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Japan bets on zero-emission cars

Technology

Mitsubishi iMiEV sport

Mitsubishi iMiEV sport

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TOKYO: "Please erase your image of electric cars being like golf carts," a spokesman for Japan's fourth-biggest automaker said before taking a zero-emission vehicle out for a spin.

As mass-produced electric cars come closer to reality, their makers are trying to polish the image of what experts say could be a hard sell in the current recession.

"It's fast, powerful and smooth," Mitsubishi Motors Corp. spokesman Kai Inada said of the iMiEV electric car, which is due to be launched next year.

Zero-emission vehicles may not be a novel concept for long. Japanese carmakers are racing to develop electric cars, and US and European manufacturers have also announced plans to roll them out within a few years.

The dream of an electric car, which has been around since the time of Thomas Edison, has so far failed to break into the mainstream because of limited battery life that makes such vehicles impractical for most purposes.

But after technological breakthroughs in the development of long-lasting lithium-ion batteries, soon it may not just be Hollywood stars who are zipping around in zero-emission automobiles.

The specs

Mitsubishi's electric car now runs 160 kilometres on one charge, which takes 14 hours when using a conventional 100 volt outlet on the wall, or 30 minutes to charge 80 percent of the battery using a special quick charger.

With the help of government subsidies, Mitsubishi Motors aims to sell its iMiEV at a price of less than three million yen ($30,000) as early as 2010.

"The price and the short mileage per charge are the two biggest challenges we must address," admitted Kazuhiro Yamana, head of Mitsubishi's public relations department.

"But we expect that technological breakthroughs in lithium-ion batteries will continue, realising longer distances - for example triple the current distance in 10 years," he said.

Nissan Motor Co. aims to start selling an electric car in the United States and Japan in 2010 and the rest of the world in 2012.

Other Japanese automakers have been working to create fuel cell cars, which produce electricity through a chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen, with water the only by-product.

Fuel cell cars have a number of advantages over electric cars, said Honda Motor Co. engineer Michio Shinohara.

"Most users are not satisfied with the mileage" of electric cars, he said. Honda's latest fuel cell car, the FCX Clarity, has a cruising distance of 620 kilometres per charge, and takes just three or four minutes to recharge.

Honda began selling the latest FCX Clarity in the United States in July, with the first five cars to be delivered to celebrities including film producer Ron Yerxa and actress Jamie Lee Curtis.

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