Leading Article: In the vanguard of electric vehicles

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ELECTRIC vehicles have been around for almost as long as the steam- and petrol-driven varieties. Battery-driven cars were widely favoured in the US before the invention of the electric starter in 1911, especially by those who disliked swinging a crank handle. A London Electric Cab Company was founded in 1897; and in 1899 the world land speed record of 65.82 mph was set by an electric vehicle. But their use dwindled as petrol engines became increasingly efficient, giving cars hitherto unimagined range and speed. Nowadays only milk floats and a few specialist vans are battery powered.

The clock is, however, destined to be turned back. The plague-like spread of petrol-driven cars and the resulting pollution has increased pressure for the wider use of emission-free vehicles - which means those powered by electricity. As so often, California has set the pace. Legislation to be introduced there will require 2 per cent of all sales by major manufacturers to be zero-emission by 1998. That will rise to 10 per cent by 2005. Seventeen other states have shown signs of following California's example.

Yet an affordable electric vehicle with a reasonable range has not moved much closer, despite experiments with different battery technologies by the big American motor manufacturers and by defence contractors hit by the 'peace dividend'. In Europe the French are ahead, this country having typically relinquished an earlier lead.

British enterprise is not entirely dead, however, as reported today: a Peterborough firm has produced a so-called Envirovan, which costs less and goes faster than existing electric vehicles. It is in the field of delivery vans, with their fixed radius of activity, that the best hope for this pollution-free form of transport lies.

Several councils have shown interest in the Envirovan. It would be within their powers not merely to use electric vehicles but to restrict the entry of polluting commercial vehicles to specific areas.

It would be surprising if electric private cars became commercially viable before the end of this century. The best short-term hope of reducing the emission of pollutants lies in the startling advances in new car technology - and in severer treatment of the ill-maintained old vehicles, both petrol and diesel driven, that cause the bulk of day-to-day pollution.

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