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Automakers charged up over EVs ... again

After a century of vain attempts, the race towards "electrification" is back on, and it's heating up among automakers large and small.
Image: 2011 Chevrolet Volt Production Show Car.
General Motor's Chevrolet Volt, which is among the new generation of electric cars automakers are racing to produce.Gm / Wieck
/ Source: contributor

Call it a silent revolution, again.

When Nissan Motor Co. CEO Carlos Ghosn drove onto the stage in a 2010 Leaf sedan at the automaker’s new Yokohama headquarters earlier this month, there was plenty of hoopla — but none of the usual roar one would expect to hear from a car’s internal combustion engine.

That’s because Leaf is the Japanese automaker’s eagerly-awaited electric vehicle, “a real breakthrough" in the words of the Brazilian-born executive. That might be taken as hype, except that most of Nissan’s competitors are racing to put similar products on the road. And President Barack Obama has committed $2.4 billion in federal funds aimed at helping the U.S. leapfrog its European and Asian rivals in the race to develop competitive electric vehicles.

After a century of vain attempts, the race towards "electrification" is back on and it's heating up among automakers large and small.

On Tuesday, GM said early tests showed its Chevrolet Volt rechargeable electric car would get 230 mile per gallon in the city, more than four times what Toyota's popular Prius gets. If the Environmental Protection Agency confirms GM's findings, the Volt would be the first car to exceed triple-digit gas mileage.

And despite its miniscule size and relatively high mileage, even Smart, a division of Daimler AG, and sibling to Mercedes-Benz, is developing a battery-powered version of its fortwo coupe. It has already begun a series of pilot programs, around the world, to test its Smart Electric Drive model.

“We’re becoming a society, today, that’s more interested in conservation than consumption,” says Dave Schembri, who runs the Smart operation in the U.S. “You see the trend moving in that direction, and it’s unstoppable.”

In industry parlance, the push to replace, or at least supplement, the internal combustion engine with battery power is known as “electrification.” But as Jim Lentz, the top-ranking American executive with Toyota, warns “there won’t be a single solution.” Electric power is expected to lead to a variety of different approaches to cleaner, more fuel-efficient automobiles.

At their most basic, there’s the so-called “mild” hybrid, like the new Honda Insight, which charges up its compact battery pack using current recaptured during braking or coasting. Under acceleration, that energy powers an electric motor assisting the vehicle’s internal combustion engine.

Toyota’s Prius is the best-known “full” hybrid. It also recaptures waste energy, but can run, at low speeds and for short distances, on battery power alone.

Last week, GM announced it would take the next step in 2011, when it launches a so-called “plug-in hybrid-electric vehicle,” or PHEV version of a new Buick crossover. By plugging the vehicle into a standard electric socket, the CUV, or crossover SUV, will be able to run for up to 10 miles on battery power alone.

GM's much-discussed Volt, which it prefers to call an “extended-range electric vehicle,” will have an even bigger set of batteries that the automaker says will yield a promised 40 miles on electric power alone. For longer drives, a small gasoline engine will automatically fire up. Instead of powering the wheels, as with Prius or the Buick crossover, the I-4 engine will act as a generator only, however.

The longer-term goal is the pure battery-electric vehicle, or BEV, like Leaf. For now, battery range remains limited — just 100 miles per charge, which is why Nissan initially plans to focus on fleet markets. Longer-term, it hopes to boost the performance of the lithium technology it is developing in partnership with Japan’s NEC, possibly boosting range to more than 250 miles. And it aims to cut charge times to as little as 15 minutes, according to Tom Lane, head of global product development.

They may be operating on a hope and a prayer, but a variety of new entrants into the normally closed automotive world are betting on such advancements in battery technology as a way to take on the industry’s big players. That includes Tesla Motors, which recently began selling its $100,000, 2-seat BEV sports car, the Roadster.

The Silicon Valley start-up hopes to nearly halve that price when it launches a new battery-powered family sedan, the Model S. In comparison, the Chevy Volt is expected to go for $40,000 when it hits showrooms in 2010 .

Then there’s Fisker Automotive, which was founded by long-time automotive designer Henrik Fisker. Based in Southern California, it plans to launch a PHEV sports car, the Karma, next year.

At least, that’s the plan. But electric power has frustrated many a visionary over the last century. If you could have visited any of the earliest auto shows, you would have found a roughly equal number of industry pioneers betting on gasoline, steam and electric technology. The latter included Henry Ford, whose wife, Clara, preferred her electric runabout to the smoke-belching Model T.

But even the best efforts of Ford’s close friend, Thomas Edison, couldn’t come up with a truly competitive battery, not after the discovery of cheap oil in Texas and, later, in the Middle East.

In the early 1990s, California regulators thought they could mandate the battery car into existence, but the lead-acid and nickel-cadmium technology of the day wasn’t much better than what Ford and Edison struggled with, and the California rules were put on hold.

Can money overcome long-standing obstacles to a better battery? Countless billions in government aid is flowing into the coffers of carmakers and battery firms around the world. But while China, Japan and South Korea have gotten off to an early lead, the Obama Administration is hoping to build momentum in America with the $2.4 billion program designed to stimulate the nation’s EV efforts.

The president and Vice President Joe Biden toured the Midwest last week, announcing the first round of funding.

“If we want to reduce our dependence on oil, put Americans back to work and reassert our manufacturing sector as one of the greatest in the world, we must produce the advanced, efficient vehicles of the future,” Obama asserted.

The push for competitive battery technology is often likened to the race for the moon, back in the 1960s. And, in the long-run, it could prove just as expensive.

But while American scientists took less than a decade to land Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin at Tranquility Base, the search for an effective battery has gone on for more than a century. And despite recent breakthroughs, it’s anything but certain this mission will soon be accomplished.