The first speeding ticket issued in the United States went to a hybrid vehicle — in 1904, to the driver of a car that used a gasoline engine to supplement a battery pack. Granted, that 1904 citation must be taken in the context of pedestrians and pony carts — Harry Myers of Dayton, Ohio, was ticketed for going 12 mph — but it can be seen as early proof that high performance and environmental friendliness don’t have to be mutually exclusive, as they've been for the last century.
Think “hybrid” or “electric car” today, and speed probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. Regardless, interest in and ownership of alternative-fuel vehicles has never been higher. By August 2006 there were 9 million alternative-fuel autos tooling about, that’s up from 8.3 million in 2005 and 3 million in 2000, according to auto research firm R.L. Polk & Co.
More than 700,000 hybrid, diesel and ethanol vehicles were sold in the first half of 2006 (full-year 2006 data was not available at publication time). And while most of those vehicles don’t go fast enough for auto enthusiasts who crave speed, an increasing number of green-minded gearheads are looking to get their fix from boutique companies producing short runs of alternatively-fueled supercars. “Alternative fuel performance cars let people know that the status quo is no longer a golf cart,” says Ron Freund, chairman of the Electric Auto Association, which has chapters in 41 states.
Darryl Siry, vice president of marketing for electric car company Tesla Motors, says that concerns about gas prices and global warming, combined with improved technologies, have precipitated booming interest in green cars that go fast. “It’s like a perfect storm,” Siry says. Major manufacturers are recognizing this, evidenced by Lexus' new high-performance 2007 GS 450h as well as two recently unveiled hybrid sports car concepts, the Honda Small Hybrid Sports car and the Toyota FT-HS.
But for those who want to buy, or even see, one of the green supercars, the waiting lists are long, and the chances of encountering one in the Target parking lot are infinitesimal. These cars usually come with prices as breathtaking as their acceleration. As of now, the supercars are close to handcrafted, coming as they do from small companies struggling for financial stability.
Greg Lane, vice president of California’s Universal Electric Vehicles, sees promise in small, upstart companies like his. He says that large manufacturers with almost 100 years of history entwined with oil companies still predominantly focus on gasoline for propulsion — maybe just using less of it. "Their idea of an electric car is still primarily a hybrid," Lane says, “not 100 percent electric,” like his company’s Spyder model.
Rick Woodbury of Commuter Cars, the Spokane, Wash., maker of the super-narrow, electric Tango T600, finds that just a few minutes of video is all it takes to dispel the perception that electric cars are stodgy. “People see our car burning rubber in fifth gear, leaving a 50-yard streak on the pavement,” he says. “When they see smoke, they believe.”
Most of the cars on this list use electricity for propulsion. Battery life remains the biggest hurdle in developing electric cars, just as it is for laptops and cell phones. Few people are willing to drive a performance car that can rarely exceed a range of 250 miles on the latest lithium ion batteries.
“There’s always the expectation of a breakthrough in battery technology,” says Ron Cogan, editor and publisher of Green Car Journal and contributor to ForbesAutos.com. Despite well-funded research, electric vehicles are still too expensive for even limited mass production, largely because of their batteries. The current challenge is how to make electric vehicles affordable, says Cogan. “You can’t make a cheap electric car, but you can make a wonderful electric car,” he says.
But wonderful isn’t enough for environmentally conscious car enthusiasts. Jay Leno, the talk show host and car collector, has some classic electric cars in his large collection, like a 1909 Baker Electric. “It gets 100 miles on a charge. The latest electric cars get 150 miles. Batteries have not come that far,” he says.
Leno recently partnered with Cadillac to create the mid-engine, turbine-powered EcoJet, the ultimate green supercar, with the General Motors Advanced Design Studio. He and Ed Welburn, General Motors vice president of global design, introduced the car at the Specialty Equipment Market Association show on Halloween in 2006.
A biodiesel concept car that reaches 200 mph, the EcoJet uses no animal products and no steel. It is as environmentally friendly as technology and imagination allow, given that there’s no plan to put it into production. Even the paint was developed specially by German supplier BASF using an eco-friendly waterborne method.
Leno did it largely for the same reason he’s gone green in his nearly 20,000 square-foot garage, by using solar power and installing a parts washer that uses bioremediation (the microorganisms used to clean up oil after the Valdez spill) to completely eliminate hazardous waste coming from the workshop. With his eco-conscious projects, Leno is trying to disprove the idea that “liking both the environment and high-performance cars don’t really fit.”
Click on the ForbesAutos.com slide show link above to read about five green supercars that further disprove that point.