June 12, 1978 12:00 PM

The electrics are hardly new. Back around 1910 there were frumpy-looking black jobs that ran on batteries, whirred along at 5 mph or so and usually had a 90-year-old lady in a shawl at the wheel. Electric delivery jeeps are used by the U.S. Postal Service in some areas today. Now, because of the oil crisis, electric autos could have revolutionary potential. A recent Princeton University symposium on the subject, however, produced only a moderate amount of scientific engine revving. Current prototypes are limited to an average range of 30 or 40 miles before the battery needs recharging, and, even with the accelerator on the floor, barely get past 50 mph. Experts from the National Academy of Sciences estimated that in order to run the gas buggies off the road, the electrics would need a 200-mile range and a 55-mph cruising speed. Though none of the manufacturers (all small outfits) can come close to that, some scientists think the gap can be closed only with sufficient federal subsidy. The government agrees and so far has earmarked $160 million for research. One study even predicts that by the year 2000 there could be some 20 million electrics on U.S. highways. “Electric vehicles,” says Princeton engineering professor Larry M. Sweet, “are going to be practical in five years or so, but only for very limited purposes. They will not be a complete substitute for the automobile, but they might serve as a second car.” Sweet guesses that a two-to-four-passenger electric might sell for around $5,000 at today’s prices, and that when perfected it will have a 100-mile range and cost 15 to 20 cents a mile to operate. (Gasoline-powered cars average 17.9 cents.) The coming of the electrics, Sweet adds, might also end Americans’ neurotic perception of the automobile as a macho power symbol. Lukewarm rods, anyone?

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