Could electric cars charge up struggling automakers?

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 4, 2008 

WASHINGTON — Now that automakers are all busy gearing up to make electric vehicles, consumers should be getting a choice of roomy, speedy, gasoline-free models that charge up at a standard household socket.

So when will those cars roll out of factories so plentifully that prices drop to what ordinary people can afford?

That was the question at the Electric Drive Transportation Association conference and exhibition in Washington this week, and on Capitol Hill as well, as the Big Three automakers made a pitch for aid. The recession, the credit crunch and the dominance of oil-driven transportation will make it difficult.

However, automakers see the future — more gas price spikes, diminishing oil resources, the need to cut carbon dioxide to prevent climate catastrophe. They also see an incoming president, Barack Obama, who as a senator co-sponsored a plan to give tax credits for electric vehicles and now calls for 1 million plug-in, hybrid, made-in-America cars that get up to 150 miles per gallon.

As part of their pitch to Congress, Ford, Chrysler and General Motors promised to push ahead with electric vehicles, even though they're money-losers now. Ford this week, for the first time, announced details of what it has in the works for electric-drive vehicles, including a battery-electric van slated commercial fleet use in 2010 and a battery-electric sedan in 2011.

Japan is going electric, too. Mitsubishi, for example, plans to launch its small iMiEV electric car next summer and test it in California, Europe and in New Zealand. Nissan plans a Real Car with a 100-mile range that it promises will meet all highway safety tests and offer all the hot gizmos such as GPS and heated seats.

"They're all tagging up on the need for greater electrification of transportation," said Brian Wynne, president of the Electric Drive Transportation Association. Noting that the Detroit car executives showed up in Washington in hybrids this time, he said: "What it tells me is they get it, they want to transition over."

However, some of the problems in getting to mass scale and profitability on electric vehicles go beyond automakers' control. The unknown future price of gasoline makes it impossible for would-be buyers to calculate cost savings. Parts suppliers are struggling in a difficult economy. Batteries are still the biggest technological challenge, and the main area where electric vehicles need government help, Wynne said.

"We've proven the concept. We've had a lot of product announcements. The question now is how do we get the volume up fast," Wynne said. "And the faster we can get to volume and start greening that fleet, the quicker we get to benefits that are captured — oil displacement, reduction of greenhouse gases and enhanced economic well-being — stop flowing money overseas, for example, and start investing in jobs here."

What's really caught on in Washington is the high cost of oil dependency, Wynne said.

"It is unacceptable by virtually anyone's estimation for this country to be 97 or 98 percent dependent on oil for the movement of people and goods in this country," he said.

The U.S. is sitting on what Wynne calls a "national security asset." The electric grid, he said, could today, during off-peak times, fuel more than 70 percent of the light duty vehicles on the roads.

Add the future potential of renewable energy and "smart" grid elements — like electronic identification that would know who to bill for electricity no matter where the car was charged — and electric cars will become cleaner and more convenient.

Some of the utilities that are members of the Electric Drive Transportation Association spoke at the conference about how that future is getting closer.

Michigan's DTE Energy will be building a lot of wind energy to meet a new state renewable portfolio standard. The utility is testing how electric vehicle batteries could store energy so that the system could use it when needed.

PG&E in California also wants to see more electric vehicles run on wind power, said Jill Egbert, who manages its clean transportation section. With "smart charging," the utility could provide incentives to owners to charge their cars at off-peak times.

What's more, the utility could make arrangements with customers so that when there's a need for power, it could automatically stop their car battery recharging for a time — without harm to the battery — and resume it later so that the car would still be ready in the morning. That way, the utility could avoid building more power plants, Egbert said.

PG&E also is looking for a lot more wind power, especially because wind is strong for generating power at night, when most vehicles would charge.

Nissan's plans call for a four-hour charge and a 100-mile range. Other versions of electric vehicles have other ranges on a single charge. Some need a 12-hour charge. High-volt chargers would cut the time to about half an hour.

Better Place, a California-based firm seeking to curb America's dependency on oil, wants to get around the problem of limited range by building lots of stations where car owners would drive in and swap out drained batteries for freshly charged ones.

How people will adapt the use of electric cars to match up with preferences and lifestyles, however, remains to be seen.

Mark Perry, Nissan's director of product planning, said it might turn out that people use electric vehicles for in-town driving and commutes, and rent something for vacations or weekend trips.

Why own a car with a long range that's rarely needed? Perry asked. "This doesn't make sense anymore."

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McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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