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Motor Mouth articles 2010

The charge into an electric future

AS we arrive on the cusp of another year, it could be said that the motor industry is also reaching a major crossroads in its development.

A century and a bit on since the switch from living, breathing horsepower to the internal combustion engine, the whole business of personal transport is in the throes of another massive change.

Fossil fuels are unquestionably heading into history, banished under a combined onslaught from environmental issues, finite supplies, political considerations, soaring costs and conscience.

The next major landmark on transport’s journey from Stone Age to Space Age looks almost certain to be electric power. Motor manufacturers have poured vast resources into research and development of alternative fuel sources and electricity has emerged as the most likely way forward.

State subsidies for electric vehicles have been agreed both in the UK and America and although sightings on Britain’s roads are still as rare as popular politicians, all the signs are pointing towards an electric future.

The newly crowned European Car of the Year is the Nissan Leaf, and as battery power-packs become less unwieldy and the distance between charges becomes increasingly practical, there is no doubt that electric cars will be the next big thing.

By all accounts, too, they are a delight to drive – at least some are. The Leaf – and it would be hard to come up with a greener name – is said to be smooth, quiet, fast and tremendously responsive. There are no gears to worry about and few moving parts.

Most of the leading manufacturers are building electric models now. Some, like the Vauxhall Ampera and its sister the Chevrolet Volt, are shamelessly and specifically electric and are being marketed as such. Most, however, are producing electric-powered versions of their existing petrol-driven models, which does seem a safer strategy less likely to frighten off interested buyers.

Research suggests that most of the people choosing to switch to electric cars are doing so less for environmental reasons and more in the pursuit of fashion. New trends and new gadgets, even expensive ones like cars, are always going to attract adherents.

There can be little doubt that our towns and cities will be a lot less noisy and smelly when petrol and diesel vehicles have been pushed to the margins. The challenge now is for the technological brain boxes to bridge the gap between desirability and practicality.

Joe Public probably won’t pay way over the odds just to be able to sleep more easily at night, knowing he or she is no longer pumping out carbon, so prices must be drastically reduced if the surge of interest is to continue once government subsidies cease.

The technical experts must also make sure that the limited-range issue, which has been seen as the biggest drawback in the marketing teams’ efforts to overcome the scepticism over electric cars, can be eradicated.

The problems will be solved in time because the march of technology is relentless. When they are, the floodgates may open and the next few years will be viewed as a time of sea change in motoring world-wide.

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