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Why Gas Prices Are Rising

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Gas prices rising

OR EVEN ABOUT SQUEEZING a few more miles out of each precious tankful. But among the special-edition Ferraris, bizarre Cadillac studies and a whole new crop of gas-guzzling SUVs, not all that many people were talking about cheaper and cleaner ways of getting around. The section of the show dedicated to Ð''New Energies' was a tiny corner on the second floor of Hall 2, behind the stands of the insurance companies. There were exactly two exhibits.

The lull is deceiving. Never have so many automakers put as much money and effort into building a greener car. Not entirely without some prodding, mind you. Facing clean-fleet laws in the U.S. and "voluntary" restrictions in Europe, the industry is committing to cut emissions of its gasoline and diesel-powered cars. Gridlocked Italian cities like Rome and Milan may ban conventional cars altogether from their historic centers. In Tokyo, putting 30,000 natural-gas-powered taxis in the streets has already helped clean up the air. But most of all, carmakers have been whipped into action by California's Zero Emissions Mandate that requires ten percent of all cars sold in the state to be pollution-free by 2003.

Mention green cars, and most people think of some battery-powered buggy that the average driver wouldn't be caught dead in. Electric cars have been around for decades and never caught on. Their problem: batteries aren't very powerful, so the car's speed, range and weight remain strictly limited. The typical result is Ford's new TH!NK, already on the market in Scandinavia and about to hit a few dozen American dealers as well. The TH!NK is a tiny two-seater with a grubby-looking plastic shell that can go about 50 miles between recharges, at a top speed of 50 mph. A full charge takes eight hours, but costs only 50 cents. With a sticker price of $15,000, the car will win a small market niche at best.

If you're not willing to put up with the performance of a glorified golf cart, there are always standard cars powered by alternative fuels like propane, ethanol or liquified natural gas. Also around for decades, these cars have actually begun to catch on. There are 4 million cars in the world today running on a propane/butane mix, including 1.2 million in Italy alone. Many gas stations offer this cleaner fuel as well, so chances are you don't have to drive very far for a fillup. GM's U.K.-based Vauxhall unit alone offers about 100 different model variants in a propane/butane version; otherwise a mechanic can upgrade your car starting at about $1,500. The fuel isn't taxed as heavily as gasoline, so the extra cost quickly pays for itself. Most drivers aren't even aware of the slight differences in acceleration rates or engine power. But propane and butane are still petroleum products, so they don't cut dependence on oil, nor are they anywhere near pollution-free when they burn. The latter also applies to the million or so cars that run on liquified natural gas today. They won't meet California's tough emissions standard.

Nor will the new Honda Insight, rolled out for its European debut at the Paris show. Already on sale in Japan and the U.S., this model is a so-called hybrid: it has both a conventional engine and an electric motor. The motor's battery gets charged automatically with energy recouped every time the car brakes. When the car accelerates or goes up a hill, the electric motor kicks in; that gives power peaks without extra gas use. The gas is turned off completely when the car coasts or stands still; the motor jumps in to power the car's other functions. The Insight gets around 80 miles per gallon and spews out only a quarter as much CO2 as, say, a Honda Civic. It sells for $18,800 Toyota offers a hybrid 4-seater called the Prius for about $22,000. The Ford Prodigy and GM Precept were still concept cars when they appeared at the Detroit show in January. Ford also says it will introduce the world's first hybrid SUV, the Escape HEV (marketed as "Maverick" in Europe) by 2003. These hybrid cars' tremendous advantage is that they involve no recharging stops and no special fuels. But for California, that's not enough.

That's why the big money is betting on an entirely new technology. Over the last decade, automakers, equipment manufacturers and even oil companies



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