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Tuesday, 8 October, 2002, 11:35 GMT 12:35 UK
Why this isn't the car of tomorrow
The elctric car from Minority Report
It was good enough for Tom Cruise in Minority Report

The future has always been about electric cars. So why do the multi-million-dollar plans now lie in the wastepaper basket?
Anyone who has seen Minority Report, Tom Cruise's pulsating summer blockbuster, will have enjoyed an alluring vision of what we will be driving in the future.

The film, which is set in 2054, depicts Cruise darting through the streets of Washington DC in an ultra-sleek cherry red and black Lexus electric sports car. That's right, it's electric!

Electric vehicles as most of us know them
Alas, that is the distant future. In the cold light of today, lash together the words "electric" and "vehicle" and what do you get - likely as not a milk-float.

For as long as anyone can remember, the emission-free battery-powered car has been touted as a cleaner, greener alternative to the dirty old internal combustion engine.

In all but a handful of exceptions, that vision remains resolutely on the drawing board. And now there are grave doubts whether it will ever go any further.

Last month, Ford announced it was ditching its zippy little battery-powered two-seater, the Ford Think, only a year after it was launched in the UK.

Plug pulled

About 1,000 had been shifted worldwide - way below Ford's target of 5,000 - yet the outlook for the Think had been promising.

Line-up of Think cars
Think was pitched as the ideal city runabout
The car, which could be charged using a standard three-point plug, had been aggressively marketed, at least compared to other vehicles of its ilk. Companies such as the Body Shop, BT and the BBC leased models and even the Metropolitan Police have a Think panda car.

In the US, the Think went down well with environmentalists. Indeed, drivers angry at Ford's decision have formed a protest group called Rethink, and they are planning a demonstration in San Francisco on Thursday.

Yet Ford's problems with the Think - lack of demand, poor battery performance - are the same problems that have dogged electric cars from the year dot, says motor industry expert, Professor Garel Rhys.

Are trends electric?

"The problem has always been with the battery - no one has ever worked out how to pack as much energy into a fuel source as you get with a gallon of petrol."

Ford Think
Top speed: 56mph
Range: 53 miles
Recharge time: 6-8 hours
Of course, Ford knew the score when it launched the Think, and the car was marketed to its strengths: re-charging costs a few pence; it was always meant to be just a city runabout; in the UK electric cars are exempt from road tax and planned congestion charges.

Tempting, but not enough to draw in a mass market, says Mr Rhys.

"You may buy a car just to drive in the city, but then there's always the one weekend when you'll want to go out of town. People don't buy cars for fun, and if they do it's not cars like that."

Think production line
Made in Norway, Think is now looking for a buyer
In truth, Americans might have seen the Think's demise before it was even launched.

After all, Ford's great rival, General Motors, had ditched its flag-carrying electric car, the sporty-looking EV1, even before the Think was launched.

Conspiracy theorists believe the electric car has been prematurely junked by car makers looking to avoid a radical new ruling on car sales in California.

Drawn up in 1990, the zero-emissions vehicle (ZEV) mandate stated that from 2003, a small percentage of cars sold in California by the big name manufacturers had to be zero-emission models.

California dreaming

By showing electric vehicles are not viable, say the theorists, car-makers are hoping to wheedle out of the agreement.

GM's electric car
The now-ditched EV1 cost General Motors $1bn
Not so, say the car makers. And in the UK, at least, they have the backing of Roger Higman, Friends of the Earth's transport expert.

"It seems that battery-only vehicles just don't give the range the people are used to," says Mr Higman, who believes the failure of the Think signals the end for battery cars.

Ford spent $123m on the Think; GM $1bn on the EV1. Both companies say future investment has to go into developing fuel cell technology. This has long been the auto industry's Holy Grail - fuel cells powered by hydrogen will mean zero-emission vehicles with the range of any petrol engine car.

Suzuki Covie
Suzuki Covie prototype is based on fuel cell technology
Meanwhile, the emphasis is on so-called hybrid cars - which combine a petrol engine with another fuel source. Some, for example, use "regenerative braking" - harnessing the energy in braking a car to feed into an electric motor.

Although a couple of the big players still make battery-only cars for the US market - Toyota's Rav4, Nissan's Altra - the emphasis is very much on other technologies. Yet David Friedman, of the Union of Concerned Scientists, refuses to write them off.

"In the future I think we will see a range of fuel technologies, and battery cars will have a place - maybe in our denser urban areas. Battery technology will develop off the back of fuel cells so we might see the range double in the future."

So while Tom Cruise's lightning-fast Lexus could be the car of the future, it's definitely not the car of tomorrow.

See also:

25 Sep 02 | Europe
02 Sep 02 | Business
24 Oct 00 | Africa
22 Oct 01 | dot life
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