Whatever happened to the electric car? Wasn't it going to save us from our pollution-clogged cities and reduce global carbon dioxide emissions? It hasn't disappeared but become just one of a number of developments from more efficient diesel engines and hydrogen fuel cells, to radical ideas of urban share car schemes that hope to lower the impact of cars on their immediate environment and the wider world.
"There isn't a single driving culture in the world, so there isn't going to be just one solution to reducing pollution and carbon emissions from cars," believes Dr John Wormald, an automotive industry expert from Autopolis.
The European Environment Agency found that CO2 emissions from vehicles in the EU rose from 21 percent to 28 percent of total emissions between 1990 and 2004. Reducing this figure in Europe and elsewhere is the current challenge for car companies, governments and drivers.
In the past electric cars have suffered for a number of reasons. The first wave of electric vehicles such as General Motors' EV1 that were built to conform to California's emission laws of the early 1990s, were sluggish, heavy and expensive. Today, American company Tesla Motors are building electric cars with more efficient lithium ion batteries and acceleration and handling to rival highly tuned sports cars, but they look set to remains a niche and expensive product.
"Electric vehicles have a fairly high upfront cost, but a low running cost," says Trevor Power of Modec, a British company that is manufacturing electric vehicles for a different sector. Running on the latest generation of batteries, Modec is making delivery vans that use the same amount of energy as a small saloon car, about half as much as a van of comparable size.
Modec suggest that the companies that buy their vans recharge them using electricity from renewable sources. Unless charged by sustainable sources electric vehicles are not free from their part in adding carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. However, like hydrogen fuel cells they don't emit any noxious gases or waste into their immediate environment.
"Aside from reducing the carbon footprint, compared to hybrids these vehicles are zero emissions and that means there is no carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide or other pollutants being pumped out into our cities. More people die as a result of air pollution that from car accidents," says Power.
While regional and intergovernmental legislation can kick start the drive toward cleaner cars, ultimately there needs to be a chance in attitude and the culture of the car to really tackle the problem of emissions and climate change.
"People have to move towards more specialised commuter vehicles. There needs to be a shift in attitude towards driving and a change in the culture of some countries towards what they expect from a car and how they use it," says Wormald.
"If we're to really come to grips with greenhouse gases and global warming we need to address the way we use cars."
Radical solutions are not short on the ground. A Massachusetts Institute of Technology project has been developing a stackable share car scheme that not only looks at the technology and power source of the car, but the way it is used in the city.
While looking similar to a Smart Fourtwo car, it has independently powered wheels as well as plenty of other high-tech gadgetry. PML Flightlink, a British engineering company, has also been working on independent power sources for each car wheel, but many would argue, why do cities need private cars anyway?
Applied to public transport, electric or hydrogen fuel cell vehicles seem an ideal solution to cleaning the air and freeing up grid-locked cities. However, as well as the available and affordable technology, there needs to be the political will.
"Bangkok might be a great place for electric vehicles, but the Thai government has invested heavily in becoming a major assembly location for Japanese car companies, so investing in electric vehicles would undermine that industry," says Wormald.
An accommodating political and economic climate for hydrogen fuel cells is developing in Brazil. Sao Paulo is set to launch the first city-wide bus scheme in November, which could extend to its whole network of nearly 30,000 buses.
"It's taken 10 years to happen. But whole garages will run on hydroelectric power. Sao Paulo has ideal circumstances and climate for its fuel cells, unlike Chicago, where they were trialled. They quickly found there that freezing temperatures meant freezing hydrogen fuel cells and the need for more specialized technology and facilities for the buses," says Wormald.
Sao Paulo's advantage also comes from Brazil's capacity to create an abundance of electricity with 92 percent of it produced by hydroelectric plants.
"It's a scheme that's perfect for Sao Paulo, but wouldn't be right for say St Petersburg, where an abundance of natural gas in close proximity makes more sense than manufacturing hydrogen at great expense and environmental impact. Different countries have different objectives," says Wormald.
What do you think? Have your say and join the debate.
I think that there should be more electric cars because they are clean. All you need to do to give it energy is to charge it, and you can drive hundreds of kilometers. The only problem is that if the battery gets to hot, it can explode. But I think that soon scientists will reduce the chance of this happening by maybe putting air-conditioning in the engine. I think that we should start by making small electric cars like minis or smarts, kind of evolving from the golf buggie. When electricity becomes more advanced and efficient we can make bigger electric cars.
I fully agree that different countries must have different objectives and different energy saving policies. For example, the French automotive industry has developed such performing direct injection diesel engines, and hybrid cars such as Toyota's Prius have met with limited commercial success so far. But then, Peugeot is going to launch a hybrid diesel version of its new 308 model. And French motorists will benefit from both innovations. As will perhaps other European drivers and European city dwellers. Breathe easy.
In India we want this type of technology, but lack facilities for innovation, so we tend to depend on foreign engineers to solve our problem. I am very glad to know that in India this is happening. Why should it not be introduced as a commercial service for all the citizens to use high speed internet?
Hydrogen cars aren't good because you still need to make the hydrogen from other power sources, mainly fossil fuels, so, even though the hydrogen cars make no carbon footprint, the power plants that are needed to make the hydrogen will make more of a footprint!
The EV1 and other electric cars of its generation didn't fail because they were sluggish and expensive (hell every SUV fits that description); it failed because of a lack of industry support to stand behind cars that were ahead of their time. The cars were certainly popular with those who purchased them; however no effort was made by GM et al to promote them in the same fashion they do their other, gas-powered, cars.