Most of what follows was written a few years ago but you can get up-to-date information on the latest in less-environmentally-damaging cars at AutoBlogGreen.
Cars – Innovative Designs
The first modern electric car to go on the market from a major manufacturer, the EV1 was a technical tour de force but it was a commercial flop. Or so General Motors claims. If you haven't already, I urge you to see the film Who killed the electric car? in which GM, other car companies, the oil companies, government [particularly the California Air Resources Board (CARB)] and even unquestioning consumers all come in for scathing criticism.
Cynics also claim that electric cars merely transfer the pollution from the car’s exhaust pipe to the electric power station which is often coal-fired. While there is an element of truth in this, I think it is better to have the pollution source centralized so that if a decision is made to clean the air, then it is only done in one place and the effect is immediate. The problem with introducing new pollution controls on cars is that it takes years for older cars without the improvements to be taken off the road. I believe that over 50% of cars on Australian roads are more than 10 years old.
One of its best features is the charging connection which is "inductive" rather than "conductive" like the plugs connected to all the appliances in your house. The advantage is that it is impossible to electrocute yourself when you hold the plug which is shaped like a table-tennis bat. General Motors deserves kudos for having the guts to try but that doesn't help their bottom line or sadly, the air we breathe.
Toyota’s hybrid approach of using a gasoline engine to drive a generator, has most of the benefits of lower pollution and greatly reduced fuel consumption over regular cars but without the disadvantage of having to recharge overnight like a pure electric. Now in its third generation, hundreds of thousands have already been sold although before you think too kindly of Toyota bear in mind that they sell a lot more full-size pickup trucks and as Who killed the electric car? noted, the company destroyed its fleet of electric vehicles as soon as CARB buckled and the leases ran out.
This and the other hybrids on the market are parallel hybrids meaning that the electric motor and gasoline engine can power the vehicle together but this leads to frightening complexity. Wikipedia has an extensive article on the car.
The picture doesn't show the seating layout which is a shame because this is what makes this show car so interesting. The driver sits in a bucket seat in set in the center while there are passenger seats on either side and set back somewhat. This arrangement means the two back seat passengers have plenty of leg room and the length of the car is reduced. BMW reason that cars normally have only one person in them anyway so the car should be built around the driver. The central position gives the driver a better view, provides better crash protection and also means the car could be sold in left- and right-hand drive markets without modification. The McLaren F1 supercar used the same arrangement but that car is only for very, very rich people while this was intended to be a sporty commuter vehicle for ordinaly folks.
A modified BMW motorcycle engine sits behind and between the two passengers.
Three wheels, two seats, an engine and just like your house, a front door! What more could you want?
Another show car, this is great because it is a minimalist car. It weighs next to nothing and so only needs a 500cc engine. I also like the quarter-circle profile and windows that appear to pivot instead of going up and down.
I was pleased to see lots of these during our 2002 trip to France and Holland because they initially didn't sell well. Originally started by the watch company Swatch with Mercedes-Benz having a financial interest, MB finally took over and brought its full engineering expertise to bear before it was brought to market. It is exactly 2500mm long which must make it a joy to park but I wish it were prettier. [Aug07 update: the new model is 2695mm long and it is coming to the US in 2008, though sadly, not the diesel version.]
Chrysler threw away convention on how to build a car when they thought about the ideal vehicle for developing nations. This is the Chrysler Composite Vehicle but almost everyone saw it as Chrysler’s China Vehicle when it was shown in 1997. This car does not meet current crash protection requirements for most industrialized countries but the target market is people currently riding motorcycles who have no protection at all and in most of the third world, the roads are lousy and speeds low.
What makes this car revolutionary is that the entire body is made of just 4 plastic mouldings. A conventional small car with a steel body has 80 parts which need to be welded together and painted to minimize corrosion and make it look good. The plastic used on the CCV accepts color pigments so no painting is necessary though it is a matte finish instead of gloss. Eliminating paint alone saves huge expense and worries about solvent emissions.
An air-cooled engine is fitted so the radiator and coolant pump are eliminated, further reducing cost. There is a resemblance to the Citroen 2CV, which should not be surprising since it had similar design goals: be very cheap and suitable for rough roads. Just in case you hadn't noticed, there are two "C"s in CCV, further linking it with the 2CV.
Commuter Cars Tango
The fellow who started this company was sitting stuck in traffic and realized that road capacity would be doubled if we all drove vehicles half the width. This is what hs proposes. It is electric and he wants to make a smash prejudice by giving it fast, even if range is still restricted. The lead-acid batteries are under the floor making it stable despite its narrow width. I wish him every success though I fear that without major backing, he won't be able to pull it off.
GM Lean Machine
I was so impressed when I read of this but boy have I been disappointed in the more than two decades since. Not only was this beaty never brought to market but the cars on the road now are essentially the same in concept—and fuel economy—as those when the article was written in 1983. I will admit that everything else about them is greatly improved such as emissions, safety, reliability and comfort.
Road & Track article (3MB)
[July 2009: Now bankrupt.] It seems that the Dutch have figured out a way to make a tilting 3-wheeler tilt with just input from the steering wheel, unlike the Lean Machine which requires the driver to control the lean by pushing foot pedals. This one appears to be a serious sporting machine but it looks ugly (!!!) and it is expensive so it will never sell in significant numbers.
If this ever gets built [July 2009: it probably won't. They changed their name to Pursu Mobility a few months back and pulled down the news/discussion boards so now there is no hint that anything is happening. They were using technology from Carver but now they've gone under.], I want one! As much as I like the Lean Machine, it doesn't look tough or sporty like this does. This would sell if ...
In August 2007 after a long period of silence on their web site, they announced that they had secured $6 million of funding which will presumably get them a nice prototype which they can then use to get the real money required for a factory, dealer network and advertising. The track record of start-up automobile companies in the developed world is basically 100% failure so I wish one of the big four Japanese motorcycle companies or BMW would take this on as they already have the engineering expertise and capital to fully develop it but more importantly, have a dealer network and brand recognition that would make people feel comfortable about buying it knowing they will later be able to get it serviced and that a market will likely exist for second-hand machines.
John Ewan's enclosed motorcycle
Stunningly beautiful. Drop-dead gorgeous. Not actually driveable. I would LOVE to see the mechanicals (including the air conditioner) form a diesel Smart packaged into something looking like this. With a much smaller frontal area (lower air resistance) and lighter weight, 100 miles per gallon should be easily achievable. This would be my favorite car if it were built.
More than just a car but intended as a shared-ownership utility to get you to and from mass transit. The architect Frank Gehry had a hand in styling it and it looks beautiful to me.