Are We There Yet?

The Countyline Dragway sits on the western edge of civilization, on US 27, just south of the Broward/Miami-Dade line. The sky looks like it came from a Tim Burton movie: all black, no streetlights, an orange moon illuminating a sheet of fog. It's midnight — drag racing time.

This night is unusual, though. The Dragway is hosting a special event, the Battery Beach Burnout, sponsored by the Florida Electric Auto Association. In addition to the regular gas-powered cars that show up to race every week, a small contingent of electric cars has rolled out to test their mettle.

Asked where the electric cars are, the guy staffing the entrance gate points and chuckles. "Pull over there to the right. You'll see a bunch of funny-lookin' little cars."

This is the kind of grief electric car enthusiasts have had to put up with for years.

Electric cars look goofy, detractors say. They're not economically viable yet, others cry. And, oh yeah, they're about as souped up as your granddad's golf cart. Could this all be about to change? Can the cars — finally — be environmentally sound and high-performing?

For decades, millions of drivers blissfully tooled around in petroleum-powered cars, inadvertently making Exxon, Shell, and various oil-producing nations very rich and undermining our national security. Electric vehicle (EV) enthusiasts, meanwhile, toiled in underappreciated anonymity. With every technological innovation came a flicker of hope. With every financial setback came heartbreak. But now, in a post-Inconvenient Truth America, EV lovers dare to wonder: Is the mainstream ready to come around now? Dreamers, experimenters, established car companies, and research outfits — some right here in South Florida — are rushing to make it happen.

As the demand for alternative vehicles heats up, there are many options in development: Cars that run on alternative fuels like biodiesel. Cars that use fuel cells. Some crafty inventors are even trying to get cars to run on water. Electric-powered vehicles wouldn't solve all the world's problems — electricity still needs to be generated at the power plant by burning coal or with nuclear reactors. But until electric grids are powered by wind, geothermal, or solar energy, getting the world's fleet of 60 million cars to put out zero emissions would be a move in the right direction.

Truth be told, there are only three funny-lookin' little cars at the Burnout: one that looks like an orange peanut M&M, a triangular blue thing that resembles a tent, and a go-kart-like contraption that looks like the Wright Brothers' first airplane (and to be fair, that one's solar-powered, not straight electric). To pick out the other 20 or so electric cars from among their gas-powered brethren takes a tour guide.

Sixteen-year-old EV enthusiast James Loriol navigates through the cars that are lined up to drag race. He waves his hand in front of his face to fan away exhaust fumes and diesel smoke. "This is what I hate about these events," he says. Electric cars make no such offensive emissions.

They also make hardly any sound. And because EVs don't need to rev up their rpm's to achieve full-powered torque, they can get 100 percent acceleration immediately. One guy's Nissan 240 SX goes from 0 to 60 in four seconds. Fully electric vehicles can plug into 110 or 220-volt wall outlets — like ones you'd use for a hair dryer or a refrigerator — so their owners never, ever have to stop at the gas station.

Loriol points out some of the cars that are lined up to race: That white Scion? It's electric, converted by an EV- and battery-building company called AC Propulsion. The Porsche 911? It was converted by kids at Miramar High School. And the teal-colored Subaru Impreza? Ah, that's a well-known ride called The Electric Imp.

The Imp's driver, Miami-based Cliff Rassweiler, is not messing around. He wears a fireproof headsock and a racing helmet. He was a professional race car driver — and still is. After competing in various pro classes — Formula Four, Formula 2000, and Formula Continental — he switched to an electric vehicle because he thought the technology was exciting. Unfortunately, he says, "There isn't a place in the pro ranks allowing for electric vehicles. The amateur league is the only place we can race." Still, he has proudly beat gas-powered, internal-combustion cars in various championship races. His car can go more than 100 miles per hour. (The world-record-holding EV, called White Lightning, has been clocked going 247.)

"Battery developments are getting to the point we always dreamed about," adds Rassweiler, whose Imp, in endurance runs, can travel 180 miles at 60 mph. "The first batteries used for EVs were lead-acid batteries — the same as you'd find in a regular car," he explains. "What's hot now is nickel-metal hydride — the kind used in most hybrid vehicles on the road today. Then there's lithium-ion batteries, like what's in a computer, or lithium-polymer batteries, like what's in a cell phone." The Imp runs on 95 of the latter.

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Deirdra Funcheon