Gerry Brownlee sceptical about potential of battery-driven vehicles - until a test drive.
Transport Minister Gerry Brownlee says his scepticism about electric cars has all but disappeared after he took a spin along the Los Angeles coastal freeway in an electric sports car.
Mr Brownlee investigated alternative transport options while on a trip to the United States and also took Google's driverless car for a 16km trip around San Francisco's freeways.
In LA he test-drove the Tesla SP85, which is considered one of the world's most advanced electric cars with a range of nearly 500km and a top speed of more than 210km/h.
The minister, who owns a diesel-powered Hyundai Sante Fe, raved about his zero-emission joyride. "I've been somewhat of a sceptic around electric vehicles. I don't want to say I'm a total convert but I've been incredibly impressed by the technology that I've seen.
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"When you've got a car that can perform to the sort of specifications that I saw at the Tesla factory you could just see that we're not too many years off there being quite a significant percentage of electric vehicles in our fleet."
He said battery technology and infrastructure was progressing much faster that he would have expected. He pointed to Tesla's plan to have battery change stations across the US by 2016.
Mr Brownlee said he did not expect the number of electric cars to rapidly increase on New Zealand roads, but said it was important to make sure regulations encouraged low-emissions vehicles. There are believed to be fewer than 100 here now.
The main policy designed to encourage growth in electric car use was the exemption from road user charges, which was introduced in 2009 and last year extended until 2020. Mr Brownlee said driverless cars were also likely to one day play a role in reducing congestion on motorways.
The minister road-tested Google's prototype, which uses a combination of sensors and GPS to get commuters to their destination as efficiently as possible. He described it as "a very advanced form of cruise control".
Even a small increase in the proportion of driverless cars was expected to cut congestion because all aspects of human error were eliminated. The cars were allowed on some US roads, but had not been developed for commercial production.
Mr Brownlee said he had asked the ministry to have a closer look at how it could best encourage the use of alternative transport as the technology developed.