The cars themselves give off no emissions, so they are vastly cleaner than carbon-dioxide-spewing, gas-powered vehicles. But the question gets complicated when you consider the source of electric cars' energy. A recent MIT study found that electric cars charged in states with strong nuclear or renewable energy sources are indeed greener than normal cars, but those in states that rely on coal plants can be for the environment than gas-powered vehicles. There is also the question of how to recycle the dead lithium-ion batteries, which, though containing none of the caustic chemicals of conventional car batteries, can weigh hundreds of pounds and aren't suitable for landfills on a large scale.
Demand is high now, but that's mostly because companies will start out making relatively few of them. Chevy, for example, plans to turn out only 10,000 Volts in 2011. It remains to be seen whether large numbers of Americans—accustomed to cheap gas and long gaps between fill-ups—will be able to make the adjustment. A bipartisan group in Congress mounted an effort to ease the transition, proposing a bill aimed at making half the cars sold in the U.S. electric by 2030 through expanded subsidies, tax credits, and a $10 million prize for whoever develops the first commercially viable battery with a 500-mile range. The bill was inserted into the recent energy bill, but it stalled in the Senate under a Republican filibuster threat. Nevertheless, electric car advocates believe that as battery technology continues to advance, electric model prices someday will fall to the point that millions of us will be driving one. "This is not a false dawn," said Paul Scott of the advocacy group Plug in America. "This is the real thing."
Hybrids and electric cars are famously quiet—so much so that they can pose a threat to the blind, or anyone, for that matter, who steps off the curb without looking. The Volt, therefore, is being designed to chirp, while the Leaf will make a soft whirring sound that changes pitch depending on speed. And the U.S. Congress is considering a bill that would require manufacturers to install noisemakers—or "vroomtones"—in new hybrids and electric vehicles. While these precautions are understandable, data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration show no increase in pedestrian traffic fatalities since the dawn of hybrids. "There's a lot of scaremongering in the media portraying these cars as some kind of shark in the water," says NoiseOff.org founder Richard Tur. "But I don't see people getting run over left and right by them."