Most of us weren't around when the electric car first became popular -- Chicago hosted an exhibition of electric models back in 1893. Fast-forward a few years to 1900 and it looked like the electric car would be around for good, since it represented a third of the vehicles driven in major cities. But then something happened that altered the course of air quality in cities nationwide -- the invention of the gas-powered Model T. The electric car was thought to have too many limitations and became virtually extinct until the 1990s, when General Motors briefly revived it.
A 2003 report by CBS News correspondent John Blackstone chronicled GM's attempt to make the roads electric. You might not have heard about the concept unless you lived on the West Coast where the company leased the EV1. There were only a thousand or so created, and after a while the company decided the American public didn't want the hassle of plugging in their cars. So GM retired it. For further perspective on the topic, watch Who Killed the Electric Car?, a documentary by filmmaker and former EV1 owner Chris Paine.
GM has since realized electric cars are a good investment, and now estimates it will begin re-introducing them into the marketplace in 2010. In the meantime the company is trying to generate buzz for the Chevy Volt, which it maintains will carry passengers up to 40 miles a day on a single charge without needing a fill-up. If you drive more than 40 miles, you'll need to stop for gas.
Not to be outdone by GM, several other automotive companies are furiously working on their own versions of the electric car to stake their claim to the market in 2010. Nissan is planning to roll out a zero-emissions car to the rest of the world by 2012, certainly an ambitious undertaking. The name of Tesla's car harkens back to an older time: the Roadster. Its vision is a car that will run solely on electricity without emissions. These are all noble aspirations, and hinge largely on whether the industry is able to locate enough funding, especially in the United States. More on that as the bailout saga unfolds.
No matter which model you choose, take a look at the pros and cons of owning an electric car. Along with decreasing our dependence on foreign oil, imagine not having to pull over to the gas station every couple days to refuel. And commuters who work within the 40-mile range can typically avoid the gas station and charge up at home. But for drivers with longer commutes, once the battery is depleted, you'll find yourself back at the place you tried to avoid.
If your main goal is to be environmentally conscious, you might not care that the designs could be well, a little on the funky side. There's a reason for that. Those lithium batteries that power your laptop fit in snugly without calling attention to themselves. But think about the size of the battery needed to power a car and the challenges of designing around that impediment. Consider it your sacrifice for a smaller carbon footprint.