Electric Cars Go Into Overdrive
The promise of gasoline-free driving has yet to be realized, but several car manufacturers are betting that the new decade will see electric and other zero-emissions vehicles pass the tipping point - moving from a niche market to a mainstream option for urban drivers. Ford, Nissan and BMW have electricity-only cars in limited use, and plan to have them on dealership floors by 2012. Honda is developing a hydrogen-electric hybrid, and the next generation Toyota Prius will be able to recharge at home, further minimizing its gas consumption.
A number of factors are behind the billions of dollars in research and development businesses are allocating to electric cars. Reducing carbon emissions is one. The cachet among some consumers for green products is another. In the U.S. energy independence adds a political dimension to the demand for electric. Yet a fundamental factor in the success or failure of electric remains oil prices.
"The price of oil has played a key role in keeping electric cars unaffordable for most drivers, because when gas is cheap alternative fuels can't compete," says Dr. Andrzej Sobiesiak, head of the Department of Mechanical Automotive and Materials Engineering at the University of Windsor. The batteries that store and provide power are expensive to manufacture, maintain, and dispose of. While economies of scale and continuous improvements will see costs fall over time, owners of electric cars have not yet broken even on their investment.
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