Despite recent setbacks, the battle to break the monopoly of the internal combustion engine is still on. Battery driven cars are out of favour but fuel cell cars and hybrids - combining normal engines with batteries - will be widely used in ten yearsby Philip Ball / February 20, 2003 / Leave a comment
Published in February 2003 issue of Prospect Magazine
It’s not often that you find environmentalists protesting about a company’s refusal to manufacture a car. But the placards outside the Ford offices in San Francisco last October denounced the company’s decision to ditch the Th!nk City model. Following its unveiling in Europe in 2000, it was introduced to the US in a flurry of Los Angeles glitz in January 2002-only to be discontinued months later.
The Th!nk City runs for only 53 miles at a stretch, with a top speed of around 56 mph. But the car is all-electric: it needs no petrol and produces no pollution. It was once billed as the car of the future; now it is a has-been that never really was.
This is the latest in a series of recent blows to the electric-vehicle (EV) industry. General Motors has stopped producing its flagship model, the EV1. Meanwhile, GM and DaimlerChysler (who, along with Ford, constitute the “big three” US car manufacturers) teamed up with other automobile companies to take out a lawsuit against the state of California’s “zero-emission vehicle” policy, which stipulates that from 2003, 2 per cent of all vehicles sold in the state should emit no polluting exhaust gases, and 8 per cent should be close to zero emission.
Despite the Californian ruling, there are few full-feature models available to US consumers. One is the Toyota RAV4-EV-of which under 400 had been sold to date. The manufacturers say that there just isn’t the demand. Around 1.5m new vehicles are bought every year in California alone, but there are only 5,000 or so electric cars on the state’s roads. EV enthusiasts, however, claim that companies aren’t really interested in selling them. The number of “clean cars” of all types on the roads is no more than, roughly, 45,000 in the US and 20,000 in Europe.
Why does the challenge to produce a clean car exist at all? The one thing that everyone agrees on is that oil will not last forever. Whilst arguments continue over exactly when global oil production will peak, or how much oil might be hidden beneath the Alaskan tundra, or whether George W Bush covets Iraqi oil even more than Saddam’s head, no one doubts that this is the century in which fossil fuels will begin to dry up. When even BP adopts “Beyond Petroleum” as its slogan (though the company subsequently disowned it) you have to suspect that something is up.