The United States is a car nation. For the entire 20th century, Americans have steadfastly embraced the automobile — even knuckling under outrageous prices to make automotive transportation the only way to go. Moreover, since the automobile was invented, this country's foreign policy has gravitated toward positions that ensure plentiful and affordable gasoline. This has held true despite numerous energy crunches and subsequent attempts to adopt alternative energies.

Until now, solar energy as a way to power motors hasn't taken off, and electric vehicles powered only by batteries are greeted with disdain. However, as battery and fuel-cell research continues, we may, one day, have the means for using this energy to power our cars.

If and when alternative energy vehicles are perfected, most Americans will still have to buy into the idea. Consumers won't blindly leap into new technology, but must be brought into it slowly.

Perhaps electric bicycles will signal a shift in attitude away from fossil-fuel power to alternative power. After all, countries not as beholden to traditional automobiles have already adopted them. The Japanese, for instance, bought more than 250,000 electric bikes from major Japanese manufacturers in 1998, according to electric bicycle consultant, Ed Benjamin. Benjamin, along with consultant Frank Jamerson, estimate that by 2001, 1 million e-bikes will be sold annually, and by 2003, 6 million will be in use worldwide.

In the United States alone, 78 million baby boomers are around the age of 50. They are the first American generation to be raised with an increased awareness of our fragile environment. They also may be the ones who believe that zipping along at 15 to 20 mph for 20 miles between recharges — without adding pollution or tapping into dwindling fossil fuel reserves — is something to consider.

As everyone knows, gas prices have skyrocketed and there's no guarantee they'll drop anytime soon. And lawmakers have made a point to target gas guzzlers. Car companies recognize this and some have leapt into the e-bike arena. This is especially true in Europe and Japan. Recently, American automakers have joined the effort. Automotive legend Lee Iacocca founded electric vehicle distributor, EV Global Motors Co.

"Let's face it, gas prices have gone through the roof," he says. "With this most recent gas hike, general inquiry calls to our office have increased significantly."

Most of the calls, says Iacocca, are people who have heard about electric bikes but really haven't paid attention until now.

"With the transportation problems facing the general public," says Iacocca, noting increased gas prices, repair costs, smog, and standstill traffic, "I am convinced that electric vehicles are the wave of the future."

Indeed, in parts of Europe and Asia electric bicycles have replaced cars altogether. Foreign consumers look for sturdy bikes that work well and are able to carry goods, says Benjamin. Americans, on the other hand, are more interested in bikes for fun, choosing sporty features and performance over functionality. For this reason, it's hard to imagine Americans will ever replace their cars with bikes. But with automakers developing e-bikes, it remains to be seen if consumers vote with their pocket books and put e-bikes on the streets. Doing so may play a crucial role in the future of all electric vehicles.