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  Driving into the future
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  Hopes rise for cleaner vehicles

Hopes rise for cleaner vehicles

LONDON, England (CNN) -- Car firms are anticipating radical change in their industry in the 21st century.

Acknowledging the growing concerns about the environmental impact of the vehicles, all major manufacturers from Daimler Chrysler to Volvo are involved in developing electric, hybrid electric and other alternative fuel vehicles.

Governments around the world are increasingly offering incentives to drivers buying environmentally friendly cars.

Clean city coalitions in the U.S. such as in California, New York and Massachusetts provide incentives of up to $5,000 to encourage people and companies to buy or lease alternative fuel vehicles.

The UK government is also providing financial backing to help kick-start the British market for clean fuel vehicles. Discounts of $1,500 were offered to customers buying Toyota's hybrid electric vehicle Prius.

Electric technology has become the focus of attention for many manufacturers. Peugeot was one of the first to recognise the electric car's advantages for urban driving because it produces no exhaust emissions.

In 1995, Peugeot brought out the electric version of the 106 in Europe, hoping to sell 50,000 vehicles by 2000.

The reality is that only about 3,000 have been sold.

Poor sales have prompted many to incorporate the technology of electric cars into traditional petrol- and diesel-powered vehicles to produce hybrid vehicles with improved fuel consumption and reduced exhaust emissions.

Higher prices

In 1997 Toyota launched the first mass-produced hybrid vehicle, the Prius.

More than 35,000 vehicles are on the road in Japan. Some 50,000 have been sold worldwide.

Prius only went on sale in the UK in October 2000 with a sales target of 2,000 a year. However, the $25,000 price tag may dampen enthusiasm somewhat as it is markedly higher than petrol or diesel-powered cars of the same size.

Toyota is also working on the E-Four Hybrid, an MPV-style vehicle that is about to go into production.

During light load conditions, such as in town, the vehicle's petrol engine can be shut down allowing it to run on electric power only.

However, the vehicle is currently destined only for the Japanese market and Toyota says no decision has yet been taken on whether it will go on sale in Europe.

Toyota also has electric vehicles in its range. The electric version of the sports utility vehicle (SUV) RAV4 is its most advanced electric vehicle to date, with a range in urban driving conditions of more than 124 miles and a top speed of 77mph.

A pilot scheme for the vehicle has been running on the Channel island of Jersey since 1997 where it has proved popular.

The Jersey Electric Company, one of the sponsors of the scheme, says it is still receiving many enquiries about the vehicle, although the scheme is only due to run for another year.

The RAV4 EV is only available commercially in Japan and to fleet customers in New York and California.

Its availability in California and New York is probably due largely to the ZEV mandates that require zero emission vehicles to constitute 2% of the sales of companies like Toyota.

Critics say Toyota should not end the Jersey scheme, but should extend it to a town or city on the British mainland.

"The RAV4 EV is available for lease in the USA and is the most popular car with EV Rental. It would prove very attractive in the UK at a cost of 1p a mile. I get many enquiries as to how to get hold of a long-range EV," EVUK editor Moira Govan told CNN.

Range problems

US car giant Ford has been heavily involved in researching alternative fuel technology.

In 1999 the company bought the Norway-based firm Pivco whose technology it used to established a range of electric vehicles and bikes under the brand name Th!nk.

The Th!nk City, a small electric car aimed at urban commuting, was launched last year and is currently been rolled out across Europe.

It has a range of 53 miles and a top speed of 60 mph.

Motor pundits have applauded Ford for its foresight, but said the technology will need to improve further before the car can make any serious impact.

Mike Brewer, a presenter of British TV motor show Driven, said: "In its present form the Th!nk is a bit naive for most of us. But give it 10 years to let it mature and I think it will be time to think again."

He said Ford would, in the meantime, have to address the issues of range and recharging points.

There is currently just one trial designated electric vehicle parking space with roadside power point in the UK.

So it seems there is still some way to go.

Ford is starting to address the issue of vehicle range with its prototype electric version of the Ka, the e-Ka, which has received positive reviews in motoring magazines and TV motor shows such as BBC's Top Gear.

The car has a relatively long range of 95-125 miles per charge and costs just one penny a mile to run.

However, there are no plans to mass-produce the vehicle as "it would be too expensive and therefore not commercially-viable," a Ford spokesman told CNN.

Ford has no hybrid electric vehicles in its range at present, but is planning to launch a hybrid SUV-type vehicle, along the lines of the Maverick/Escape, in the next couple of years.

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