Going green on the road
LONDON, England (CNN) -- The vehicles we drive produce more than a quarter of all carbon dioxide emissions, according to UK government figures.
This is a sobering thought at a time when scientists are warning that they believe such gases are causing what could prove to be catastrophic climate changes.
In addition, the chemicals produced by vehicle emissions have been shown to cause or aggravate respiratory diseases such as asthma and bronchitis.
Although the search for alternative fuels to power the vehicles we use is not new, consumers know little about the technology or about what vehicles are on the market. Environmental pressure groups put this down to a lack of interest on the part of car firms and governments.
"Car companies do not think they can sell them (electric vehicles) to the public," Gerry Woolf of the UK's Electric Vehicle Association told CNN.
"People don't go for a lower specification when buying a new car, they tend to trade up, so it would be hard to sell to them," he said.
"On top of that, keen green buyers currently make up a very small proportion of the market," he added.
Much of the development of alternative fuel vehicles has revolved around electric vehicles. EVs have been around for more than 150 years. The first one was built in 1834 and by 1900 there were more cars powered by electricity than petrol in use.
However, for decades the relatively low price of petroleum products and the limited number of vehicles in service did not favour the development of this technology -- something that has changed over the last three decades.
French carmaker Peugeot was among the first to recognise the electrical car's advantages for urban driving and in 1989 brought out its electric J5 utility vehicle. In 1995 it brought out an electric version of its 106 model.
Electric vehicles operate on electrically charged batteries, which need to be recharged at a power point, on average, every 40 to 100 miles. The user must have access to an energy distribution network so the batteries can be recharged.
What benefits do electric cars bring?
The number one benefit has to be that there are no exhaust emissions, hence no pollution, although it can be argued that such cars are still indirectly responsible for some pollution as the electricity used to run them is produced by power plants.
Electric cars are also cheaper to drive and maintain than their petrol alternatives. Not only is road tax cheaper (for example only £40 ($60) in the UK compared £100 or more for petrol- and diesel-powered vehicles), they are also cheaper to run -- as little as one penny a mile.
Maintenance is easier as an electric vehicle has no radiator, oil or gas filter or spark plugs and electric vehicles are much quieter than petrol- and diesel-powered vehicles.
So why isn't everyone driving an electric car?
The reasons are summed up by a quote from the man who is probably the most famous face in the world of UK motoring. Jeremy Clarkson described electric cars as "slow, ridiculously heavy" and "running out of juice every 40 miles."
Contrary to these popular beliefs, electric motors can be quite powerful. For example, General Motors' EV1 accelerates from 0 to 60 in just 8.1 seconds.
Technology has improved the problem of weight, with the latest lithium ion batteries going some way to addressing the issue.
On the "running out of juice" issue, it cannot be denied that EVs need to be recharged and as Clarkson says "there is still no infrastructureÖfor charging them up again", although studies have shown that most people travel no more 40 miles a day -- a distance that EVs can handle quite easily.
The price is also a turn-off for many prospective EV buyers. For example, at about £14,000 in the UK, the electric Peugeot 106 costs more than double the basic petrol-powered model.
The cost and the psychological barrier mean electric vehicles remain something of a niche market, while transport technology is currently dominated by something slightly different -- the hybrid electric vehicle (HEV).
HEVs combine the internal combustion engine of a conventional vehicle with the electric motor and battery of an electric vehicle. When the petrol-powered engine runs, it recharges the battery, so negating the need for an external power source.
This produces twice the fuel economy of conventional vehicles and half the carbon dioxide emissions, while offering the rapid refueling that drivers expect.
The increased use of electrification also means that cars can be made safer and more comfortable -- something that campaigners for electric cars see as the reason why car firms have started producing hybrid electric cars for the mass market.
"The result is that car makers have electrified the car rather than creating an electric car," said the EVA's Gerry Woolf.
Nor are they using any sort of new technology, said Woolf. "They are combining technologies that have been around for a long time with the goal of selling more cars," he said.
Electric Vehicle Association of the Americas
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