When Brock Adams took over as Secretary of Transportation two years ago, he wanted people to know the department would be taking a serious look at alternative ways of getting from here to there. And what better way to show America's gasaholics than for him to drive an electric auto to work?

While driving the third or fourth car that he had borrowed from the Department of Energy (the cars kept breaking down), Adams was attacking one of the rolling hills that bisect the six-mile route between his home in Northwest Washington and his downtown office, when, almost predictably, the thing died.

"You get a surge of power when you are trying to get up a hill in an electric," Adams says. "And when the battery is low, it can blow the fuse. That's what happened to us-the fuse blew."

When the tow truck got there, "they had no idea what to do," Adams says. "They didn't know how to work on an electric. Finally, they just decided it would be easier for them not to touch it at all.

"So my son and I decided to try and push it. Unfortunately, because the batteries are so heavy, we couldn't even push the thing."

At that point Adams decided, despite the ballyhoo about electric cars being an answer to dwindling gasoline supplies, that they weren't ready for everyday use, certainly not his everyday use. The blown fuse wasn't by any means the first problem Adams' string of electrics had endured.

"The big problem is in the battery storage," he says. "I don't think the Department of Energy is concentrating enough on the real problem, the development of an effective storage program. You'd think in that kind of program, with that kind of money, they would have a better battery. There is a lot of work to be done in that battery area."

Adams has a point. Just ask Lucas Batteries Ltd., a British company that was having pretty good luck with its 10-year experimental electric car program until a hot summer Sunday night three years ago. The nigh of the explosion.

Sitting in a garage in Birmingham recharging, one of the 65 experimental Lucas trucks blew itself into little pieces-a problem with hydrogen gas escaping from the recharging batteries. Lucas officials scrambled to get their electric vehicles off the roads, and company engineers began slowly rebuilding their program.

That same year Congress authorized $160 million for the development of American electrics and turned over the administration of the project to the Energy Research and Development Administration, part of the Department of Energy. And now three years after spending more than $45 million and with electric demonstration vehicles pouring out of workshops across the country, there are indications the federal program-estimated to cost taxpayers $500 million by 1990-may be destined for the same fate as the 1976 Lucas electric.

Although each week brings the introduction of yet another futuristic-looking demonstrator, few electrics have exceeded 60 mph and even fewer have traveled farther than 50 miles on a single charge in urban driving conditions.There are also, as Lucas proved, serious safety problems yet to be solved. And Americans are not used to cars requiring the maintenance electrics demand.

On top of all that, the really bad news about electrics is that they are simply not as efficient as well designed gasoline-powered autos. And government officials working on electric car programs are the first to admit that.

"The electric car will never replace an efficient gas engine," says Anthony Ewing, branch chief in charge of the demonstration and financial incentives functions of the Department of Energy's electric/hybrid vehicle program, "because a gallon of gasoline has more power density than any battery. You just are not going to erase the internal combustion engine." (Hybrid vehicles combine energy sources, such as an electric motor working with a small gasoline-engine-powered generator.)

"The fact of the matter is we are not trying to replace General Motors here," says Energy Department demonstration management specialist Tom Benson."The electric car offers a limited alternative, but can be the foundation for something more at a later time."

Benson says there are 10 million vehicles in the United States that never go faster than 30 mph on any given day, "and a lot of people out there with a hell of a lot more horse-power than they need. If we can get electric cars into that market, then, if the oil pipeline is ever cut off, we'll at least have a base to build on."

Nevertheless, most researchers say privately that there is little hope any battery will be developed in the foreseeable future that will be powerful enough and practical enough to make the electric car an alternative to the all-purpose family automobile Americans so dearly love.

There are, of course, the optimists who insist an electric auto will be in most garages in the future. "If an electric vehicle can be got to the moon, surely it can be put on the road." argues the Rt. Hon. Lord Ironside, president of the Electric Vehicle Association of Great Britain.

But the moon rover was a gold-plated golf cart, not a family car. "By today's standards the electric car will never be cost effective," Ewing says. "But all you have to do is have a gas scare. Then watch when we have to recalculate the cost effectiveness against the alternatives if there is no gas . . ."

So despite their drawbacks, interest in electrics, and apparently the federal money spent on them, will continue to grow because people in some places with odd-numbered license plates get nervous on even-numbered days.

And there are some practical uses for electric cars. Commuters living within about 10 or 15 miles from their office could use existing electric vehicles-if they don't use high-speed highways, and high speed for electric vehicles is roughly anything faster than 30 mph. Because acceleration on most electric cars is so poor, they are considered by the Energy Department to be too dangerous to drive on highways.

There are some 2,000 electric cars on U.S. roads todays, most owned by individuals or organizations participating in experimental programs. And for the consumer interested in picking one up, there are some 12 companies selling electrics ranging in price from $7,500 for a minivan or converted auto to about $30,000 for a converted Volkswagen bus. All types of vehicles have been converted, including American Motors' Pacers, panel trucks and 12-seater vans.

Most such electrics on the market today have a range of only 30 to 50 miles per charge, have top speeds up to 60 mph (but cannot be driven at those battery-draining speeds for long), have turtle-slow acceleration (slower than many trucks), and vary widely in safety and performance.

Electrics require special springs and shock absorbers because of battery weight, and the batteries last only a year or two. A typical recharge idles the vehicles for at least seven hours and requires 220-volt circuitry such as that used for a washer-dryer or air conditioning unit. Using a traditional 110-volt circuit doubles the charging time. And as if all that were not enough, the older the batteries get, the fewer miles the car will go between charges.

Buyers also find that using an electric car isn't as simple as plugging it in. Batteries must be checked for water and condition every day.

"The main problem with driving electrics is that none of us are disciplined to do anything but get into a car and turn the key," says DOE's Benson.

The electric car owner should not, for example, leave his car outside overnight.

"You need a garage in most parts of the country," says Benson. "Not because of weather, but if you park overnight in the street with a cord plugged into your car, somebody will come along and do something stupid. That's the way society is today; we have to consider that a hazard."

Yet in American cities, where electrics seem most practical, garage space is often impossible to find. And worse, it can't be any old garage. It must be ventilated . In the process of recharging most lead-acid batteries (and electrics typically have as many as 18 large batteries) volatile hydrogen gas is discharged. Without ventilation the hydrogen can build up and, well, as Benson puts it: "You remember the Hindenburg."

Sulphuric acid fumes that rise out of the batteries during recharging can slowly destroy interior carpeting, seat upholstery and body metal.

The electric owner cannot get power brakes or power steering because such features place too much drain on the power system. So does traditional heating. The industry has had to use, for the most part, gasoline heaters. It seems even electrics will need a couple gallons of gasoline.

"I'm not at all convinced electric cars are an answer to anything," says National Highway Traffic Safety Administrator Joan Claybrook. "They certainly have a long way to go in the area of safety. I will say that they may be able to serve the tremendous appeal for individual vehicles that can scoot you here or there, perhaps as rentals in the inner city."

The Energy Department does set certain performance standards for electric cars that are sold today: they must travel at least 30 miles between charges, be able to go from 0 to 31 mph in 15 seconds, be able to start a climb from dead stop on a 20 percent incline, and be able to maintain a 50 mph speed for at least five minutes.

The government also technically requires electric vehicles to meet all applicable safety standards for traditional cars and a few extras. But several standards have been temporarily relaxed just to get vehicles for the government test program.

There are flame barrier requirements for battery caps, ventilation standards for the battery propulsion system, a positive disconnect device that can cut power immediately, and all battery materials must remain outside the passenger cabin in the event of a crash.

But most car companies are self-certifying - they do the performance testing themselves and submit the results.To date, the Energy Department has checked out only four or five of the more than dozen cars being sold.

"It is fair to say that many of these cars could be dangerous," a DOE officials says. "Our list of what has and has not been tested is public knowledge, so someone wanting to buy one should get in touch with the DOE. And we require that drivers be told they need special driver and maintenance training."

And every state has different rules and regulations regarding the licensing of electrics. In some, for example, it is difficult to get an electric registered because it can't get past some of the tests designed for gasoline-powered cars. Some states even make electrics go through emission checks, though no one knows where to look for emissions.

The cost of using an electric car is probably somewhat lower than the cost of operating its gasoline-fueled counterpart, although sketchy cost figures make that conclusion at least questionable.Estimates of cost per mile for electrics range from 12 cents to 20 cents a mile, without such extras as insurance. By comparison, the cost of operating gasoline-powered autos can be anywhere from 15 cents per mile to the 32 cents per mile estimated by rent-a-car companies.

There are benefits to electric cars besides costs. Environmentalists are quick to point out the clean-air aspects of electrics, though some fail to mention the pollution that is a by-product of the plants that generate the electricity.

The government decided to go into the electric car business in a big way in 1976 with the creation of the Electric and Hybrid Vehicle Research, Development and Demonstration Act. That act stated flat out that electric cars were at least part of the answer to the question of how to substantially reduce the United States' use of, and dependence on, foreign oil. And as if that were not enough, the act also said there would be significant environmental benefits, because electrics do not emit pollutants.

Congress apparently decided entrepreneurs would not get the electric car industry on the road without financial help. So the act authorized $160 million for research and development during the first five years-1977 through 1981. But program officials have said that costs will likely hit half a billion dollars before the program is completed in 1990.

The intentions were noble neough. Americans use more than 6 billion barrels of oil a year, with half of that going to transportation.

Energy Department officials claim 8.6 million electric vehicles will be on the road by the year 2000 and will save 200,000 barrels of oil a day.

The act was amended in 1978 to increase the number of demonstration vehicles in the program from 7,500 to 10,000.

For now, however, there are only about a dozen government test cars on the road. Some 200 more are on order from several contractors for use by both federal agencies and the private sector. By 1982, the department hopes to have 2,000 to 3,000 test cars.

Some of the major participants in the program are American Telephone & Telegraph, which will use electric vans for house calls, and the Long Island Lighting Company, which is already using about a dozen electric vans for servicing.

The Energy Department is also awaiting the arrival of two different near-term electric vehicles to be tested. Built by the General Electric Company and the Garrett Corp., the cars will strive to meet new requirements of a 75-mile range and top speed of 60 mph.

There already are several U.S. field experiments with electric vehicles predating the federal program that appear to be somewhat successful.

In the largest experiment to date, the U.S. Postal Service is operating 362 electric vehicles built by AM General.

The vans, which are used throughout the nation-most are in California-have a range of about 20 miles and a top speed of 33 mph. They can start and stop about 300 times between charges.

An evaluation of the Postal Service program pointed out that the cars were being driven about 10 miles a day, and over a two-year period beginning in 1976, the failure rates of the vehicles dropped dramatically from 1.5 failures per vehicle per month to 0.4 failures per vehicle per month. The experiment has led the Postal Service to conclude that "existing electric vehicles could adequately serve routes where mileage and stops and starts were not excessive, gradients were limited and the climate was mild." There are plans for the Postal Service to order another 750 of the electric minitrucks this year.

Electric vehicle research is by no means limited to the United States. Several nations have more extensive programs. In England there are between 40,000 and 70,000 electrics on the road. Most are delivery vehicles, like milk trucks.

Europe in general has had a significant interest in electric cars for some time, at least partially because of its dependence on outsiders for oil.

In Germany, for example, there are several joint-ventures between auto companies and utilities working toward future electric cars. Volkswagen has been working on a system of quick battery replacement. Such a system would allow an electric car to pull into the electric equivalent of a gas station and have weak batteries quickly switched for a set of freshly charged ones.

France has been experimenting with electric buses since 1972, with the most significant test occurring from January 1976 through January 1978 in Tours.

Four Buses were used for daily runs of 37 miles each, carrying an average 450 people during the day. The French found that a maximum speed of 28-31 mph was sufficient for downtown service, but that there were many problems still to be worked out.

It is important to note that all of these experimental programs are just that, experimental.

Last month the General Accounting Office completed its study of the federal electric vehicle program, and the results are extremely discouraging. GAO found, "The greatest barriers to successful electric vehicle commercialization are that they cost more and perform less than conventional vehicles."

Because electric cars are not technologically advanced enough, the GAO said, "DOE's [pilot demonstration] program will probably do little to promote electric vehicles' long-term commercialization."

At the rate things are going, the GAO added, the cost of each of the estimated 10,000 experimental cars and small trucks will be about $27,000.

And then there is the issue of safety. As the government gets more aggresive about the safety of conventional autos, it becomes increasingly clear that electrics will eventually have to match them. Many electric cars on the road today do not come close.

In a report on electric vehicle safety, the NHTSA identified "a number of major safety hazards not addressed by existing regulations, (including) electric shock hazards and electrolyte [battery acid] spillage into the passenger compartment during collisions." The agency also made an ominous prediction that with 2,500 experimental test vehicles on the roads regularly, "it can be estimated that 300 collisions might occur (during the first three years of the experiment)," and suggested the creation of a special team of accident investigators.

A spokesman for Allstate Insurance Company said electrics are rated the same as gasoline vehicles in deciding how much to charge drivers for coverage. However, he said that because there are not many of the vehicles on the road yet, the company does not have much experience on which to base rates. Carl Laughlin, an underwriting consultant for State Farm Insurance, which also charges the same rates for electrics as gasoline-powered vehicles, says, "We just don't know that much about them . . . but we're concerned about some of the safety problems."

Existing braking systems for standard-shift electric cars do not work when the car is parked, and owners have complained about inadequate parking brakes.

"Safety hazards associated with electric vehicles are a potentially serious risk to the demonstration program," the GAO report states.

Claybrook points out that the Energy Department did not take her agency's recommendations as to minimal safety requirements for the test vehicles. NHTSA suggested, for example, that all test vehicles have minimum levels of acceleration and hill-climbing ability to ensure "safe interaction of electrics on public roadways."

But, as GAO points out, "DOE's performance requirements fall short of [Claybrook's] recommendations." Instead of requiring electrics to take no more than 12 seconds to reach 31 mph, the department decided to allow 15 seconds, and instead of having a minimum speed requirement on a 10-percent grade of 20 mph, the department lowered the standard to allow 15 mph.

The Energy Department did adopt the NHTSA standards in the beginning, but quietly relaxed them because most test cars couldn't be made to meet the standards.

What is particularly worrisome, GAO states, is that these standards are "substantially below the capabilities of comparable conventional vehicles."

The Center for Auto Safety, a Nader-created consumer group, told the Energy Department that even the proposed safety standards, the ones that weren't met, "may not be high enough."

In the area of acceleration, for example, an Arthur D. Little consultant's report on recommended performance standards for electric and hybrid cars stated that commercial owners of such vehicles would demand a 0-31 mph acceleration time of 10 seconds as a minimum for an urban delivery vehicle-the kind of vehicle, incidently, that researchers point to as the most the most practical use for electrics.

"Vehicles with poorer acceleration capabilities than 0-31 mph in 10 seconds will pose a significant safety hazard," says center executive director Clarence Ditlow.

Ditlow is also concerned that the Energy Department has failed to propose any requirements for handling and control. "The center regards this as a very serious omission, considering the nature of two electric automobiles that have been marketed-the Citicar and the Elcar."

Both cars were sharply criticized by Consumer Reports, which reported that the Elcar's suspension "is too flimsy to cope with even the low level of performance of which the vehicle is capable. During hard braking tests from 30 mph, the front suspension collapsed." The Citicar "was not noticeably better," Consumer Reports said.

The Elcar is no longer produced and Citicar has been sold to another firm that markets a similar vehicle under the name Comute-car.

Despite the safety problems, virtually every study of the potential of the electric car comes backs to Brock Adams' complaint-the limitations of today's batteries.

The Energy Department plans to spend about $28 million on battery research over the next three years, a fourth of which is to be spent on improving lead-acid batteries.

But five years ago a Massachusetts Institute of Technology study pointed out that electrics using lead-acid batteries can never penetrate more than a negligible fraction of the passenger car market."Battery manufacturers and the major automakers also agree that lead-acid batteries have limited potential," the GAO states in its report.

The Energy Deparment contends that although lead-acid batteries are not the wave of the future, they are needed to get the industry off the ground. The problem with that theory is that battery research and development may be directed toward meeting demonstration schedules set by Congress, not toward developing a workable battery.

Even if fossil fuels become so rare that electrics are a forced alternative and batteries become more practical, their acceptance by most drivers may continue to be a problem, a problem highlighted a couple of years ago during an electric vehicles conference in Reston.

A young man had converted a Chevrolet Corvetto into an electric car because his company was trying to get into the electric car parts business.

After trucking the car down from Long Island to the Reston conference-it was too far to drive an electric-he was taking people out for demonstration rides in the neighborhood. Anxious to show off the car's abilities, he made jack-rabbit starts and other tricks.

The next thing he knew, he was pulled over by a Virginia policeman for speeding. "He was so happy," remembers an Energy Department official, "that he was actually going to get a ticket with his electric car. The cop got suspicious, looked under the hood, scratched his head, and finally just decided he didn't want to have anything to do with that car. He left without writing a ticket." CAPTION: Cover photograph courtesy Edison Electric Institute; Picture 1, Opposite, the Copper Development Association says its prototype has a 120-mile range on level land at a constant 40 mph. Courtesy of Edison Electric Institute; Picture 2, Above, a technician examines batteries in a General Electric experimental electric. Courtesy of General Electric Co; Picture 3, Above, the Kesling Electric Yare prototype has a top speed of 55 mph, uses 12 goal-cart batteries and seats three adults. Courtesy of Edison Electric Institute; Picture 4, Right, the Fuji Industries minivan is converted in Texas and sells for about $7,500. The Long Island Lighting Company plans to buy 60 of them this year. The van meets most NHSTA safety requirements. By Bill Snead