The Nation



Latest advances on non-fuel cars are most welcome

The world desperately needs more environmentally friendly vehicles

News of the latest technological development - that feature rivalry - doesn't necessarily imbue us with hope. Rather, when firms boast about beating competitors' products with innovations, we often feel they will soon burn holes in our pockets. Many times, we read reviews about what new models of smartphones can do with a sense of dread, wondering about what looks so cool in our hands now will become next week, or next month, or next year, when the new model is unveiled.

There are reports of scientific development rivalry that can spawn true optimism, though. BMW is seeing strong demand for its first electric car, the i3. More than 10,000 orders have already been placed for the model, which is being hailed as ushering in a new era of urban mobility.

Hyundai will also soon start selling a Tucson SUV powered by a hydrogen fuel cell. It will be the first mass-market vehicle of its type available in the US. Even as the auto industry focuses on battery-powered and hybrid cars, automakers such as Hyundai, Honda and Toyota are keeping up research on fuel cells and now appear to be overcoming challenges such as high costs, safety concerns and a lack of filling stations. These vehicles could help the companies meet the stricter fuel-economy standards of the future.

To consumers and the rest of the world, the competing discoveries and innovations are most welcome, not least because the rivals are working on products that should be friendlier to the environment. With cars being something that most people on the planet must have or must use, they have been blamed for environmental deterioration. More vehicles on the market running independently of oil fuels can only be good news.

The geopolitical landscape of the world will change, maybe drastically, if oil dims in importance. But nothing should brake the world's quest for cleaner and safer energy. New innovations still need to more or less rely on conventional means that are harmful to the environment, but they are good, solid first steps toward finding greener energy sources. Remember that it took just a few decades for a large portion of the world's population to hold a mobile phone with greater computing power than early spacecraft.

Major obstacles to the design of "better" vehicles are being removed one by one. Carmakers have been dabbling in hydrogen-powered cars since the 1960s. But after president George W Bush gave hydrogen research a boost in the early 2000s with a massive budget, the Obama administration turned its attention to battery-powered vehicles.

Bush could be right in saying that "the first car driven by a child born today could be powered by hydrogen and pollution free", but that is not as encouraging as the possibility that scientific competition may yet bring about positives beyond his expectation. Whatever fuels the cars of the future, most signs point toward them being far more environmentally friendly than the vehicles of today.

There are movies featuring bleak fates befalling innovators on the verge of liberating the world from conventional energy. Considering the political influences tied to traditional energy, the movies are simply dramatising the planet's "harsh" realities.

No reality, however, is harsher than the fact the world needs to rapidly replace or at least greatly reduce the dependence on oil, or a countdown to doom will become inevitable.

Drinking water seems to be getting cleaner, and food getting healthier. Mobile phones are growing smarter. Only the planet's air is turning dirtier, and unless this problem is reduced, the likes of water, food and gadgets will not really matter.

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