In the not-too-distant future, a typical suburban family may own two distinctly different automobiles. A large gasoline-powered car would be used for long trips. But the other would be a smaller commuting car, and it would be plugged into the wall.
Talk of electric cars always becomes fashionable when an energy crisis arises. As prices soar at the pump and gasoline supplies are threatened, electric cars sound like a reasonable alternative.But when gasoline prices fall again, prospects for an electric car evaporate.
Now, however, the drive for the electric car has less to do with Saddam Hussein and more to do with Isaac Walton. The need for the electric car is mandated by the environmental movement, regardless of what happens in the Middle East.
In the past, the electric car has not been feasible because it has not had the range or power for automakers to believe anyone would buy it.
But forces are converging that could make the electric car common within the next five to eight years.
First, the environmental movement is forcing tougher restrictions on gasoline automobiles. Second, automakers are close to producing electric cars that consumers will want. And third, electric utilities are beginning to see advantages to electric cars.
The California Air Resources Board decided last month that air pollution control devices on automobiles cannot reduce auto emissions enough to make the air in Southern California healthy.
The board decided that by 1998, 2 percent of the cars sold in California must be electric. By 2003, that would rise to 10 percent of the estimated 2 million annual car sales.
That decision has national repercussions. When the same board 20 years ago set tailpipe emission standards for cars sold in the state, automobile companies responded by developing the catalytic converter that is now standard on every car sold in America.
Automakers see the electric car as an answer to the rising national demand that cars become more fuel efficient. When the Clean Air Act finally is enacted, it will demand that air pollution be reduced in the nation's dirtiest cities.
Producing electricity to power electric cars creates much less pollution than running the same number of gasoline-powered cars, said environmental analyst Curtis Moore, former counsel to the Senate Committee on Environment. And controlling pollution at a few power plants is easier than controlling it from hundreds of thousands of automobiles.
Congress this year turned down a proposal that all new cars average 40 miles per gallon, up from the present 27 miles per gallon. But the proposal is sure to be back next year, with the force of both Saddam Hussein and Isaac Walton behind it.
If automakers add a significant number of cars that use no gasoline at all to their fleet, they can continue to make large gasoline-powered cars and still meet fleet-wide stricter fuel-efficiency standards.
Seeing clean air laws getting tighter, automakers have been developing electric cars that will be palatable to buyers. Perhaps furthest along is General Motors, which earlier this year unveiled the "Impact," a four-seat electric car with an eye-catching aerodynamic design.
Able to accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in eight seconds, the Impact is as fast or faster than most gasoline-powered cars. It can travel 120 miles at 55 MPH without recharging its battery, and it can reach a speed of 100 mph.
But the car still has one drawback. Its battery has to be replaced about every 20,000 miles at a cost of $2,500. Just for the battery alone, the car would cost about 12.5 cents a mile for fuel, compared to 6 to 8 cents a mile that gasoline costs.
General Motors is convinced it can produce a battery that will last 40,000 miles by the time it is ready to manufacture the Impact in the mid 1990s. That would make its cost competitive with gasoline.
Ford, Volkswagen and Toyota are not too far behind General Motors in developing an electric vehicle.