US getting charged up over electric cars

Detroit is speeding up its timetable. New York is abuzz with talk of a "super" battery. And Washington has decided it's time to "beat the drum." All this activity centers on the electric automobile -- a better idea in times of $1.25 gasoline and political uncertainty in the Middle East.

In the nation's capital, where gasoline prices are an explosive subject, Energy Secretary Charles W. Duncan Jr. has been rolling around town this week in an electric car.

This high-level attention is "significant," we are told, because "this is the first time someone at the Cabinet level is so visibly endorsing the electric car ," says an Energy spokesman.

The White House, which has been thinking more about political bandwagons than autos recently, has also been looking into the possibility of the President's staff testing a couple of electric vehicles as they commute to work.

But the really substantive news, says an Energy Department spokesman, will be coming out of New York City in the next few weeks. Energy Development Associates (EDA) of New York, a wholly owned subsidiary of Gulf & Western Industries Inc., officially will draw the curtain soon on its electric battery "breakthrough."

Many industry experts outside the company say the new EDA battery could revolutionize the electric car industry.

In Washington, Secretary Duncan has been touting an Electra 007, made by Jet Industries of Austin, Texas, and another model put together by Electric Vehicle Associates of Cleveland, Ohio. Both cars are powered by lead-acid batteries and can run only about 100 miles before needing recharging.

But the EDA zinc-chloride battery has been getting 150 miles without recharging; and company spokesmen say it has sometimes gone 200 miles. The battery has undergone three years of tests without a failure.

EDA has received a $11.5 million grant from the Energy Department, the largest grant it has ever given, for the development of electric storage equipment.

EDA spokesman JerrySherman told the monitor that the company hopes to have the battery on the consumer market by the "early to mid-1980s." Such timing could beat General Motors' current production estimates for its electric car.

In the April 14 issue of Autoweek, an auto industry trade publication. GM president Pete Estes said he hopes to move the production date of a Chevrolet electric from 1985 to 1984. He said the car was expected to have a 100-mile range and a 30,000-mile battery life.

The EDA battery reportedly has a 150,000-mile life.

"Attempts to commercialize the electric vehicle in the US up to now have pretty well failed," said Ralph J. Ferraro of the Electric Power Research Institute in Palo Alto, Calif., speaking at an energy technology conference in Washington, D.C. last month.

He cited three reasons:

1. Inadequate performance and range.

2. High initial cost, and high battery replacement cost.

3. Lack of proper facilities to support electric vehicle operation on public roads -- such as gas stations with technological expertise.

Nationwide, only about 2,000 electric vehicles, including some being test driven by the US Postal Service, are in daily operation outside the laboratory, industry sources say.

The electric car industry has received big boosts from both the Electric and Hybrid Vehicle Research, Development, and Demonstration Act of 1976 and a subsequent amendment to the Department of Energy Act of 1978. Both laws, supported strongly by the carter administration, authorized federal programs to promote electric car technology. Moving up the production schedule of the GM electric could be another big boost.

The most difficult hurdle has always been the electric vehicle's lack of driving range. The EDA battery may go a long way toward making that obstacle less of a problem.

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