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Why Gas Prices Are Rising: Economics of Oil

Why Gas Prices Are Rising, Alternative Fuels in America

OR EVEN ABOUT SQUEEZING a few more miles out of each precious tankful. But among the special-edition Ferraris, bizarre Cadillac studies and a whole new crop of gas-guzzling SUVs, not all that many people were talking about cheaper and cleaner ways of getting around. The section of the show dedicated to 'New Energies' was a tiny corner on the second floor of Hall 2, behind the stands of the insurance companies. There were exactly two exhibits.

The lull is deceiving. Never have so many automakers put as much money and effort into building a greener car. Not entirely without some prodding, mind you. Facing clean-fleet laws in the U.S. and "voluntary" restrictions in Europe, the industry is committing to cut emissions of its gasoline and diesel-powered cars. Gridlocked Italian cities like Rome and Milan may ban conventional cars altogether from their historic centers. In Tokyo, putting 30,000 natural-gas-powered taxis in the streets has already helped clean up the air. But most of all, carmakers have been whipped into action by California's Zero Emissions Mandate that requires ten percent of all cars sold in the state to be pollution-free by 2003.

Mention green cars, and most people think of some battery-powered buggy that the average driver wouldn't be caught dead in. Electric cars have been around for decades and never caught on. Their problem: batteries aren't very powerful, so the car's speed, range and weight remain strictly limited. The typical result is Ford's new TH!NK, already on the market in Scandinavia and about to hit a few dozen American dealers as well. The TH!NK is a tiny two-seater with a grubby-looking plastic shell that can go about 50 miles between recharges, at a top speed of 50 mph. A full charge takes eight hours, but costs only 50 cents. With a sticker price of $15,000, the car will win a small market niche at best.

If you're not willing to put up with the performance of a glorified golf cart, there are always standard cars powered by alternative fuels like propane, ethanol or liquified natural gas. Also around for decades, these cars have actually begun to catch on. There are 4 million cars in...

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