Will We Be Plugging In Our Next Car?

We Americans seem to like absolutes. We keep our kids away from alcohol with zero tolerance (no glass of wine with a meal on that European field trip) then send them off to college and are surprised when they binge. While we're on the topic of precocious youth, let's add the way we deal with sex.

I'm reminded of this phenomenon when we address the topic of future vehicles. Most people seem to expect a single solution; the next step must be hybrids, or perhaps hydrogen. What about biodiesel? Or alcohol? And what about cars we plug in? Obviously, that gasoline burning power plant should be relegated to the scrapheap of history.

The truth is that there are a number of new technologies on the horizon that will help reduce emissions and dramatically lower our dependence on oil. Of course picking a single winner in the propulsion derby would be a lot like picking just the right vehicle for everyone to drive. And don't be too surprised if you find some people populating the Beltway who feel empowered to do just that.

Let's put political considerations aside for a moment and look at solutions that are pretty exciting. For people whose transportation needs can be solved with a small sedan or utility vehicle, we now have the technology to take energy directly from the sun and convert it to family mobility. And this isn't the go-to-the-moon stuff where we need to gather every available rocket scientist to put a massive program together. Let me explain.

In San Francisco and many other communities, solar power generation is now available at costs that are lower than buying electricity from the local utility. That means a customer with a roof that can accommodate solar panels facing south can lease the installed equipment and sell energy back to the grid during peak demand periods. Then plug in the pure electric or extended range hybrid vehicle and use that natural energy to commute, run errands, or just enjoy driving guilt-free.

Now despite all the hype, we're still a couple of years away from Chevy's Volt (November 2010) or a plug-in Toyota Prius or Nissan's or Mitsubishi's new pure electrics. But the exciting thing is that new battery, motor, and control technology are no longer on drawing boards. I know because I've been in the laboratories, talked with the lead engineers, and driven a host of electric prototype vehicles.