NOT long ago electric cars were going to save the world. Every major automaker was developing a battery-driven vehicle that would offer both freedom from petroleum and zero emissions (at least at the tailpipe -- the power plant might be another matter). California enacted a regulation requiring the test marketing of electric cars; General Motors got there first, in 1996, with the EV1, a Jetsons-style plug-in coupe that was just the ticket for guilt-free commuting. And it was ... terrible.
Despite hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of research and development, GM's electric car could travel only fifty to eighty miles before it needed a recharge, which took four to eight hours. A drive outside Los Angeles, or even to the outer valley, would have had to include a leisurely dinner followed by a three-part German opera to pass the time while the batteries recharged for the return trip. And that was assuming an excursion without air-conditioning: with the AC on, the range of the EV1 shrank further, and tractor-trailer rigs could pass it going up hills. Once word got out about this impracticality, even trend-happy Californians shunned the electric car. GM recently "suspended" production of the EV1. Honda, long the industry leader in environmental improvements, abandoned its electric-car project; other manufacturers scaled back their efforts. A few fleet buyers may still go electric -- the U.S. Postal Service, for example, which has begun buying battery-powered vans, which are practical for mail delivery because they travel short fixed routes and always return to the same point at night, making recharge expedient. But barring a fundamental breakthrough in battery chemistry, electric transportation for the masses appears as dead as a car whose headlights have been left on all night.
Yet a funny thing happened on the way to the demise of the plug-in car. Engineers realized that they could use what they'd learned about batteries and electric-coil motors to fashion half-piston, half-electric "hybrid" cars that dramatically reduce energy consumption but run in the conventional way -- on petroleum from filling stations -- and never need to be plugged in. Driving range, the big drawback of electric designs, not only isn't a problem with hybrid vehicles but is significantly improved: hybrids get so many miles to a tank of gas that one could drive from New York to Washington and back without stopping. This is practical and attractive in an era of rising fuel prices. The market is about to be flooded with hybrid vehicles -- and they offer an example of the kind of serendipity that occurs when in the course of failing to achieve a planned goal, one discovers something of greater value.