With the price of oil and the geopolitics that go with it, the search for alternatives has been on for several decades. The halfway options – a battery for cruising and oil for power with cars like the Toyota Prius and the Honda Insight have been on the roads for nearly a decade. While they provide a lot more fuel efficient than conventional petrol engine cars, they have not found wide acceptability because they are much more expensive, to begin with. Now, electric cars like the Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf are aiming to bring the concept into the mainstream by targeting a mass audience. India’s own quirky Reva has been chugging along for a decade, used more on golf courses and national parks to transport visitors than as a serious contender on the roads. All of them have their own problems – range being an important consideration. The earliest ones could not go beyond 50-70 km on a single charge. Charging them in home sockets required them to be plugged in for hours and replacing the batteries after a few years was very expensive.
These cars provide formidable communication challenges as well. Eco-friendly may be a rallying slogan but it does not have too many takers unless it meets the needs of style, price, and functionality. First-time buyers are evangelists who want to save the world, but they do not constitute a large enough market to be sustainable in the long term. So there have been attempts to make electric sexy and the Tesla Roadster is a prime example, designed to excite rather than endear. Providing an impressive 245 km’s per charge, it overcomes the psychological barrier against making the purchase for people who can afford it.
But the car or the ecosystem that is really approaching it from the ground up is an Israeli company called Better Place. They understand the consumers are used to petrol stations and detest the chore of plugging in. They know that large outlays for electric batteries every few years is a no-no. They realise that while people don’t want to pollute the world, they don’t want to be stuck with an eco statement instead of a usable means of transport. So, they are building solar charging stations where you drive in, your drained battery is replaced with a fully charged one in a couple of minutes – exactly like topping up the tank. You pay for the number of kilometers you consume – much like talk time on mobile phones. And trials are on in 5 countries to create the infrastructure. It looks like the world is ready to move to a better place in the next few decades.