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Rethinking Old Technology

Electric cars are by no means new: Americans began constructing efficient “electric carriages” as far back as 1890 when William Morrison built one in Des Moines that could travel for 13 hours at a speed of 14 mph (22.5 kph). As early as 1899, electric taxis, trams, and omnibuses were commonly seen in major cities, and electric and steam-powered cars outsold gasoline buggies. Between 1900 and 1915, more than 60 American companies were building electric vehicles, including the Andrew Riker Company (1896–1901), which offered a wide range of styles and models. In 1901, the company's electric-powered racer, the Riker Torpedo, set a record run for the mile at 57.14 mph (92 kph). Another firm, the Walker Baker Company (1899–1914), created an electric-powered racer that could go over 75 mph (120.7 kph) and was the first car to have passenger seat belts. Although electric cars were clean, quiet, and simple to operate, their drawback then, as now, was their limited range and long charging time. After 1915, they fell out of vogue as cars powered by internal-combustion engines and fueled with cheap gasoline gained favor.

As concerns in recent years have grown about global warming caused by carbon-dioxide emissions, scientists have begun to reconsider electricity as a fuel for vehicles. But today's drivers expect a vehicle that is fuel efficient, and a fuel that is readily available in numerous locations and allows “instant” refueling. Though electric cars are fairly efficient, they require frequent refueling, and the process is far from instantaneous. They're expensive, too, since normal use causes their $2,000 lead-acid batteries to wear out in just a few years. And, ironically, electric cars do very little to reduce carbon dioxide emissions because most electricity in the U.S. is generated by burning coal and other fossil fuels. To gain consumer acceptance, the car of the future will need to balance the benefits of electric cars with consumer demands for distance and dynamo. The hybrid electric vehicle holds promise as a solution to both these needs.

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