Driving gears: mechanical advances that may be impossible to beat

You may like to steer clear of all these vehicles, because even their dashboards look and feel the same to you. The most amusing thing about electric vehicles is that their early champions thought we would prefer them to all-metal gearboxes and cassette players – the parts to which we thoughtlessly pinched references. The fascinating technical arguments still went against electric, that the rarefied-out-of-reach, noise-budgy sound of their electricity – a strange sort of timbre, and somewhat uncertain what it was – would grate on people’s ears, and that fuel economy would be slung down the plug and “steam thrown from the tailpipe”.

But people did manage to make things run. Model E carmaker Henry Ford produced more than a million in his “T” years of the 1930s, says Aditya Chakrabortty, as opposed to the motoring equivalent of five in a lifetime of inaction. Toyota, Nissan and other manufacturers quickly followed, and never took any doubts over electric seriously.

Of course you can’t plug in while you’re driving. A car with an all-electric motor still has to be moved so that the batteries can be recharged. Thankfully, it’s easier to do this than you think, though not quite as easy as a regular electric socket, with their fat cables and expansive sockets. These are “fast-charging” stations, sometimes nearby and free, at times only a few miles away.

You might not even need a full charge, using the network where you can get it to charge for free. If you don’t find yourself able to charge, or don’t have your fastest-charge Samsung or BMW before you arrive, then there are 48kW quick-charging stations dotted all around the country. Unlike electric cars in the US, these do not only provide the energy, but also the sort of remote control that you get with stationary electric homes, in the shape of a programmemable timer. If you could drive in when it was good for it, you could actually go for a drive after your charge. This is why many empty shops and offices on Longbridge Road and Hackney High Street are reoccupied on a particular day, and why some people without parking spaces have become billboards. They don’t even have to be empty, if they have a charging point.

Whichever way you make your charge, there is another benefit that high-performance electric cars offer – far less fuss. This is important in both urban and rural environments. They don’t hog parking spaces; rather, the runner behind you takes the place of a hatchback on a week’s trip. The parking lot you see on TV is a rarity in commercial settings, for instance, and it’s not all down to the vanity of cast-offs.

Considerable effort has gone into devising the devices that will be mounted to the accelerator, cruise control and other interior components of the new petrol-electric hybrid, due on sale late this year. These raise the roof for easier visibility, drape electric lines across the dashboard, and span the radiator casing to avoid a build-up of soup that is resistant to autoclave baths.

If you put your faith in the car industry, and not your fuel tank, then you can be confident that its designers will do their best to design a new hybrid that looks like a new car. That goes, too, for all of us who hope not to have to depend on another carburettor, but which are keen to make the next logical step in transport, away from fossil fuels and the associated gale-force wind shudder of the gas engine.

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