JEAN H. LEE
Associated Press Writer
SEOUL, South Korea—Urban visionaries in London and Seoul, two of the world's busiest capital cities, foresee buses gliding through their streets with speed, ease and efficiency — without emitting the exhaust fumes that scientists say are contributing to global warming.
Under Mayor Boris Johnson's vision, London's iconic red double-decker Routemaster buses would be back on the streets — but powered by electricity, not gasoline.
Engineers at South Korea's top-ranked KAIST university are meanwhile working on a novel prototype for an electric vehicle system: one that provides power on the go through induction strips laid into the roadway.
Cities — which house 75 percent of the world's population and generate 80 percent of its pollution — must take leadership in tackling the problem of polluting emissions, Johnson said Monday in Seoul on the eve of the third C40 Large Cities Climate Summit.
"I think as a collective of cities, what we should be doing here in Seoul is agreeing that we are going to stop the endless addiction of mankind to the internal combustion engine," he told reporters. "It's time that we moved away from fossil fuels. It's time that we went for low-carbon vehicles."
"Cars form many problems that we see in Korea as well as other countries. We use hydrocarbon organic fuels, mostly petroleum, and that, in turn, creates environmental problems — and Seoul is notorious," said Suh Nam-pyo, president of KAIST in Daejeon, south of the South Korean capital.
Seoul, population 10 million, is getting warmer three times faster than the world average, the National Meteorological Administration said Monday.
The obvious solution, Suh said, is to "replace all these vehicles with vehicles that do not pollute the air and do not use oil."
Back in March, Johnson zipped down a British highway in a U.S.-made electric car that he wrote marked "the beginning of a long-overdue revolution."
He rhapsodized in a Telegraph newspaper editorial that the Tesla has no exhaust pipe, carburetor or fuel tank, and "while every other car on that motorway was a-parping and a-puttering, filling the air with fumes and particulates, this car was producing no more noxious vapours than a dandelion in an alpine meadow."
Last month, he launched an ambitious plan to get 100,000 electric cars onto the streets of London by 2015. He pushed for the creation of 25,000 charging stations and vowed to convert some 1,000 city vehicles to make London the "electric car capital of Europe."
"The age of the diesel-emitting bus has got to be over in London," Johnson said.
He has promised electric motorists an exemption from the congestion charge imposed on drivers in central London, an annual saving of up to 1,700 pounds (about $2,600).
But that discount would barely make a dent in the eye-popping price tag of electric cars now on the market; the sleek Tesla that Johnson took for a spin costs more than $100,000.
And scientists are still grappling with the massive, sensitive, costly and fast-depleting batteries that take the place of international combustion engines and gasoline. Electric cars run between 40 and 120 miles (60 to 200 kilometers) on one charge, and it takes anywhere from two to seven hours to fully recharge, said Christian Mueller of the IHS Global Insight consulting firm.
"Everybody is frantically working on coming up with a viable electric car," he said from Frankfurt, Germany.
Batteries "aren't yet at a state where we can say they are cheap, they're reliable and they're easy to come by. They all still have their technical drawbacks," said Mueller, who specializes in electrics and electronics.
The lithium supply for batteries is finite, and the question of where to charge them becomes complicated in cities where residents cannot easily plug their cars in overnight. A California company, Better Place, has introduced a promising battery-swapping technology.
Suh, an MIT-trained inventor with some 60 international patents to his name, approached the challenge from another angle.
"Why not have power transmitted on the ground and pick it up without using mechanical contact?" he said in an interview in his office overlooking the staging grounds for the university's electric cars.
KAIST's "online" vehicles pick up power from trips, or inverters, embedded into the road rather than transmitted through rails or overhead wires. A small battery, one-fifth the size of the bulky batteries typically used, would give the vehicle enough power for another 50 miles (80 kilometers), said Cho Dong-ho, the scientist in charge of the project.
South Korea produces its own nuclear power, meaning it can produce a continuous supply of energy to fuel such a plan.
President Lee Myung-bak, whose government gave KAIST $50 million for two major projects, including the "online" electric vehicle, took a spin in February.
Online buses are running at the KAIST campus and will begin test runs soon on the resort island of Jeju.
But Seoul, which has promised to set aside $2 million for the underground charging system, is within Suh's sights. He said 9,000 gasoline-fueled buses now crisscross the capital, with 1,000 going out of commission each year. He envisions replacing those aging buses with electric models. Initial test runs are expected to take place this year.
Mueller, the consultant, called it a creative approach with potential.
"It sounds very intriguing; you don't store your energy, you provide it on the go." he said. "The (battery) storage problem is overcome instantly. That would be a very intriguing way of doing it."
Associated Press writer Jae Hee Suh contributed to this report.
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