ABOUT A year ago I began to wish that I had an electric car. No, I wasn't prescient enough to foresee the invasion of Kuwait and the doubling of oil prices. I was moved entirely by environmental fanaticism. I wanted to be able to drive to work without contributing to global pollution -- or at least without contributing more than very slightly.
Bicycling seemed to be out of the question. I work at Dartmouth College but live on a Vermont farm. The distance I commute is 13 miles, and there are hills. There's also a long icy winter. Though it's possible to bicycle in the snow, and I used to do it 20 years ago, when I lived only two miles from the college, it is never easy. Less easy when one is in late middle age.
Horses also seemed to be out of the question. I own a horse, as it happens. What's more, he's part Arabian, so there'd be a certain rightness in using him instead of imported Middle-Eastern oil. But it would take as long to ride to work as it would to bicycle -- and then I would have the problem of what to do with the horse all day. The last time someone from my village commuted to the college by horse, the year was about 1910, and the commuter was the head of the college's carpenter shop. His wife drove him to work in the buggy very early on Monday morning and picked him up again at noon on Saturday. That's how far 13 miles is by horse.
Public transport? There is very little of that in rural Vermont.
So I was thinking electric car. I was also thinking solar panels. An electric car by itself wouldn't avoid much pollution, since it takes power, and that power would come from a generating plant, most of which pollute like crazy. But if I made my own power, and in effect ran the car on sunlight? Not much pollution then. Only whatever one-shot stuff occurred during the manufacture of the car and the panels, plus an infinitesimal amount as I drove silently back and forth to work. A little tire wear, perhaps, that would release an occasional fragment of synthetic rubber.
I also would have to replace the car's battery bank every two or three years. Some pollution would occur as the old ones got recycled. But compare these trifles to my present gas-consuming, hydrocarbon-emitting car, which attacks the atmosphere daily. Hyperion to a satyr.
The solar panel part has proved to be easy. I've planned for 28 panels on the roof of my house, in a broad band across the south slope. Once the inverter gets installed -- and when it's within three hours on either side of noon in a sunny day -- I will start making 1.5 kilowatts of electricity, right here at home. That's enough to keep 25 60-watt light bulbs burning, or to run seven computers. Or to propel a little electric car back and forth to Dartmouth -- and on side trips as well.
The trouble is, I can't get a little electric car. People have known how to make electric cars for a hundred years, and from time to time companies have actually made a few; notably Detroit Electric, which began manufacturing them in 1907, and by 1916 was selling 3,000 a year. Detroit Electric is long gone. So are its hundred competitors. You cannot buy an electric car in the United States in 1990. Buy? You can't even easily read about them.
Here's what a year's worth of searching has taught me. First, American leaders (except a few in Los Angeles) are not interested in electric cars. Some of them used to be, back in Arab oil embargo days. In the 1970s magazines were full of articles predicting that electric cars would soon be as common as blackberries. Then in 1980 it was as if a curtain dropped. Looking through the entire decade from then until now, I found exactly four articles aimed at someone hoping to buy an electric car.
One was in Road and Track, and it was their idea of a humor piece. They claimed to be road-testing six different makes of Italian electrics -- a thrilling prospect for a reader who at that point hadn't discovered even one make, anywhere in the world. Actually, they were talking about an Italian company that makes bumper cars for amusement parks, painted in a choice of six colors. These they mock-tested. Very funny.
The other three articles were quite recent, and they were all about a General Motors electric car called the Impact. It sounded wonderful. Top speed: 110 miles an hour. Cruising range: 120 miles. Acceleration time froom 0 to 60: 8 seconds. There was only one problem. The car wasn't for sale. No article even gave a target date when it might be for sale.
So much for a search of the literature. That having failed, I took to writing letters (especially to GM), calling people, hanging around with solar energy experts. Those, for example, who put on the annual Tour de Sol electric car race. (For experimental cars, mostly built by students at engineering schools.)
Quite quickly I heard of a small American electric car company called Solectria. I even managed to get hold of a one-page flier for its commuter model, the Sunrise. This is a nice two-seater, weighs 1,000 lbs., has its own 150-watt set of panels right on top of the car. Between them and a full charge from my roof system, I think I could drive to Montreal. I liked the price, too: $12,000.
When I heard there'd be a Sunrise in with the racing cars in the 1990 Tour de Sol, I went. The owner of the company was driving it. When I told him I'd like to order one, he gave me an appalled look and sped off. "Talk to me in two years," he called back.
Next I heard of a genuine Italian electric car, on sale now. You can buy them in Switzerland as well as Italy. Micro-Vett S.R.L. of the city of Voltana makes three models. Their biggest seller seems to be the Pinguin 6, top speed 31 mph. Not quite what I had in mind for getting to college. But their top model will go 50. That might do.
There are two problems:
1. Micro-Vett has no U.S. distributor.
2. Even if I went to Voltana, got an interpreter and picked up a Pinguin there, the U.S. Department of Transportation would be unlikely to let me bring it into this country. It's untested. Except in Italy and Switzerland, of course.
I'm not giving up. I continue to bug General Motors, and maybe one day they'll be willing to say what year they intend to start selling Impacts. (A brochure they send people who ask about the Impact hints that it will be before 2000. I'd like it narrowed down a bit more.)
Lately I've heard a rumor that there's a new little electric car company in Florida, and I'm looking into that. But my biggest hope right now is Sweden. I know for sure there's an electric car manufacturer there, though so far I haven't learned its name. If what I'm told is true, that company will be shipping 1,000 electric cars to Los Angeles as early as 1992. If Los Angeles can have them, why not me? I pollute, too.
Noel Perrin teaches English at Dartmouth.