This fall, Potomac Edison and its customers will get a taste of the future.
The utility, which provides electricity to Western Maryland, West Virginia and parts of northern Virginia, will be test-driving two electric Ecostars for Ford Motor Co.
"We want to use them as educational tools," said Cyndi Shoop, spokeswoman for Potomac Edison. "We think our customers are interested in this technology, and we want to provide them with an opportunity to look at, touch and maybe drive an electric vehicle."
The Ecostars, about the size of a minivan, will be used by customer service representatives and meter readers throughout
the region. Drivers will note how the vehicle handles in traffic, its mileage and response to weather conditions and other data for Ford.
Ford is "looking for things that people would want in a vehicle that they would be using all the time," Ms. Shoop said. "They want to see how they will be put to use in real, live corporate situations."
Ford's program, which involves 82 Ecostars leased to companies in the United States, Europe and Mexico, is part of a broader move by automakers to develop a practical and affordable electric car.
General Motors, Ford and Chrysler are discussing building an electric car jointly to meet the requirements of the clean air law first enacted in California and recently adopted by several Northeastern states, including Maryland.
The state laws require that by the 1998 model year, 2 percent of every auto company's sales be "zero-emission vehicles," presumably electric cars.
But no such vehicles are being mass-produced, so Detroit is not certain how to build them -- or how to sell them.
Potomac Edison and other companies in the Ford test program will spend $100,000 per vehicle for the 30-month lease, Ms. Shoop said. All other expenses -- such as training, maintenance, specialized parts and tools -- are paid by Ford.
Potomac Edison is the only company in the Baltimore-Washington area involved in the project, said Joel Brick, Ford's marketing studies specialist for electric vehicles.
But Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. and Potomac Electric Power Co. are involved in similar programs. BG&E; is part of the Chesapeake Consortium with the state, Westinghouse and Chrysler, and PEPCO is one of 12 public utilities and universities involved in the national Operator/ Users Task Force.
Service for the Ecostars will be provided by Frederick Motor Co. in Frederick. Ford chose four servicing dealerships nationwide, based on customer service satisfaction, financial stability and location, said Frederick Motor's general manager, Paul Adams.
Two technicians from Frederick Motor will be responsible for eight to 10 vehicles on the East Coast, he said.
"A lot of the components are very similar to what we presently have on vehicles," Mr. Adams said.
"But there will be a solar generator powering some of the options. That, and the electric motor will be new to us."
Both Ms. Shoop and Mr. Adams say their companies became involved in the project because they want to be prepared when electric cars become available for widespread use.
However, Mr. Adams says the project may fail unless automakers can develop a battery that stores more power. An Ecostar travels about 100 miles on one six- to eight-hour charge. Most cars travel 300 to 350 miles on a tank of gas.
"A lot of people in our area could get back and forth to Baltimore and D.C. in the 100-mile range," Mr. Adams said. "But the American people are not used to that. We're used to jumping in the car and going forever."