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Electric cars charge ahead

At least nine major car companies promise plug-in vehicles by 2013.

By Staff Writer for The Christian Science Monitor / March 13, 2009

A plug is seen coming from the Chevrolet Volt electric car during the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Michigan January 13, 2009.

Mark Blinch/REUTERS

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Armin Kusig is living a new American dream – one that lightens his fuel costs and puts a smile on his face. Driving a plug-in hybrid car that gets much of its locomotion energy from a battery, he gets up to 100 miles per gallon and recharges overnight from a socket in his garage.

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Average fuel costs to commute 55 miles daily? About $1.62 – 15 cents for electricity and the rest for gasoline – if gas is priced at $2 per gallon.

Yet Mr. Kusig’s reality is still the future for the rest of the nation. Only a few dozen plug-in hybrids are on the road today. Most current plug-ins are conversions by do-it-yourselfers or by companies that charge $10,000 or more. Kusig, an engineer from Wayland, Mass., converted his hybrid Honda Insight into a plug-in by adding a built-in battery charger and a mechanism that lets him control the electric motor.

But the plug-in dearth seems set to change before long. A combination of unpredictable gasoline prices, prodding activists, unsold SUVs, and hefty government financial incentives for plug-ins have changed the game. After years of foot dragging, major car companies are at last accelerating into a market for electric-powered vehicles of all kinds, analysts say.

“They’re making pretty good progress,” says David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich., of GM and other companies’ development efforts. “They’re doing this for real.”

At least nine car companies worldwide say that by 2013 they will offer plug-in vehicles that use electric motors as their primary means of propulsion, according to Plug-in America, an activist group. (See the list here.) Some will be all-electric drive vehicles (EV). Most will be plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEV) that use small gasoline engines as a backup.

GM and Chrysler both say they will sell a plug-in car in 2010. Ford will sell a battery-powered commercial van next year, a small battery-powered EV car the year after, and a PHEV competitor to GM’s Volt by 2012. Toyota says it will sell a plug-in-hybrid Prius to companies late this year, but hasn’t said when ordinary consumers will be able to buy one. So far, despite its financial woes, GM seems to hold the plug-in lead, Mr. Cole says.

“The key issue [for GM’s new Chevrolet Volt] has been the cost of the battery,” he says. “That cost will take years to come down. But the promise is still high. Teams are meeting their milestones on or ahead of schedule.”

Still, GM officials last week were forced to defend the Volt after a Carnegie Mellon University study found the car’s battery too big and costly to fly in the marketplace. The vehicle is expected to go 40 miles on a charge – and cost about $40,000.

Battery technology is critical. At the costs projected by Carnegie Mellon, the 16-kilowatt-hour storage capacity of the Volt battery would cost $16,000. But other analysts told the Monitor that battery capacity is already much less than the $1,000 per kWh cited in the Carnegie study.

Robert Kruse, GM’s executive director of vehicle engineering for hybrids, electric vehicles, and batteries, suggests that reports saying the Volt’s battery would cost even $10,000 were greatly exaggerated.

“There’s been a lot of speculation,” he said in a January interview with the Monitor. “We’ve been able to meet the business team targets for the batteries ... and it does allow, from a financial standpoint, the early Volts to be viable.”

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