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                               Get ready to see more hybrid cars on the road. (Photo: Toyota Motor Corp.)

                               Problems affecting the global environment are on everyone's mind these days, and
                               the world's leading automakers are no different. One product of such thinking has
                               been the development of environment-friendly vehicles; the first such vehicle to be
                               commercialized will go on sale in Japan at the end of 1997.

                               The forerunner of a new generation of low-polluting automobiles is a hybrid car
                               with a gasoline engine and electric motor. The automaker reports that orders for
                               the new vehicle have been higher than expected.

                               A fuel-efficient car that uses a direct-injection engine has been on the market for a
                               year, moreover, and other ecological vehicles are soon expected to be
                               commercialized as well, including electric cars and those that run on compressed
                               natural gas and fuel cells.

                               Marketing the Hybrid Car
                               Powered by a combination of a gasoline engine and an electric motor, the hybrid
                               car is controlled by a computer in order to fully utilize the advantages each element
                               offers. The gasoline engine is least efficient when the car is just starting to move or
                               crawling at a snail's pace in congested traffic, so the motor takes over at these
                               times. When the car flies along expressways at top speed, both the engine and
                               motor are put to full work.

                               The engine is constantly generating electricity when it is operating, and the power
                               that is thus acquired is used to rotate the motor, which then supplements the
                               engine. Since power is generated by the engine, there is no need for recharging.

                               The 1500 cc hybrid car that Toyota Motor Corp. is putting on the market in
                               December 1997 will have double the fuel efficiency of conventional
                               gasoline-powered cars. Carbon dioxide emissions will be halved, and emissions of
                               carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide will be one-tenth of permissible standards.

                               The price tag on the hybrid car will be 2.15 million yen (16,500 U.S. dollars at
                               130 yen to the dollar), about 30% more than the price of an ordinary car of the
                               same engine capacity sold by the carmaker. The company explains that it has set
                               the price as close to the break-even point as possible in the hope that drivers will
                               embrace the new vehicle as a countermeasure against global warming.

                               The strategy seems to have worked, as orders for 1,000 vehicles were placed in
                               less than four weeks after they started being accepted, easily clearing the monthly
                               target. Other carmakers also are proceeding with the development of hybrid cars,
                               with commercialization plans for as early as 1998.

                               Manufacturers are also expanding their lineup of cars with direct-injection engines,
                               which began appearing in the second half of 1996. The direct injection of fuel
                               increases combustion efficiency and reduces the emission of carbon dioxide by
                               about 30% from conventional vehicles.

                               Mitsubishi Motors Corp., which pioneered the sale of these vehicles, plans to
                               double their production from the spring of 1998. Just a little more than a year after
                               the direct-injection automobile went on sale, more than 100,000 units have been
                               produced, and this type of engine is now featured in most of the manufacturer's

                               The Ultimate Clean Car
                               The ultimate ecology-conscious automobile is that powered only by electricity,
                               causing neither atmospheric nor noise pollution. Although none have yet reached
                               the mass-production stage, several Japanese carmakers began marketing electric
                               vehicles on a limited basis in autumn of 1996.

                               The biggest bottleneck has been the difficulty of making conventional lead storage
                               batteries lighter and increasing their capacity. To solve this problem, makers have
                               developed other types of batteries, such as nickel-hydrogen and lithium-ion.
                               Improvements are being made to produce electric cars that have better
                               performance and are easier to use. At present, the distance an electric car can
                               travel on a single charge is quite limited, so the key to its proliferation will be the
                               development of a high-performance battery.

                               Research is also being carried out to develop the "ultimate clean car" that runs on
                               hydrogen-powered fuel cells. Since electricity is generated through reverse
                               electrolysis, the vehicle would emit only water, and recharging would not be
                               necessary. Auto makers around the world, including those in Japan, are looking
                               into this possibility, although commercial production is probably still far off in the

                               As for vehicles that run on fuel other than gasoline, one type of car that is already
                               being used by gas companies and governmental organizations runs on compressed
                               natural gas. About a thousand such cars, which are cheaper to operate than
                               electric vehicles, are now on the road.

                               Efforts by Society
                               The race to develop electric cars naturally stems from concern about the
                               phenomenon of global warming, but it has also been encouraged by the strict
                               regulations to be imposed by the U.S. state of California. California is calling on
                               automakers in the state, which sell more than 35,000 vehicles a year, to increase
                               their production of vehicles that do not emit any exhaust gas to 10% of
                               quantitative sales by 2003. For Japanese automakers, which claim large shares of
                               the U.S. market, development of electric cars is thus an urgent task.

                               Low-pollution vehicles are still very expensive, and the lack of facilities to service
                               them pushes maintenance costs up as well. For this reason, such vehicles tend to
                               be leased; sales are limited to public bodies and large companies. Costs are high
                               for the manufacturers, too, as the development of environment-friendly technology
                               requires huge investments; we may soon see a war of attrition among the

                               If and when the mass production of electric vehicles begins, it will then become
                               possible for makers to lower prices and set up the necessary infrastructure, such
                               as recharging facilities. Consumers are taking an increasing interest in the
                               environment, so if the price is right, low-pollution vehicles have the potential to
                               become quite widespread. From now on, though, input from a wider segment of
                               society than just carmakers will become necessary; one example of such input
                               would be subsidies from the central and local governments.

Electric Cars and Lead Pollution
A Rebuttal of Lave, Hendrickson, McMichael
In 1995, Lave, Hendrickson and McMichael published a controversial assessment on the impact electric vehicles would have if they reached mass production numbers. In essence, they argued that three times the amount of lead would be released into the environment by the use of lead-acid batteries in electric cars than would be released by a 1970s vintage car burning leaded gasoline.

Valerie Thomas and Robert Socolow of Princeton's Center for Energy and Environmental Studies took this study to task in the 1997 issue of Journal of Industrial Ecology, arguing that Lave, Hendrickson and McMichael's conclusions were seriously flawed, in particular they inference that the operation of electric cars would release minute amounts of lead into the environment as they motored down our streets and highways.

Thomas and Socolow accurately point out that electric cars using lead acid batteries do not release lead at anytime during their operational lifetime. The only time in which lead would be released into the environment would be during the refining process and during the recycling phase, and that the amount of lead released in this manner would be extremely small.

Thomas and Socolow argue that it is erroneous to compare electric cars with automobiles burning leaded gasoline because all of the lead from the gasoline vehicle are airborne emissions, while only a tiny fraction of the lead used in a electric car battery will eventually find its way into the atmosphere during the refining or recycling process. Further, the emissions from a gasoline engine are emitted at the tailpipe of the vehicle, usually in highly congested urban areas, whereas lead refining and lead recycling usually take place far away from urban centers.

According to several studies, lead recycling in the United States now accounts for 93-98% of all lead acid batteries now manufactured.

Further, because lead-acid batteries do not offer sufficient operational range for most electric car applications, all electric vehicle manufacturers already have or will shortly introduce EVs powered by nickel metal hydride and lithium ion batteries which are virtually toxic-free and nearly 100% recyclable. The relative handful (numbering less than 500) generation one EV1s built by General Motors referred to in Lave, Hendrickson and McMichael's study will be replaced in the 3rd Q of 1998 with NiMH battery-powered Generation Two models. All generation one EV1s are operated on 36 month leases and will eventually be returned to GM for disposal.

Therefore, it would seem premature to consider the wider deployment of electric cars as an "environmental hazard," when their very purpose is to help reduce air pollution at the point of generation, something not even the cleanest internal combustion engine can claim today.

Program Background
The purpose of the Santa Cruz County Electric Bike Commuter Incentive Program is to encourage the regular use of cost effective, appropriate electric transportation technology to reduce single occupancy auto trips, traffic congestion, neighborhood traffic volumes and speeds, parking demand and air pollution. >> Full Program Details...

For more information or to sign up for a free bicycle training class call the Santa Cruz County Electric Bike Commuter Incentive Program Hotline 1-866-E-Z-PEDAL (397-3325)

Thanks to Our Local Sponsors


Ecology Action contact info for this program:
Mellissa Meng
Ecology Action
P.O. Box 1188
Santa Cruz, CA 95061-1188
831-426-5925, extension 11