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Electric cars today, electric yachts tomorrow?

Diesel EngineThe bottom line is that without the automotive industry we would not have efficient and affordable diesel engines for our boats.

So monitoring the recent advances in the automotive industry will give us a good idea of what is going to happen to the design of boat propulsion tomorrow.

We need the car industry with its R&D budget, its mass consumer market, and its economies of scale to get new and innovative propulsion in our boats.

A great site for monitoring all aspects of alternative propulsion for cars is the Green Car Website.

A new generation of electric public service vehicles, including postal vans, police vehicles and ministerial limousines is to be introduced as part of a UK government initiative to speed up the introduction of low-emission technology on Britain’s roads.

A number of ministers, including Ed Miliband, the climate change secretary, are already chauffeured in petrol-electric hybrid cars, and all of the Department of Transport’s official cars are hybrids. But plans unveiled yesterday will put green vehicles at the heart of the government’s fleet. Around £20m will be available to provide electric and low-carbon vans to public sector organisations, including Royal Mail, the Metropolitan police, the Environment Agency and the government Car and Dispatch Agency as well as councils around the country.

The announcements are part of a £100m proposal by the government to develop the technology and infrastructure needed to make electric and low-carbon cars a practical reality. As part of the plans, motorists will be able to test-drive demonstration models of the latest electric cars in locations around Britain from next year. Each car will need to keep within a maximum emission of 50g CO2/km. Drivers will be asked to report back on their experiences as part of a consultation.

In addition, around £30m will be used to develop research into electric vehicles. This includes work to make car designs more practical and affordable, as well as developments of more general technologies for vehicles that could deliver big carbon reductions in coming decades.

TeslaThis car is a Tesla Roadster, and it looks remarkably like a Lotus — no surprise, because the Tesla is built on the Lotus assembly line in England. The surprise, though, is how much it is also like a small Ferrari and how utterly quiet it is.

We tend to associate sports cars with finely tuned, sexy exhaust-noise gasoline engines.

The Tesla is nothing like that. It is quiet and quick. The Tesla people say it will do zero to 60 mph in four seconds and will top out at 130 mph. And if its creators have their way, it will be a permanent niche in the eclectic and rarely successful field of electric-powered cars.

A handful of firms is out there, trying to build cars for this new, expensive niche. So far, it appears that Tesla is the closest to actually getting some cars on the road — the Silicon Valley firm says 40 well-heeled customers have paid $100,000 each for a car, even though they won’t get their new toys for at least a year. The buyers appear to be captivated by the fact that these electrics are completely different from relatively stodgy electric vehicles of the past.

And, indeed, they are different from the current darlings of the environmental set, the Toyota Prius, Honda Civic and other like-minded hybrids. A hybrid is a combination of gasoline engine and electric motor. The Tesla is a pure electric and has no tailpipe emissions. There are some interesting white papers here that describe the technology.

The car and the firm were named for Serbian electrical engineer Nikola Tesla, who invented alternating current, among a few hundred other things. He died in 1943, half a century before the truncated age of modern electric vehicles.

Tesla was the brainchild of Silicon Valley entrepreneur Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning, who co-founded the Rocket e-book firm. “When you make a handheld electronic device,” Eberhard said, “you’re obsessed with the energy density of your batteries. I was also looking for my next car.”

Eventually, he got in touch with Tom Gage, president of AC Propulsion, a San Dimas (Los Angeles County) firm that had already made the TZero, a brutally fast electric-powered sports car. AC had made only a few cars, and Eberhard says he invested in the company and drove its lithium ion-battery-powered car for about three months “as a daily driver.”

“That convinced me that if you set about making a real production car,” Eberhard said, “you could make a nice car, a great sports car and a very efficient car.” Tesla eventually would use some of AC Propulsion’s electronics under license.

Eberhard and Tarpenning wrote a business plan and set about raising money. The big windfall came in April 2004 when PayPal co-founder Elon Musk agreed to invest about $30 million, half the $60 million Tesla eventually raised to get itself into the bigger league world of making cars.

Tesla wants to sell 500 to 800 cars the first year and then ramp up to maybe 2,000 cars a year. Initially, Tesla says it will sell cars in five markets — Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area, Chicago, New York and Miami. Harrigan says those five comprise 65 percent of the luxury sports car market. When it’s time for service, a flatbed truck will pick up a customer’s car and take it to the shop, where it will have its tires rotated and its electric system checked out. No oil and filter change. No tune-up. No valve adjustment.

Down the road, Tesla plans a four-door electric-powered sedan that would sell for somewhere between $50,000 and $65,000. But Tesla isn’t the only one out there pushing these costly electrics.

The king of the heap, pricewise, is the Venturi Fetish, a speedy little electric sports car handmade in Monaco and selling for more than $600,000.Venturi

On a more reasonable front, firms in California and Washington state are developing a range of electric cars that they hope will cater to the burgeoning audience of people who are bored with their run-of-the-mill gas-powered Porsches and BMWs and will opt for something new and different.

Commuter Cars of Spokane, Wash., makes the Tango, something that looks like a four-wheeled motorcycle and was different enough to attract actor George Clooney as its first (and, so far, only) buyer. Commuter Cars Vice President TangoBryan Woodbury says the car will do zero to 60 in four seconds (like the Tesla) and, in the spirit of these exclusive wheels, costs about $108,000.

“It’s the new high-power electronics that is making this possible,” Woodbury said of the immense power he and other manufacturers are seeing in modern electric vehicle machinery. “Now you have electric cars blowing away Dodge Vipers on the drag strip. Electric cars are expensive and fast, because of better motor controllers and better batteries. People just aren’t interested in slow cars.”

In California, Universal Electric Vehicles of Thousands Oaks (Ventura County) makes a convertible sports car (the Electrum Spyder ) that it says will, like the others, be doing that zero to 60 dance in around four seconds, according to Vice President Gregory Lane and will be relatively cheap — under $70,000.Universal

“This is a niche market,” Lane said. “We’re not after the general public. We have a list of potential buyers, and we’re talking production of about 155 Spyders by the third year.” Lane’s wife, Diana, says the firm is trying to secure funding.

Phoenix Motorcars in Ojai figures its niche is SUVs and SUTs (sport utility Phoenixtruck), using bodies made in South Korea and electric motors built in Torrance. The vehicles will sell for about $45,000 each.

Perhaps the most ambitious project in all these may be the one mounted by Ian Wright, a New Zealander who used to work for Tesla and now has his own shop in Burlingame and is raising money.

“I want to build an extreme performance electric sports car,” Wright said the other day, “faster than any production car you can buy for less than $1 million. This would be zero to 60 in three seconds.”

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