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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Drive for Clean Cars

Air Date: Week of

Host Steve Curwood speaks with E Magazine editor Jim Motavalli about the latest milestones in the push toward non-polluting electric cars. Motavalli is the author of the new book Forward Drive.


CURWOOD: In the late 20th century a major environmental challenge was met when cars in the United States stopped using leaded gasoline. In the early 21st century, another major environmental challenge will likely be met when cars stop using gasoline altogether. And the switch could come sooner than many might think. In his new book, "Forward Drive," journalist Jim Motavalli chronicles the quest for high-mileage, low-pollution electric vehicles. Mr. Motavalli is the editor of the monthly environmental journal "E Magazine," and he also has a thing for cars.

MOTAVALLI: I am a car fanatic. I've been one for many, many years. I read car magazines. I follow the latest models. I test drive them. So I'm sort of immersed in the technology of cars. At the same time I'm also an environmentalist. So it's sort of a strange dichotomy, I guess you could say.

CURWOOD: It certainly is. And you've kind of married the two. You're interested in cars, and you're interested in alternatively-fueled cars. Quick, give me the skinny: Where are we going with electric cars?

MOTAVALLI: Electric cars are evolving quite a bit. I would say the battery electric is taking a back seat, as it were, in favor of hybrid electric cars and fuel cells. Hybrid cars are on the market now. The Honda Insight is available at Honda dealers now, and that has both a gas motor and an electric motor. In the Toyota version, which will be out in a few months, either the gas motor or the electric motor can run the car, and the computer makes decisions about what would be more efficient at any given time.

CURWOOD: Explain to me now the difference between an electric car and a hybrid car, in terms that someone who's not an engineer would be able to understand.

MOTAVALLI: It's quite simple. The electric car simply has an electric motor driven by batteries. And the only power source is the battery, so the batteries have to be recharged. A hybrid car has both a small gasoline motor, usually about one liter in displacement, and an electric motor, and a small battery pack. So the gas motor is really what keeps the batteries charged up and the electric motor going. So you don't need to plug it in. And --

CURWOOD: What's the advantage? Why bother to have both kinds?

MOTAVALLI: Because of the efficiencies you get. Seventy miles per gallon is very, very hard to achieve in just a gasoline-powered car. The electric motor, for instance, is very, very efficient at low speeds. Once you're cruising, the gas motor is very efficient, so it switches to that.

CURWOOD: These hybrid cars are but a stepping stone to another generation of cars you write about in your book. Can you explain that?

MOTAVALLI: Yeah, I think they're a stepping stone to fuel cells, and we're going to see the first fuel-cell cars around 2003, 2004. Fuel cells are the key to the future. I think they are the technology that will replace internal combustion forever, and they have the potential of being completely renewable and non-polluting.

CURWOOD: Jim, explain for me how a fuel cells works, could you please?

MOTAVALLI: A fuel cell is like a chemical battery. You put hydrogen into it, and from the hydrogen you get enough electricity to drive a car. So it's sort of like a battery, but it's one that you have external fuel for.

CURWOOD: Do you have a copy of your book there, Jim?


CURWOOD: You write on page 50 that there will be teething problems in any switch to EVs. I wonder if you could keep reading there.

MOTAVALLI: (Reading) "There will be teething problems in any switch to EVs. But what's got the automotive fraternity interested is a vision, almost within technical reach, of an automobile that's the industry equivalent of a smokeless cigarette. If hydrogen could be produced from renewable resources, like photovoltaics and wind power, cars would become virtually emission-free, and greenhouse gas production from vehicles would drop as much as 90 percent."

CURWOOD: So this is like the Holy Grail.

MOTAVALLI: It is. It's completely the Holy Grail. It's why the auto industry is spending billions of dollars researching it. And they're forming unprecedented alliances across the industry.

CURWOOD: With these fuel cell cars, Jim, there seems to be just one problem. For us, you know, overgrown adolescent boys, there's not going to be any vroom to it all.

MOTAVALLI: Well, I think there's a misconception that every EV, every electric vehicle, is slow. But there are electric drag racers out there. The EV-1, General Motor's car, is very fast
0-to-60 time. And I think we'll see that with hybrids. We'll see that with fuel cells. There's nothing inherently limiting about the performance. That's the image people have. That's an image that has to be overcome. Everyone thinks that they are these underpowered Ralph Nader mobiles, and that really isn't the case. The fun factor can definitely be there. I think the Prius is very fun to drive. I've had fun driving it. I really like driving the Insight. And I have fairly high standards. I drive Ferraris and things around. You know, I have a different car every week. And I want performance, too, and I don't think that's necessarily not a factor with these cars.

CURWOOD: They won't sound like a Ferrari.

MOTAVALLI: No they won't, but you know, you could have a tape that you could run. (Both laugh) But you're going to get used to this sound. Soon it will be beautiful music.

CURWOOD: Jim Motavalli is editor of "E Magazine." His new book is called "Forward Drive." Thanks for spending this time with us today, Jim.

MOTAVALLI: Thank you.



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