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One for the Read

Problems, Promise in Building Wonder Car

"Forward Drive: The Race to Build 'Clean' Cars for the Future," by Jim Motavalli (Sierra Club Books, $25, 260 pages).

March 22, 2000|CHARLES SOLOMON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Automotive journalist Jim Motavalli offers an interesting, not overly technical survey of the often faltering progress toward a less polluting car. For years, the key research was done at universities and small companies, while big industry worked to weaken or defeat legislation requiring greater fuel efficiency and lower emissions.

Motavalli cites figures from the California Public Interest Research Group that show that from 1991 to 1995, oil companies and auto makers spent nearly $34 million to influence public policy in the state, including $29 million in lobbying and $945,000 on Pete Wilson's gubernatorial campaign.

But in recent years, the major auto manufacturers in the U.S., Japan and Germany have committed hundreds of millions of dollars to developing alternatives to the internal-combustion engine. The company that wins the race to produce a nonpolluting automobile will reap huge profit--and confer incalculable benefits on the planet and its inhabitants.

Motavalli, editor of E: The Environment Magazine, thoughtfully balances the promise of several new technologies against the problems that limit that promise.

Although the electric vehicle is appealing, even the most sophisticated batteries don't store enough power. Motavalli notes that a 1995 poll of California new-car buyers conducted by UC Davis found that, although almost half would prefer an EV over a gasoline car, they want their EV to cover 300 miles on a charge and be reasonably priced. Currently, most EVs have a range of 100 miles or less, and the special outlets to recharge EV batteries are hard to find. (The author tried recharging a prototype from an ordinary socket on a friend's porch and almost burned down the house.)

Fuel cells offer even greater promise: They run on hydrogen, and their only waste product is pure water (it's even potable). The technology has improved significantly in recent years, bringing down cost and weight while increasing energy output. Motavalli notes that prototype fuel-cell buses in Chicago and taxis in London have received overwhelmingly favorable reviews. But pure hydrogen requires special insulated fuel tanks, as it must kept at minus 400 degrees to remain liquid. Hydrogen for fuel cells can also be extracted from methanol, gasoline, diesel fuel and natural gas. But all of these sources have drawbacks, including the cost of creating an infrastructure to support them.

Motavalli concludes that gasoline-electric hybrids offer the most realistic hopes for the immediate future. Honda's hybrid Insight was introduced to the U.S. market in December, and the Toyota Prius, already a hit in Japan, is scheduled to go on sale in the U.S. in the summer. Other major auto makers have pledged to introduce their hybrid models by 2003.

*

Although he describes himself as an environmental reporter, Motavalli confesses to being "hopelessly addicted to cars." He writes in an upbeat, conversational style, as his accounts of various test drives demonstrate.

He praises an EV conversion of a Ford Ranger ("quite advanced, fast, rattle-free, and quiet as a church mouse") and the Toyota RAV4 EV ("so easy to pilot," he notes, that Toonces, the driving cat from "Saturday Night Live," "could get one safely home").

He writes about his test drive of General Motors Corp.'s EV1 with obvious enthusiasm (though, obviously, well before this month's much-publicized safety recall of the first-generation model):

"I stomped on the accelerator on a plant-access road. A low, quite pleasant whine welled up from its electric motor and the car took off. It really did feel like one of the fastest cars I've ever driven. . . . After a few miles, I felt completely relaxed. The best electric cars won't startle you with how different they are."

But these early test drives were brief and done under supervision at the factory. Shortly before completing "Forward Drive," Motavalli was able to borrow a Prius hybrid for a few days: "my chance to test the car of the future under real-world conditions." He praises the sedan's handling and performance, adding: "The back seat offered plenty of room for my wriggling kids. . . . Power windows and locks, plus frigid air conditioning, meant that I was hardly roughing it." Its only drawback was a tiny shudder when the computer switched the gas engine off and on.

Motavalli ends on a note of guarded optimism.

When a passerby asked if the Prius was a gas-electric combination, he replied: "Yes, it is. . . . But it's also something more: the lead vehicle in what is soon to be a parade of environmentally oriented automobiles. I hope we're ready for them."

Charles Solomon can be reached at highway1@latimes.com.

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