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Clean Cars Displayed at Denver Show - 2002-01-16

This month the Bush Administration announced it was ending a program aimed at developing high-mileage family sedans within a few years, and instead will fund research on hydrogen-fuel technology. But some alternatively-powered cars are already on the road, and in Colorado a citizen group leads the way in promoting them.

People in the American West love clear, blue skies, so it's not surprising that a Clean Air Conference in Colorado's state capital draws enthusiastic crowds.

They applaud the keynote speaker and enjoy the indoor exhibit booths, but they save most of their attention for the parking lot, which is filled with extraordinary vehicles that don't pollute the air or guzzle gas.

Members of the Denver Electric Vehicle Council own many of these cars, and their president, Graham Hill, hopes more people will 'join the club.' "We're a hobbyist group, and most of us believe by driving our zero emission vehicles around, that's the best way to get other early adopters and the younger generation involved with cleaner forms of transporation," he said.

To get me involved, Mr. Hill heads toward America's most popular alternative vehicle. It's the four-door Toyota Prius. It runs on gasoline, like a regular car. But it also has an electric motor under the hood, which supplements the gas engine and sometimes takes over completely. The gas engine shuts off automatically whenever the Prius comes to a stop. The electric motor powers it up when you press on the accelerator.

Unlike every other car on the highway, the Prius actually gets better mileage in stop-and-go city driving than while cruising at high speed. And it's in that stop-and-go driving that the car exhibits its most remarkable feature: whenever it switches to electric power, the Prius is dead quiet. "I love when you come to a stoplight," Mr. Hill said. "And you come to a stop. ... It's just that the gas engine is not puttin' out smoke right now. ... So I love that."

Since Toyota introduced the Prius to the United States two years ago, it's sold around 20,000 of the compact cars. Demand still exceeds supply, and other automakers, like Honda and GM, have hybrid engine cars available or on the drawing board.

But members of the Denver Electric Vehicle Council believe our future cars should save even more energy and produce even less pollution. To emphasize the point, the group's newsletter editor, George Gless, has driven to this Clean Air Conference in a totally electric automobile that he borrowed from another Council member - an all-electric Toyota RAV4 sports utility vehicle. It's one of only 1,000 in the world, and Mr. Gless's vehicle is unique even among this select group. Instead of plugging into a standard outlet that supplies electricity from a coal or gas power plant, this car's battery has been recharged using photovoltaic cells - solar power.

A solar-powered, five passenger electric car like this conserves energy, but since 90 percent of cars in the United States carry only one person, some Denver Electric Vehicle Council members believe cars should also conserve space. like Davide Andrea's electric Sparrow. "It's a three-wheeler ... and it holds only one person."

Davide Andrea's vehicle looks like a stylish, bright green bubble. There are just 300 of these American-made Sparrows, but waiting lists are long for new ones. In the meantime, Mr. Andrea loans out his car.

Literally hundreds of people have driven it. And not a single one has damaged it. Who has damaged it has been jokers who have tipped it over. It's cute. It's very cute, so I can see how people think it's funny.

As I zip down the road on a test drive, other motorists smile and wave at this amazing little car. Finally I return to Mr. Andrea, who says there's an even better way to get around. "Most of the time I'm on my bicycle because I think this little thing here is still a car, and I think part of the solution is to not have cars at all," he said.

Davide Andrea and his fellow Electric Vehicle Council members hope more Americans will try cars like the Sparrow and the Prius and support other innovations that lead to cleaner, more energy efficient transportation.