There have been electric cars almost as long as there have been cars, but for the last eighty years of the electric car's life, it has been relegated to the farthest fringes of the automotive universe. Electrics have been held back by their batteries, which don't pack nearly as much energy as a tank of gasoline and therefore hobble these cars with a painfully short driving range.
General Motors, Toyota, and others who toyed with electric cars in the recent past proved that neither lead-acid nor nickel-metal-hydride batteries had the moxie to dependably propel us down the road. The move toward electric propulsion spun its wheels until engineers eager to tap clean, quiet power came up with an interim plan: team electric energy with internal combustion. The concept was called hybrid propulsion, and the first hybrid arrived here for sale in late 1999.
Even though the Honda Insight was priced below $20,000 and was EPA-rated at 70 mpg on the highway, America wasn't ready for a weird-looking two-seater, no matter how much gas it saved or how generously Honda subsidized the price. The Insight was crushed by the sensible-shoes Toyota Prius hybrid, which arrived eight months later (after a three-year warm-up in Japan).
All hybrids now bow to the Prius's success. In spite of its confoundedly complex gas and electric powertrain, Toyota has sold more than a million of them in forty-plus countries. Investments in hybrid technology have begun paying off.
But for hard-core electric fans, the Prius is merely the initial crack in a clean break from internal combustion. The goal is to plug into the electrical grid to avoid gas pumps at any cost. Some of them are spending more than $100,000 for a Tesla Roadster.
The plug-in movement, which began with the radical fringe, is now gathering momentum. Practically every hybrid-vehicle manufacturer has an experimental plug-in on the auto-show circuit or gathering test-fleet data. The aftermarket has also joined the party. A123Systems in Watertown, Massachusetts, sells a $9995 Hymotion L5 Plug-In Conversion for 2004 through 2009 Toyota Priuses. This 5-kilowatt-hour (kW-h) lithium-ion (Li-ion) battery piggybacks the factory's 1.3-kW-h nickel-metal-hydride (NiMH) batteries. While pure-electric driving is still limited to speeds of up to only about 20 mph, the division of labor is shifted in favor of the cleaner, cheaper electric side of the Prius's propulsion system. Li-ion batteries are not silver bullets, but they provide some 50 percent greater energy storage capacity than the NiMH batteries currently in hybrid use.