The Department of Energy received the first of its experimental electric cars recently, and officals were quick to tout it as a milestone, a significant engineering breakthrough.

Yet any non-internal-combustion vehicle these days is a hot item, and its unveiling during a severe gas crunch could not be better timing for the DOE.

The General Electric Co. car is called the ETV-1. It was built in conjunction with Chrysler Corp. and Globe Union Inc. The Etv-1 is the first major electric car to be built from the ground up.

The urban-suburban car is designed for predictable short trips such as for shopping or mail delivery fleet use. It will go 100 miles at 45 miles an hour with two passengers before needing to have it 18 lead-acid batteries recharged, according to computer tests.

But engineers who viewed the car last week at an electric hybrid vehicle contractors' meeting concede that the outlook for this kind of car is modest for a number of reasons.

Electric cars, which essentially combine simples, well-known engineering and technology concepts, have lacked both market demand and development incentive by manufactures.

Conservative battery manufacturers, the key to the future of electric vehicles, scarcely have improved their 100-plus-year-old product mainly due to lack of incentive to risk research dollars.

Similarly, automakers, the likely candidates to produce such vehicles, have been unwilling to pursure volume production because of lack of demand.

And DOE officials point out that although a car could be produced, price would inhibit demand and weight would offsset efficiency."

"Electric vehicles need more development," said Paul O. Larson, chief engineer for General Motors Corp.'s electric vehicle program. "And the big question is performance."

GM is working on its own electriconverted car, which most developers in the business have been concentrating on, and is undertaking a market study of electric vehicle demand.

Battery makers, who only recently have been given incentive to improve upon their lead-acid batteries, are counting on a zinc-nickel oxide battery to move the industry a step further.

"The electric and hybrid vihicles available today connot meet the preformance levels to which American people have become accustomed," Maxine Savitz, DOE deputy asssistant secretary, told the group of electric vehicle specialists.

The marketing of these vehicles will require a change in the ideas and habits of consumers, she added.

Designers and government officials are well aware of the problems. But new contract incentive and letting programs, such as including electric vehicles in the computation of Corporate average Fuel Economy figures for auto companies, are increasing activity in the field.

Under an experimental program begun by the DOE after passage of the 1976 electric and hybrid vehicle act, two vehicles are under contract, the ETV-1 and one which the Garrett Corp. plans to bring out this fall. Experts expect 100,000 electric vehicles to be operating by 1985.

The two-car program, which was scheduled for presentation last spring, has cost $14 million, about $4 million over the original estimate, and is funded by a 1977-81 budget of $160 million authorized by Congress.

Like most evolving programs, the electric car project has been criticized. Last April, the General Accounting Office issued a report stating that the cars have limited commercial potential because of cost and poor performance.

The GAO recommended a redirection of the program by strengthening research and development, delaying commercial loan guarantees and limiting loans to the federal sector.

The advantages of these vehicles for drivers, however, include reducednoise, no exhaust emissions, low energy and maintenance costs, and a less need for petroleum.

The new ETV-1, not yet fully tested, is a complete electric car and could be mass produced by 1985 with a price tag of $6,400. It has a cruise speed of 55 mph, passes at 60 mph and accelerates from 0 to 30 mph in nine seconds.

Key features include a microprocessor transistor control system, a new battery design, regenerative braking and an aerodynamic design.

The ETV-1 absorbs power from a regenerative braking system, which captures energy normally lost in braking and uses it to recharge batteries.

The electronic contro., which is similar to the function of a carburetor, regulates electricity flow from the battery to the motor. And the batteries boast a 25 percent higher energy level and longer life than those on the market.

The Garrett car on the other hand, is a flywheel design -- a concept similar to a toy friction car -- which stores energy needed for added power during acceleration and hill climbing.

As opposed to steel flywheels normally used, the Garrett car has a lightweight fiberglass-Kevlar rotor, a major safety development. However, engineers say we probably will never see the flywheel on commercial cars.

An estimated 5,000 electric cars from 20 manufacturers operate on U.S. roads today. Many of these cars are converted models using bodies from gasoline-powered models such as Volkswagen Rabbits or Minibuses or American Motors Corp. Pacers.

Walter Dippold, an electric vehicle program manager for the DOE, believesan electrically controlled car with an electric motor powered by a fuel cell is the most likely and advanced electric car concept.

But he noted, "The main advancement now is that we have an energy program instituted by Congress to get soething moving and let the country know that these programs are going on." CAPTION: Picture, Volkswagen Rabbit converted to electric power shown in Arlington. By James A. Parcell -- The Washington Post