Hybrid electric vehicles will cut exhaust emissions and reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, researchers heard at a recent Warwick University seminar.
But such high performance pollution-free cars will remain in the realm of science fiction for the next 15 years at least.
"The problem with electric vehicles still lies with the batteries," said John West, a consultant engineer who addressed the seminar. "Vehicle manufacturers don't have the batteries with adequate range and recharging characteristics available at an acceptable cost and in the desired time frame."
The United States is setting the pace with the Hybrid Propulsion Program Plan. Eighty mile per gallon vehicles will be in production by 2003, as zero or "ultra low" emission vehciles must make up a quarter of those on the road.
"The proposal of carbon taxes to penalise poor fuel economy and low emission legislation indicates that Europe will be adopting similar measures early next century," Mr West said. "Increasing fuel efficiency provides the most likely way of reducing carbon dioxide emissions and hybrid vehicles greatly improve fuel efficiency."
Hybrid vehicles (HEVs) have a petrol engine, an electric generator, a propulsion motor and a chargeable battery. The aim is to increase efficiency and cut fuel usage and exhaust emissions.
Motor and electronics efficiency remain the key areas for improvement of HEV technology. Improving efficiency by 1 per cent allows a similar reduction in battery weight. The resultant reduction in weight improves performance, a key marketing point if hybrid cars are to catch on.
The technology has the green light in the US and Japan. Motor shows around the world display the latest hybrid technology from Ford, General Motors and Toyota, but Mr West believes it will take at least 15 years before the vehicles go into mainstream production.