This past weekend Yvonne and I attended the Alternative Car and Transportation Expo held in a converted aircraft hangar at the Santa Monica Airport. Granted, this was not the most auspicious venue for the event, but attendance appeared to be fairly good, in spite of both the obscure location and the limited parking in the area. Indeed, the Los Angeles Times estimated that some 10,000 persons came to look at the more than 100 exhibits. The show, the first of what one may assume will be an annual event, was free and open to the public.

As the veteran of scores of trade exhibitions, I would have to say, not bad for a rookie. I’ve been to shows that were much better promoted than this one that drew far fewer attendees. Evidently this event struck a chord as they say.

If an environmental car culture can be said to exist, this show was its logical expression, and what better milieu for its emergence than Southern California which happens to have also hosted the first hotrod show some 58 years ago. And, if it is true that everything in popular culture begins in California, then alternative fuels and the vehicles that consume them are assured a bright future.

A few words on the exhibitors:

Although I attempt to keep abreast of “green car” offerings, especially those from new companies, I saw cars aplenty from firms I didn’t recognize at all, some of whom claim to be selling series production vehicles. I was truly startled by the extent of entrepreneurial activity in this area.

As a matter of interest, most of those vehicles that were truly new and not simply aftermarket modifications of existing models were electric cars running off batteries—not flex fuel, or hybrid, or fuel cell vehicles. The death of the traditional electric car, if it occurred at all, has been followed, it seems, by a defiant resurrection.

Exhibitors of battery electrics included Dynasty Electric Car Corporation, Universal Electric Vehicle Corporation, Phoenix Motorcars, and Zap! among others. Most of the exhibits represented significant if incremental performance and convenience improvements over the vaunted Big Three efforts from the nineties. Many of the cars had maximum operating ranges in excess of 100 miles and recharge times of less than two hours, and, in few cases, well under an hour. Vehicle curb weights were generally comparable to those of conventional compact cars of equivalent interior volume—that is, under 3,000lbs. While some vehicles carried luxury car pricing, many were priced well under $30K. If manufacturer claims are accurate, battery electrics are approaching practicality, at least for local commuting.

While some vehicles carried luxury car pricing, many were priced well under $30K.

About half were using advanced high output battery types rather than the bulky lead acid storage batteries that were universally used in the earlier Detroit efforts, and the Phoenix car, a handsome and rather costly design, featured the new ultra-high output lithium battery from Altair Nanotechnologies which compares favorably in output with a PEM fuel cell and at a fraction of cost. Most of the electrics used sophisticated brushless DC rare earth magnet motors which further reduces the mass of the drive train.

I didn’t get to speak with every manufacturer at length, but everyone who did provide extensive background indicated that the vehicle bodies and chassis were manufactured in China and borrowed from existing internal combustion engine cars intended for the Chinese market. And, in some cases, I found my six foot frame distorted in ways that would undoubtedly prove distressful on a lengthy sojourns. To be blunt, these pioneering efforts are still a little jury rigged, but in a way it’s reassuring that they mostly use field proven mass production components rather than something patched together at a local sheet metal shop.

Save for the elegant Lexus hybrid sedan making its obligatory star turn and surrounded by the covetous, few of these cars inspire much pride of ownership. There’s a definite Birkenstock, straw bale house aesthetic here. Still, there are probably enough ideologically motivated individuals out there to make for a real niche market.

The obvious and exemplary progress made by the battery electric car contingent gives rise to some pointed questions as to the place of alternative fuels in transportation sector of the late teens and early twenties of this century when the personal transportation industry might be presumed to have sorted itself out and arrived at a viable response to perpetually high petroleum prices. Can these brave efforts by under financed visionaries possibly initiate any major realignment in the auto industry as a whole? Will electricity rather than alternative liquid fuels become the mainstay of our transportation system?

There is little question that a heavy reliance on utility generated electricity will provide for more efficient use of our remaining fossil fuel resources than will a transition to new types of internal combustion engines or fuel cells consuming alternative liquid fuels. Even if most of that electrical power comes from coal, it is possible to transition over to coal gasification plants and sequester the carbon dioxide resulting from the combustion of the syngas. The expense of doing so would be considerable, but if one were to look at the most energy efficient and environmentally safe way of continuing to support an immense and growing personal transportation system, then automobiles using advanced batteries and operating either as plug-in hybrids or purely electric vehicles would appear to offer the best option for the future.

In an upcoming issue we will explore this issue of advanced battery design at great length. Here I will only say that the Altair battery was not the only remarkable performer on display. A lithium polymer battery from A123 Systems was shown, and had a claimed energy density superior to a PEM fuel cell. These units are supposedly now for sale, though pricing information was absent from the display. Incidentally, A123 just won a contract from the United States Advanced Battery Consortium, an automotive industry group comprised of Ford, GM, and Daimler Chrysler, to build a lithium iron phosphate battery, a new design that has yet to be commercialized.

Motorcycles and scooters were also represented.

There are other promising ultra-high energy density secondary battery technologies also entering the marketplace and should they succeed, the hydrogen fuel cell may remain a laboratory curiosity. At this point, however, the issue can scarcely be said to be decided.

What can be said is that the battery electric car has picked up considerable momentum again, and bids fair to offer a challenge to the pure alternative fuels model, though I think plug-in hybrids using alternative fuels are more likely to prevail, despite the greater stress they impose upon the environment. Automotive incumbents are in the business of selling reciprocating piston internal combustion engines, not electrical motors. Absent the engine, they have very little to sell other than their brands. Hybrids still offer vastly greater cruising range and more impressive performance than all electric vehicles, and those attributes, I submit, will carry the day.

In the meantime it will be interesting to see how the all electric contingent will fare. The mainstream automotive industry in the U.S. was marked by the presence of marketing and industrial engineering geniuses from its earliest days. Maybe such talent exists somewhere in the electric car industry, but I’ve yet to see it reflected in a product.

In prior years I wrote for automobile magazines including Collectible Automobiles which, as the name suggests, specialized in antique and veteran motorcars. I made a study of independent American manufacturers who attempted to set up production in the wake of World War II from which the Big Three emerged with almost no competition remaining. Every independent without exception up to and including DeLorean failed in the market. While the situation is more complicated in Europe, startups there have generally met with a similar fate. The only exceptions have occurred recently, and have almost invariably involved exotic-cars such as the Dutch Spyker. What I will be attempting to determine in a future study is whether the situation has changed in a way that is favorable to the current crop of green insurgents.