MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And we've been trying to build cars that run on something other than gas for as long as, well, as long as there have been cars. The long history of alternative engines is chronicled in an exhibition here in Los Angeles.

DAY TO DAY's Alex Cohen took a drive over to the Petersen Automotive Museum.

ALEX COHEN: There was a time when alternative powered vehicle meant anything that wasn't hitched to a horse. Horses though were never an ideal fuel source. They required feeding, care, and of course they had their own emissions issues. And so crafty inventors started making horse-free vehicles like the one at the Petersen Automotive Museum that was built here in Los Angeles in 1897. It's basically a wood box on bicycle wheels powered by an electric battery. It's called the Anthony.

Mr. LESLIE KENDALL (Curator, Peterson Automotive Museum): It was built by 17-year old Earle Anthony.

COHEN: Peterson curator Leslie Kendall.

Mr. KENDALL: He used lumber, he used wheelchair parts, and he built his own engine, which he called a dynamo, from scratch.

COHEN: The Anthony reached top speed at about 10 miles per hour.

Mr. KENDALL: But those would be very scary miles per hour given the roads of the day, and I don't think they would handle it very well.

COHEN: There was another problem with cars powered by electricity: they couldn't go very far before running out of juice.

But by the early 1900s, Americans found another form of fuel thanks to the discovery of oil in Texas. Gasoline was readily available. But it was stinky, and gas-powered engines were loud and cranking them up was a messy endeavor. That's why car makers started manufacturing gas-electric hybrids as early as 1902.

Curator Leslie Kendall shows me a big, boxy tank that looks nothing like a Toyota Prius. This hybrid was built in 1917 by the Woods Company of Chicago.

Mr. KENDALL: And you could adjust the power input from the four cylinder engine or the electric motor, depending on how much gas you had left, how much battery power you had left, if you were reaching a hill and you needed extra power.

COHEN: It sounds almost like the same technologies that we see in hybrids today. Is it?

Mr. KENDALL: Today they perfected that hybrid technology. But back then, instead of embodying the best qualities of both power sources, they embody the worst qualities of both power sources, because it was too heavy, too complicated, very expensive, and intimidating for mechanics to work on.

COHEN: This was a problem that plagued many of the alternative fuel cars throughout history. Non-gas fuels may be cheaper or cleaner, but the cars that run on them were rife with technical problems. For instance, there is the steam-powered car from 1909 which looks like something the Beverly Hillbillies rode into town on. Getting this jalopy started involved a lot more than a simple turn of the key.

Mr. KENDALL: You needed to build up a head of steam, which involved going out and lighting the boiler, and then waiting for a little bit of time before you got it - literally a head of steam that would propel you down the road.

COHEN: Kendall also shows me a model of the 1957 Studebaker Packard designed to run on atomic energy. It was never built, due to safety concerns. Then there's the 1988 Mana La, powered by solar energy. It could get up to speeds of 85 miles per hour, but its dependence on the sun made it pretty useless on cloudy days and at night.

But technologies come a long way, says museum director Dick Messer. Now that the market demand for cars that run on something other than gas is so strong, he says car companies in Europe are investing a lot more in alternative power.

Mr. DICK MESSER (Director, Peterson Automotive Museum): BMW's working on a technology now where the power stroke of the engine, when you're in a cruise mode, if you're going over 60 miles an hour, every other power stroke injects steam into the cylinder rather than gasoline.

COHEN: Messer says if the U.S. wants to make the next big thing in non-gas cars, automakers will have to encourage innovation.

Mr. MESSER: There's guy sitting right now in major companies here around the country that probably have the answer to a lot of our problems, but the boss says no, that's not going to work, and that's the end of it.

COHEN: That's why, Messer says, he won't be too surprised if years from now their collection includes a lot more alternative-powered cars created by 17-year-old kids here in L.A.

Alex Cohen, NPR News.

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