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Electric cars? They're not just around corner

There may yet be an electric car in your future. But getting one is apt to take considerable cash and patience. The current going rate is about $10,000 a car. Most electric vehicles in use now go only 40-60 miles before the batteries need recharging -- a process that takes six to eight hours. And there are few places where the cars can be repaired or recharged.

Most of the dozen or so companies producing electric cars are small. General Motors Corporation, the only one of the big three US automakers developing electric cars, has backed off its production schedule more than once. Now GM expects to bring out by 1985 a two-seat commuter model able to give 50 miles an hour and 100 miles without recharging. Ford Motor Company, which has been experimenting with the electric car, is making no time estimates at all.

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"It's a long way in the future," explains a Ford spokesman. "When and if we do it, it will be a two-seat go-to-the-grocery-store-and-back model for backup purposes. We haven't been singing its praises."

But industry analysts say this apparent reluctance on the part of the nation's automakers could yet change:

* Gasoline prices, now rising and expected to climb further, could serve as the major prod.

* Continuing research and development are bringing important technological breakthroughs. Gulf and Western Industries Inc. has developed an electric engine operating on a zinc-chloride instead of the usual lead-acid battery. It has potential for carrying vehicles as far as 150 miles. However, it is still in the development stage, so far displaying a 100-mile-plus range and requiring the usual 6 to 8 hours for recharging.

* Experiments are under way to build market demand. Under an eight-year project that began in 1978, the US Department of Energy is awarding contracts for a demonstration project involving more than 1,100 electric cars and trucks. The universities, federal agencies, and private companies which buy the cars pay about half the $13,000 per vehicle cost and maintenance charge, while DOE pays the other half.

"I think we're quite successful at what we're trying to do. Each year the interest gets greater and greater," observes Tom Benson, who works with the DOE project. "Our whole concept is to work through the marketplace to build an industry where there isn't one. We're . . . hoping to change the timetable of the big companies by showing that this is a practical thing to do."

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