Putting a Charge Back Into Driving

THERE WAS A TEARDROP-shaped Sunrise and a retrofit "57 Porsche. There were cars with solar panels covering every surface and boxy pickups that looked distinctly out of place in lower Manhattan. On Mother's Day the 50 competitors lined up for the eighth annual running of the Tour de Sol road rally for electric vehicles. And by the time the ill-sorted cars cross the finish line near the U.S. Capitol on May 16 (fans can follow the rally on the World Wide Web, at http://solstice.crest.org/nesea), they will have at least one shared accomplishment: all 50 will have caused less air pollution traveling 350 miles than just one 1990 gasoline car driving the length of Manhattan.

It is the best of times for electric vehicles; it is...well, it could be better. After years of ""can't be done'' grumbling, four big automakers recently announced plans to sell electric vehicles in California. Starting in September, General Motors' Saturn dealerships will offer the EV1 (known during its prototype days as the Impact -- until GM decided that calling a sports car ""Impact'' wasn't ideal). Honda will unveil a four-seat electric van next spring, and Toyota will sell an electric version of its hot RAV4 sport utility vehicle in the fall of '97. Chrysler is already taking orders for its electric minivan. The timing of all this is more than a little ironic. In late March the California Air Resources Board pulled the plug on its landmark requirement that by 1998, 2 percent of the vehicles sold in the Golden State be electric. Beset by performance problems and eye-popping costs (the EV1 will list for about $35,000), electrics are not ready for prime time, said the regulators.

Yet the automakers are willing to test the marketplace. A 1995 survey by researchers at the University of California, Davis, estimated the annual demand for electrics at 100,000 vehicles. Still, the cars won't be easy sells. The EV1 will go just 90 miles between charges of its lead-acid batteries. That's much less distance than a typical gas car gets on a tank, but not necessarily a deal-breaker: the average round-trip commute is only 22 miles, according to the Federal Highway Administration. An electric fill-up takes 15 hours at a standard 110-volt outlet. That drops to three hours with 220 volts -- and 15 minutes at a station equipped with the charging gizmos that GM hopes to sell. But even though the cost per mile of driving the EV1 will be less than one third that of gasoline cars, the 900-pound batteries will need replacing every two to three years at about $1,500 a pop.

In contrast, the nickel-metal hydride batteries in the Toyota and Honda electrics last eight to 10 years. And both Japanese models will go at least 120 miles between charges. But the advanced batteries are pricey. Solectria, an upstart firm near Boston, will begin selling the sporty Sunrise in 1998. With an aerodynamic carbon-fiber body, the Sunrise is expected to go 300 miles on a single charge during the Tour de Sol. It costs just 1.5 cents per mile to run (versus 6 cents for a gasoline vehicle). But the sticker price is a daunting $100,000 -- unless enough people decide to buy one. If it gets 20,000 orders, says CEO James Worden, Solectria could sell the Sunrise for $20,000.

The latest rap against electrics is their environmental benefit -- or lack thereof. Six MIT transportation experts wrote this year in Technology Review that ""electric vehicles will not contribute meaningfully to cleaner air.'' The analysts, led by Richard De Neufville, argue that the country's fleet of cars will be replaced almost completely over the next decade by low-emission models. That will halve tailpipe emissions without a single electric. ""You need a substantial number of EVs to make a dent in smog-causing emissions,'' admits Richard Tempchin of the Edison Electric Institute.

Another criticism is that running cars on batteries simply transfers pollution from an automobile tailpipe to a power-plant smokestack. Yet according to the Electric Power Research Institute, a gasoline car in New England emits six times more smog-forming gases than the power plant supplying juice for an electric. In Los Angeles, where utilities use more natural gas and nonpolluting nuclear power, pollution from electric cars could be as little as 1 percent that of gasoline cars, estimates engineer Roland Hwang of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Although California scrapped the electric-car requirement for 1998, it is still demanding that 10 percent of vehicles sold in 2003 be electric. Compromise may be a virtue in auto engineering, too. The latest designs are hybrids. They have a battery to propel them most of the time but also a diesel engine for cold starts -- and for emergencies that happen far from a socket.