive. Otherwise the electric car will remain the quaint exception.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Recruitment Genius: Compliance Manager

£40000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Compliance Manager is require...

SThree: Talent Acquisition Consultant

£22500 - £27000 per annum + OTE £45K: SThree: Since our inception in 1986, STh...

Recruitment Genius: Experienced Financial Advisers and Paraplanners

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This extremely successful and well-established...

Guru Careers: FX Trader / Risk Manager

Competitive with monthly bonus: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced FX...

Day In a Page

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

One day to find €1.6bn

Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

Historians map out untold LGBT histories

Public are being asked to help improve the map
Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

This was the year of 24-carat Golden Oldies
Paris Fashion Week

Paris Fashion Week

Thom Browne's scarecrows offer a rare beacon in commercial offerings
A year of the caliphate:

Isis, a year of the caliphate

Who can defeat the so-called 'Islamic State' – and how?
Marks and Spencer: Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?

Marks and Spencer

Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?
'We haven't invaded France': Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak

'We haven't invaded France'

Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak
Isis in Kobani: Why we ignore the worst of the massacres

Why do we ignore the worst of the massacres?

The West’s determination not to offend its Sunni allies helps Isis and puts us all at risk, says Patrick Cockburn
7/7 bombings 10 years on: Four emergency workers who saved lives recall the shocking day that 52 people were killed

Remembering 7/7 ten years on

Four emergency workers recall their memories of that day – and reveal how it's affected them ever since
Humans: Are the scientists developing robots in danger of replicating the hit Channel 4 drama?

They’re here to help

We want robots to do our drudge work, and to look enough like us for comfort. But are the scientists developing artificial intelligence in danger of replicating the TV drama Humans?
Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

'Heritage' is a loaded word in the Dixie, but the Charleston killings show how dangerous it is to cling to a deadly past, says Rupert Cornwell
What exactly does 'one' mean? Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue

What exactly does 'one' mean?

Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue