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The recent introduction of General Motors’s EV-1 electric car in California and Arizona has generated a great deal of attention: it is a high-tech, glamorous, sporty, clean machine, embodying more technological developments than any GM product in history. Perhaps more important, the electric car could, in time, finally help Los Angeles turn the corner on its battle to clean up the dirtiest air in the United States. What may not have occurred to most observers, however, is that electric vehicles (EVs) may have their greatest potential in developing nations, especially those with densely populated and polluted cities.

First, consider the need. Many developing countries have serious balance-of-trade problems due to imported oil. In addition, the air-pollution problem in these nations is, literally, breathtaking. A World Health Organization study concluded that breathing the air in central Mexico City does as much damage to the lungs as smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. Other studies estimate that the city spends $1.5 billion per year to treat the additional cases of asthma, cardiovascular illness, and cancer. The scene is similar in almost all the world’s megacities, such as Manila, Beijing, Bangkok, and Cairo.

Some EV skeptics have argued that converting vehicles from gasoline to electricity simply shifts the source of pollution from the city to the power plant. But this is not true in developing countries that rely heavily on hydropower-a nonpolluting, renewable resource. Latin America and the Caribbean derive three-quarters of their electricity from hydro; Brazil generates a full 94 percent of its power from hydro. By contrast, the United States obtains only 8 percent of its electricity in this way. Hydroelectricity does produce environmental problems-primarily the loss of river habitat-but it cuts the emissions of local and regional air pollutants such as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, and other hydrocarbons. Hydro also adds no carbon dioxide to the atmosphere and thus does not contribute to the threat of global warming.

Even when electricity comes from fossil-burning plants, the potential to clean the air improves with a shift to EVs: it is easier to scrub a few dozen power plants than a million autos. More important, though, is the long-term potential to convert the electric generation fleet to renewable energy, as wind, biomass, and solar technologies drop in price.

In the long run, the largest cities in the developing world cannot rely on the private automobile: even if the money were available or the outcome desirable, there is simply not enough physical space for autos for everyone. The vast fleets of buses that already provide transit in these cities may be the ideal platform for early EV technology.

Buses run on fixed routes, so it is easy to select those that can operate on the limited range of today’s batteries, and recharge them at night when the load on the electric grid is low. When longer range is required, electric buses can be designed with battery packs that are easy to swap; one pack could be charging while the other was running the bus.

Perhaps most important, buses are generally purchased in large quantities. Thus buyers could exert considerable influence on the technology and its price. So Paulo, Mexico City, and Manila each maintain some 10,000 buses. A typical bus travels 200 miles a day, wearing out and needing replacement after three or four years. If a half-dozen megacities adopted a strategy of relying on electric buses, they could drive up world EV production to about 20,000 buses per year. At this volume, economies of scale could reduce production costs by half-thereby breaking through today’s chicken-and-egg problem of high costs and low demand.

Aggressive introduction of electric buses in large Third World cities could provide an outstanding example of “leapfrog technologies,” whereby developing societies skip some of the earlier, dirtier stages of industrial development and instead go straight to the more advanced, cleaner technologies. At least one country has opted for this approach. President Jos Maria Figueres Olsen of Costa Rica has identified electric vehicles-and buses in particular-as the core of such a strategy for his country. Electric buses will begin running in the capital city of San Jose this summer.

Such a strategy will require two conceptual shifts. First, the mayors of large cities must realize that delivering clean air is as important as providing clean water, and that no city can be an economic competitor in the long run if its air is unfit to breathe. Second, these political leaders must be willing to look beyond conventional mop-up technologies for private automobiles and instead directly pursue clean and inexpensive transit solutions.

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