Electric cars the way to go

MY CAR is 18 years old and has clocked almost 270000km. Although it is still going reasonably well, it will not last forever and I have to start planning for a new car.

MY CAR is 18 years old and has clocked almost 270000km. Although it is still going reasonably well, it will not last forever and I have to start planning for a new car.

Should I try to hold out for an electric car? How soon will they become a viable proposition? Will these cars be more expensive than fuel-engined cars? Will their running cost be much lower?

Sam (email)

Sam, these questions are on many people's minds. They are not easy to answer with any degree of certainty, but for what it's worth, I will tell you how I read the situation at the moment.

One has to distinguish between hybrid and electric cars. Hybrids have a petrol or diesel engine in addition to a battery pack and electric motor.

The fuel engine extends the range of the batteries, either by providing direct propulsion or by recharging the batteries.

Toyota and Honda have been frontrunners in hybrid development. The Toyota Prius dates back to 1997. So far they have been more expensive than fuel-engined cars. The Toyota Prius costs R112000 more than the Corolla 1,6 - a price difference of more than 50percent.

Electric cars don't have any fuel engines . All their power comes from an on-board battery pack, which can be recharged from an ordinary electrical outlet.

For many years a lack of progress in battery technology delayed their development.

The lead-acid batteries that have been the mainstay of automotive electrical systems for so long are just too heavy and cumbersome to be used in the battery packs of electric cars. But recently there have been breakthroughs on this front, spurred on by rocketing fuel prices and pollution concerns.

The latest electric cars have lithium-ion batteries, using the same chemistry as in the batteries of cellphones, laptops and cordless power tools. They can store four times as much energy as lead-acid batteries of the same weight. Grasping the possibilities opened by this advance, several automotive heavyweights have announced plans for electric cars. Last month, Nissan gave a preview of its electric car, based on the Tiida platform and scheduled to be launched in Japan and the US in 2010. If the plans for South Africa's own Joule, scheduled to be launched towards the end of 2010, come to fruition, it will provide an exciting competitor for overseas designs.

I think that within three years from now all electric cars will become a viable proposition. Give them another two years after that for teething troubles to be sorted out and you can buy one with confidence.

So, to answer your question, Sam, and sticking out my neck very far, I'd say, yes, it will be worthwhile to hold out for an electric car.

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