The future of mass automobile travel cannot lie with the oil driven internal combustion engine. The fossil fuel is a limited resource and the world is running out. It is doubtful that supply will ever complete dissipate, but the point where it becomes too expensive to use anywhere near its current levels is not far away. When gas becomes priced at $10 gallon, how can anyone afford to travel at their current rates? Urban populations will likely shift to forms of public transit, but not everybody can live near these availabilities. These people will still need to travel via automobile, which means alternative forms of energy will be needed. The only form of energy that makes sense is electricity.
I do not want to turn this article into a rehash of Who Killed the Electric Car? (For those who do not know, this was a documentary on the rise and fall of General Motors EV1.) The EV1 was a mid-90s electric car that was available for monthly leasing. It gained a very loyal following, but struggled for overall profitability. In their infinite wisdom and track record for foresight (tongue planted firmly in cheek), the executives at General Motors chose to not only discontinue the project, but to scrap the EV1s altogether. Regardless, this experiment did prove that electric cars were a viable form of transportation for a section of the population at a less than outlandishly expensive rate. Compare this to the hydrogen battery, which is a LONG way from being viable for most of the population. It is a much LONGER way from being even semi affordable to all but the wealthiest. As such, the only non-fossil fuel form of energy available that can meet the needs of most of the population is standard electricity.
One of the automakers that is leading the way for the next generation of electric car is Nissan. This December, Nissan will be debuting the Leaf, an acronym for Leading Environmentally friendly Affordable Family car. With a suggested retail price of roughly $32,000 (actually $25,000 after tax credits), this car features a lithium ion battery pack that allows for a range of roughly 100 miles (which has already been questioned and disputed by competitors such as Tesla) and a shelf life of anywhere between five and ten years. Standard recharging can take up twenty hours from empty to full, but Nissan also offers a quick recharge unit that allows for 80% recharge within 30 minutes (but this also lowers the long-term performance of the battery pack).
These specifications allow the Leaf to meet 95% of the needs for most Americans. If it were to serve as a family's second car (with a standard internal combustion engine being used for travel that required a greater range), there would be few drawbacks. In fact, with the average American spending roughly $3000/year on fuel, the price of the leaf drops linearly for every year of use. One could make an argument that the total economic hit for 5 years of use of the Leaf is actually only $10,000 when current gas expenditures are taken into account. Bear in mind that number goes even lower when we take notice of the ever increasing price of fuel and the time value of money (accounting principal that money now is worth more than equal money later).
The long term success of the Leaf (and ilk that will be rolled out by competitors in the near future) remains to be seen. But if the electric car is the future (as it likely is), then the future is almost here.