Short Circuit on Memory Lane

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Short Circuit on Memory Lane

By Jerry Flint, Oct 22, 2009 1:20 PM

Let’s take a drive down memory lane and remember some of the “cars of tomorrow.”

In 1963, there was the Chrysler turbine car, a real beauty. It was powerful, efficient and could run on just about any fuel, including diesel and vegetable oil.

After a decade of development, Chrysler built about 50 for consumer trials and then threw in the towel.

Along with many advantages, the turbine car had lots of unforeseen problems, including troublesome emissions and exhaust that could melt the car behind you at stoplights. It also sounded like a giant vacuum cleaner.

Next up is the Wankel rotary engine. Compact and powerful, it was the toast of the automotive world for a few years in the 1970s. GM spent a bundle trying to bring one to market but gave up because of emissions issues. Intellectuals and environmentalists berated Detroit for letting little Mazda take the lead in introducing the technology.

Years later, Mazda is the only auto maker that still cares about the rotary-engine concept.

In the 1990s, GM invested heavily in the EV1 electric car. It attracted a few hundred fanatical fans and no one else.

BMW has been touting cars with internal-combustion engines that burn hydrogen, instead of gasoline, for decades. We have not heard much about these cars of the future lately. Instead, BMW is hyping hybrid-electric vehicles and pure electrics.

Our next stop on memory lane is the fuel cell. After spending billions on research, numerous auto makers still deliver lip service to fuel cells. Honda and a few others have some fuel-cell-powered electric cars running around. But the U.S. government has lost interest in them and isn’t offering to fund much research anymore.

Then there’s compressed natural gas. CNG has been used to fuel vehicles in the U.S. and overseas for decades. Despite an elaborate public-relations blitz by billionaire T. Boone Pickens, that alternative fuel isn’t likely to expand much, either. Like hydrogen and ethanol, there is no refueling infrastructure.

That brings us to today’s current fascination with battery-powered EVs. They were the stars of the Frankfurt and Tokyo auto shows and almost every major auto maker is showing off some kind of EV.

There will be some battery-powered cars, but far fewer than true believers predict. Range, cost and recharging issues will not be solved anytime soon.

Some fantasize about leasing batteries to hold down the cost. But that strategy doesn’t hold down cost; it just spreads it out.

Recharging is the biggest unsolved issue. It can take eight to 12 hours to recharge with ordinary household current. There’s talk of fast recharging, two hours or less, but that presents cost, battery life and perhaps safety issues, as well.

Certainly some consumers will want EVs, just as some now crave the Daimler Smart car. But the number of vehicle buyers who will shell out hard-earned dollars just to save the planet are small.

Saving the Earth is fine, but green consumers won’t support the production of hundreds of thousands, or millions, of EVs. Not yet and maybe never.

Jerry Flint is a columnist for, and former senior editor of, Forbes Magazine.