Ridin` along in my (electric) automobile

By A.W. "Bill" Dahlberg Southern Company Chairman, President, and Chief Executive Officer

When I took my parents’ 1947 Ford station wagon for a spin in the yard at age 14, I did it for one reason: I loved cars. The Ford — a “woody,” for those who remember the wood-bodied cars of the era — represented power and freedom, two things a teenager desperately craves.

But power had its price. I drove the car too fast, digging up the lawn in the process. I spent the rest of the weekend trying to repair the mess with a rake, without much success. Dad wasn’t pleased.

My love of cars has never ended. There was my first car — a ’49 Plymouth — and, later, my used ’51 Ford, painted buckskin brown like the new ’55 models in the showroom. Today, my love is my classic red ’66 Corvette.

It’s too bad that Americans’ image of the automobile isn’t quite as romantic anymore. Too often these days, a car is just a tool for running errands and getting to work. The aura has been dimmed somewhat by congested freeways, traffic noise, pollution problems, and the high costs of fuel and maintenance.

But cars can be fun again — as well as powerful and environmentally friendly —if more of them start running on electricity.

I know, I know. A lot of people think “electric car” means poking along the interstate in some little box that looks like a golf cart, as the gasoline-powered cars blow by and big trucks threaten to crush you like a beer can.

So try this image instead: You’re sitting at a red light. A white 1955 Thunderbird pulls alongside. It’s fully loaded — wire wheels, continental kit for the spare tire, removable hard top with the ’56 porthole window upgrade.

You think the Thunderbird’s engine has died because you can’t hear a thing. The light changes. There’s a whispering hum, and in 10 seconds the T-bird’s going 60 mph. It’s not a fantasy. That car is sitting in the Electric Vehicle Research Center in Atlanta, a facility operated by Georgia Power. The technicians working there have to be careful not to pull it out of the garage too quickly. Otherwise they leave tire marks on the concrete floor.

From the outside, there’s no way to tell the electric T-bird from a gasoline-powered model. Under the hood, there’s a big blue box marked “Westinghouse,” makers of the 125-horsepower AC electric motor. Instead of a gear shift inside, there are four buttons on the dash: one for drive, one for reverse, one for neutral, and one for off. At 4,200 pounds, it’s only slightly heavier than a conventional Thunderbird.

Then there’s the red Consulier convertible, an electric sports car we began testing in 1993. At electric car demonstrations, people stand in line to drive the low, sleek two-seater, which some people say looks like a Ferrari.

We’re testing more traditional vehicles, too, from electric Geo Prizm sedans to electric minivans and converted pickup trucks.

You’ll see more and more electric cars on the road in coming years. Right now, batteries allow a car to travel 70 to 100 miles between charges, making them suitable commuter vehicles. Battery range will improve dramatically in the next few years. The Southern Company, Georgia Power’s parent firm, has committed to buying several hundred electric cars for fleet use by the year 2000.

As electric vehicles are mass-produced, the price of electric cars will come down, allowing them to compete more effectively in the marketplace with gasoline-powered vehicles. And the simpler electric motors may become even less expensive over time. At that point, we might be back where we were in the ’50s and ’60s, when cars were more affordable and enjoyable, with no one worrying about pollution and noise.

Who knows? Someday soon, maybe a 14-year-old will gaze longingly through the showroom window at the latest electric sports car. Of course, he’ll probably have to make do by driving the electric family car around the yard, tearing up the lawn in the process.