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The Automobile’s Future

Courtesy of Tesla Motors Roadster electric car

Photo: Courtesy of Tesla Motors

An hour’s drive south of Los Angeles on Interstate 5, Santa Ana (population 400,000) lies 13 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean and 100 miles from the Mexican border. Home of the world’s first drag strip, the city is far more famous for its mountain winds that, in Raymond Chandler’s words, "…curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch." I’m here to visit Mayor Miguel Pulido, a member of the board of the Air Quality Management District (AQMD), California’s powerful smog-control agency. Although his house is only 200 feet away from the road, the tall trees and expansive yard make his 1.7-acre plot seem distinctly rural.

Major car companies with research and development centers in California, and individual auto tinkerers here, are competing in the quest for the best technology to decrease carbon emissions. Mayor Pulido is "knee-deep in both sides" of the current debate over auto efficiency: at l3 years old, he began helping out in his family’s muffler shop, and he still works with a Mexican catalytic-converter manufacturer. But about eighteen months ago, the AQMD converted several Toyota Priuses into plug-in hybrids (PHEV’s) to see if they could help solve the town’s air pollution problem, and asked the mayor to be a volunteer test driver. Unlike regular hybrids, which can’t run on electricity alone, plug-ins, at city speeds, can travel 20 all-electric miles—with zero emissions. Pulido became both a convert and an evangelist.

After a remarkably precocious drum solo by his seven-year-old son, the mayor takes me for a drive. The game is to see how far we can go without the gas engine kicking in. At about 35 miles per hour, the Prius engine starts up even if there is charge left in the battery. We watch the speedometer carefully. The mayor is adept. "I’ve driven 600 miles on eight gallons of gas," he announces. That’s the equivalent of 77 miles per gallon—roughly three times the national average—and that’s why, to Pulido and a growing nationwide constituency, plug-ins are the stepping-stone to a future of electric cars.

"We’re getting closer to the tipping point," says Pat Cadam of Pat’s Garage in San Francisco. He’s a celebrated mechanic, one of the first to be trained on hybrids, and is rapidly becoming an expert on both plug-in hybrids and electric cars. His staff is giving a checkup to one of the four plug-in Priuses owned by Google. They find no problems. The Internet giant, it turns out, gives $5,000 rebates to employees who buy hybrids—and recently announced a $10 million initiative to promote and develop plug-ins.

Of course, electric cars were the future once before, and recently at that. In 1990, inspired by General Motors’ electric prototype, the Impact, California passed a Zero-Emission Vehicle mandate ordering major car companies selling cars in California to make 2 percent of them all-electric by 1998. Some 5,500 leased electric vehicles plied California’s highways by 2000, refueling at hundreds of special charging stations. Automakers sued California to weaken the mandate; in 2003, despite protests by electric-car drivers, the state dramatically reduced electric-vehicle requirements. When the leases on its EV-1’s expired, GM refused to renew them, recalled the cars, and crushed them. Today, only about 1,000 all-electric vehicles remain on California roads.

A few days after I meet up with Mayor Pulido, I’m driving one of those cars, a Toyota RAV4-EV, across the Golden Gate Bridge toward Point Reyes with photographer Marc Geller, cofounder of the nonprofit Plug In America. Geller’s car batteries allow 130 miles per charge. A digital display on the dash shows the percentage of electricity remaining in them. Whenever we drive up a hill, the number declines; the faster we go, the faster it drops. But when we coast downhill, it rises, thanks to a process called regenerative braking: when the brakes are used or the pedal is released (depending on the make of the car), the engine reverses its spin, converts its kinetic energy into electrical energy, and feeds it into the batteries. At the bottom of a half-mile hill, the RAV4-EV’s battery reserve has increased by 1 percent. This is a familiar dashboard scenario for owners of hybrid cars, with one significant difference—electricity, not gasoline, recharges the RAV4-EV battery.

Hybrids might never have been developed without the drive systems, software, electronics, and batteries created for electric vehicles built after California’s Zero- Emission mandate. In her book Plug-in Hybrids, journalist Sherry Boschert tells the story of how the hybrid grew a socket. Owners of the 2004 Toyota Prius began to wonder about the blank black button on the dashboard, which the operating manual didn’t explain. Online auto aficionados found out that in Japan, pressing the button disabled the gas engine’s automatic cut-in, which allowed the car to travel solely on electricity for one mile as long as its speed was kept under 35 mph.

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