Monday, Dec. 06, 2010

Electric Cars

It's an article of faith among many environmentalists: the future will be electric. But how long is it going to take? Electric cars have been around since the dawn of the automobile — in fact, the technology hasn't changed all that much since Henry Ford's own electric Model-Ts. But the electric car lost out to gasoline-powered ones for good reasons: gasoline carries a lot of power per gallon, while batteries never had the capacity to move cars very far. Even in the 1990s, with the introduction of improved electrics like GM's lamentedly discontinued EV1, battery-powered cars remained a fetish for those who value their carbon footprint over convenience.

Times really have changed, though — and 2010 could finally mark the tipping point for electric cars. GM's long-awaited Volt — not a pure electric but a plug-in hybrid — is finally set to go on sale at the end of this year. The Japanese car company Nissan is going one better with its all-electric Leaf — the one with the polar bear ads — and Ford and Toyota have electrics in the works as well. Smaller startups are experimenting with ultra-efficient electric cars, while the innovative company Better Place is installing networks of battery-charging stations in Israel for its own electric transportation system, with a subscription payment system modeled on the wireless industry. Electric cars still have a number of obstacles to overcome, and they won't make a huge dent in carbon emissions unless the grid itself is steadily cleaned up, but they are closing in on the mainstream.