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Can electric cars ever be beautiful, sexy and fast?.

Can electric cars ever be beautiful, sexy and fast?

With the price of oil sticking firmly above $100 a barrel, and taxation and congestion-charge systems being used to cajole people into driving smaller, more environmentally friendly vehicles, car makers across the world are battling to prove their green credentials. Nevertheless, few commentators were prepared for the announcement by General Motors, at the Detroit auto-show in January, that it would seek to diversify ‘away from petroleum’.

The giant car-maker – which has already developed a plug-in petrol-electric car and a sport-utility vehicle plug-in hybrid – is investing in technology that could eventually lead to inexpensive ethanol from wood chip, old tyres or any substance containing carbon. This would avoid the drawbacks of corn or sugar-based ethanol or palm-oil based bio-diesel, which have pushed up the price of many foodstuffs and caused environmental damage in the form of deforestation or increased fertilizer residues in water courses.

It is early days yet for the new technology, which breaks down and transforms cellulose into ethanol with the help of special enzymes or microbes, but the investment serves to indicate the seriousness with which General Motors is attempting to tackle resource scarcity and environmental protection.

Taylor (Fortune magazine, 21 Jan 2008) investigates the broader changes put in place by GM chairman and chief executive Rick Wagoner. They include new-car launches, brand-loyalty initiatives and an agreement with the United Auto Workers over health care. But it is the company’s green initiatives that are generating the most excitement.

John Reed (Financial Times, 8 Jan 2008) records the pressure building on all the big car-makers to develop electric cars, and the problems they face. They include the limited range and speed of the vehicles and the lack of places to service and recharge them.

California – still the apotheosis of the gas-guzzling society – has become the centre for the development of electric cars. Reed examines how start-ups in Silicon Valley are increasingly using innovative technologies to develop electric and hybrid vehicles. The Palo-Alto-based California Cars Initiative, for example, is providing advice on how to convert Toyota Prius cars into plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, while makers of the Tesla Roadster plan to construct electric vehicles that are ‘beautiful, sexy and fast’.

Against this background, there is a perceptible backlash against ‘Big Oil’. Stanley Reed (Business Week, 14 Jan 2008) investigates how oil-field service provider Schlumberger is challenging the oil giants by co-operating with their main competitors – state-owned oil firms as well as smaller upstarts such as hedge funds and private-equity companies. The move, by a company with undoubted global reach, is driving big changes in the oil industry and causing big oil companies to become worried that they may be excluded from major oil fields in the future.

The oil companies, meanwhile, become increasingly keen to emphasize their green credentials. A sustainability analysis of the ten largest integrated oil companies, carried out by HIP/Investor Inc and the Social Venture Technology Group (Fast Company magazine, Feb 2008) reveals that Exxon produces more than twice as much greenhouse gas per barrel of oil as Marathon, which has the best greenhouse-gas efficiency. BP stands out for the amount it spends on research and development into low emissions, while ConocoPhillips was the first US oil company to join the US Climate-Action Partnership.

Many of the firms are now investing in renewables, accounting for costs of carbon, hiring sustainability chiefs and talking to activists – but there is much window-dressing.