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On The Road Again: Reclaiming Electric & Compressed Natural Gas Cars

January 1st, 2008

By Bill Marvel

It’s always been down the road somewhere, just around the corner — the car that doesn’t dexter_cng_car.jpgpollute. The car that doesn’t burn gasoline, that runs on electricity or natural gas or hydrogen or whatever.

But it never quite gets here. There some hybrids out there — the Prius, the Camry and Malibu hybrids, Saturn’s Green Line. But they all burn gas some of the time. And, so far, customers seem more enthusiastic than manufacturers.

A car that just burns a whole lot less gas would be a start. In 1993 a group of automakers and union officials sat down in the White House with then-President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore and promised that by the year 2000 Detroit would be turning out 80-mile-per-gallon sedans. But 2000 has come and gone and 80 miles per gallon is still not in sight. The average car today burns gas at about the same rate as the average car the year of that glorious promise — 20 miles per gallon.

What’s the conscientious driver to do? Get a horse? Wait another 15 years?

Dexter Tan, a 44-year-old engineering technologist-turned-entrepreneur from Long Beach, Calif. (pictured above), decided a few years ago he wasn’t going to wait. Eventually, the perfect car may come rolling down the pike. In the meantime Tan has gone out of his way to find the few alternative-fuel vehicles already out there, the manufacturers’ noble experiments and castoffs. He’s scrounged up parts for them, reconditioned them, and put them back on the road.

His interest in alternative fuels dates from the early 1990s, when makers were showing off a few electric-powered “concept” vehicles at a Los Angeles auto show. Within a few years, General Motors released its battery-powered EV1. But you couldn’t buy one. You could lease one, but only in Arizona or California.

So Tan forgot about electric cars until 2003, when he started driving to and from college in Walnut, Calif. The 50-mile daily round trip took him along one of L.A.’s most congested freeways, the 605. He noticed with envy that the HOV lane was less congested. But to drive in the HOV lane you had to have two other people in the car. Or you had to be driving something that met California’s Air Research Board clean-air standards .

“There was a convergence,” he says. “I had been laid off from an IT job. I had been tinkering with cars. And I had an online account.” And there were some possibilities out there.

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