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Watt's Next?

Did you see the animated film about GM’s bold vision for the future of auto propulsion? Cute cartoon characters lay out the options: electric vehicles, fuel cells, and lots of other exotic technologies. The movie boasts that alternative propulsion may soon free us from the tyranny of the internal combustion engine — or at least the filmmakers thought so when the movie was made for Epcot Center’s World of Motion, 25 years ago.

“Don’t forget, technological superiority alone might not carry the day.”

Since that time, the Berlin Wall has fallen, we’ve fought two wars in Iraq, ICT advances like the personal computer, the Internet, and email have revolutionized our lives by bringing countless Nigerian con scams conveniently into our homes and offices — and we’re still waiting for that miracle engine technology that seems to be perennially just around the corner.
We’ve flirted with ethanol, hydrogen fuel cells, biodiesel, and natural gas, to name a few. But ethanol isn’t efficient and has driven food prices up; fuel cells are too fragile and require energy to produce free hydrogen; natural gas would demand a new fueling infrastructure; and used French fry oil may be plentiful in America (I do my best to increase the supply), but it’s not plentiful enough to produce more than a fraction of the fuel needed.
But now things might finally be changing — thanks to the long-anticipated electric car. With almost every major automaker working on one, electric propulsion may finally be poised to break out. Or is it?
To help find the answer I called in my resident expert — my brother, Brad Morris — to co-author this post. Not only does he spam me with every morsel of electric car news that comes down the pike, but in the sweltering Atlanta summer he refuses to turn on the air conditioner in his hybrid Honda Civic for fear it will hurt his precious mileage. Now that’s commitment.
Electric propulsion holds the promise of less greenhouse gas emissions, fewer moving parts, easier maintenance, lower costs per mile, and better acceleration. It replaces a complicated engine, exhaust system, and transmission with a simple electric motor.
The downside is that plug-in electric cars currently have restricted range, charge slowly, have lithium batteries with a limited shelf life, and are on the pricey side.
But despite false starts (remember GM’s EV1?) it looks like electric’s day may be coming. Other alternative propulsion technologies are slowly falling by the wayside. The price of gas spiked and is rising again; there is continuing turbulence in the Middle East, Venezuela, and Nigeria; and global warming is a deadly and serious concern.
The gasoline-electric hybrid has been a success; 1.2 million Toyota Prius hybrids have been sold worldwide. The next step is plug-in autos that run in part or in full on electric power alone.
Here are some of the contenders:


And there are plenty more: check out Plug In America’s vehicle tracker, which also has photos of the cars.
With such an across-the-board push, will the electric car triumph? And if so, which of the new plug-ins will offer the combination of cost, battery life, charging time, performance, availability, reliability, marketing muscle, and styling to open up America’s wallets?
These aren’t rhetorical answers; we really want to know your thoughts. Handicap the electric car race in the comments section.
Don’t forget, technological superiority alone might not carry the day. Who would have thought that VHS would beat out the superior Beta and that the Nintendo Wii would sell more units than the technologically more sophisticated Sony Playstation 3 and Microsoft’s Xbox 360?
We’ll publish some of your prognostications next time. No schwag on the line, but if you’re lucky maybe GM will put you in a cartoon.