Major auto companies worldwide see electric cars in their future, and a lot of motorists are driving them today, mostly in the form of gas-electric hybrids.
The industry's U.S. trade group met in Washington at the end of last year to focus on some of the technical and policy challenges they face. And those challenges are numerous.
Gasoline- and diesel-powered vehicles today store their fuel in a metal tank. Electric cars store theirs in a battery. Battery technology has been improving rapidly, but Nancy Giola of Ford says it's still a major roadblock.
"The biggest challenge, and we've heard this repeatedly, remains the battery. Questions remain about the durability in real world use, safety, and of course affordability in the cost equation," she said.
General Motors has been touting the Chevy Volt, a plug-in electric car that is due out in 2010. GM official Tony Posawatz said if they sell around 200,000 a year, they will be the world's largest buyer of lithium-ion batteries.
"When someone asks me, 'Where do I get these cells from?', today the only choice I have is to go overseas and look at Asia."
Posawatz says importing the batteries adds several hundred dollars to the price of each car. It's also a security issue: some American analysts worry about cars dependent on foreign batteries almost as much as they worry about cars dependent on foreign oil.
[Editor's note: In an announcement dated January 12, 2009, GM stated that it will establish the first lithium-ion battery pack manufacturing facility operated by a major automaker in the United States to produce the Volt's battery pack system, which consists of lithium-ion cells that are grouped into modules, along with other key battery components.
The plant will be located in Michigan, subject to negotiations with state and local government authorities. Facility preparation will begin in early 2009, with production tooling to be installed mid-year and output starting in 2010.
The Volt's lithium-ion battery cells will be supplied by LG Chem.
Compact Power Inc., a subsidiary of LG Chem based in Troy, Mich., will build battery packs for Volt prototype vehicles until GM's battery facility is operational. A joint engineering contract with Compact Power and LG Chem also has been signed to further expedite the development of the Volt's lithium-ion battery technology. ]
Refueling Right at Home
The U.S. electric power industry is excited about the prospect of fueling the next generation of cars and trucks. Thomas Kuhn of the industry's trade group, the Edison Electric Institute, says people will be able to refuel right at home.
"We can wire up in houses easily where there are garages, and where there are not garages, we can rev up in parking lots," he said. "So there is going to be an electric infrastructure need, and we think we can move that [forward] very, very quickly because electricity, fortunately, is everywhere."
Critics note, however, that many urban dwellers, for example, park on the street, not in a garage.
Environmentalists worry that the increased demand for electricity will just mean more coal burned in power plants. Coal supplies about half of U.S. electricity now, and renewable resources like wind and solar are strongest in areas that don't have a robust grid to get the power to consumers.
Democratic Senator Byron Dorgan of North Dakota said the country needs what he calls a "transmission superhighway."
"And we need it because you can't produce wind from Texas to North Dakota and solar across the Southwest and other forms of energy where it exists in the renewable form of energy unless you have some place to put it on a wire and move it where it's needed. So if we're going to produce more, and we certainly have the capability, we need the transmission ability to move it."
The internal combustion engine has dominated the motor vehicle business for a century, but it wasn't always like this. At the beginning of the automobile era, gasoline-powered cars competed with electricity and steam, and Ed Cohen of Honda says the future may look like that, too.
"Every one of these technologies — hydrogen, natural gas, battery electric, gasoline — you can improve the internal combustion engine and make tremendous strides in that regard," Cohen said. "They're all going to be a part of this mix. And each technology is going to appeal to a different type of consumer."
Despite the challenges of moving from petroleum- to electric-powered transportation, the head of the industry group Electric Drive Transportation Association, Brian Wynne, sees a bright future for electric vehicles.
"There's a growing recognition that electrification of transportation is critical to reducing our oil consumption, reducing our greenhouse gas emissions, spending more of our energy dollars domestically, and building green jobs for the future."
Each year, American consumers have more choices. Honda introduces its new hybrid Insight car in 2009, and its first plug-in hybrid debuts the year after that. On the other hand, conventional gasoline and diesel vehicles are expected to dominate U.S. highways for many years to come.
Reprinted from Voice of America, a multimedia international broadcasting service funded by the U.S. government through the Broadcasting Board of Governors. VOA broadcasts more than 1,000 hours of news, information, educational, and cultural programming every week to an estimated worldwide audience of more than 115 million people.
In related automaker news, Kevin Eber from NREL reports that Chrysler, Ford and other automakers are also pursuing electric vehicles.
What follows is an excerpt from an article by Kevin Eber that was first published in the U.S. Department of Energy's EERE Network News and was reprinted with permission.
At the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Chrysler unveiled the 200C EV Concept, a sports sedan with an all-electric range of 40 miles and an extended range of about 400 miles. It also added the Jeep Patriot EV, another range-extended electric vehicle, to its collection of electric vehicle concepts that was first unveiled in September 2008.
That collection includes electrified versions of the Jeep Wrangler and the Chrysler Town & Country minivan, as well as a Dodge-branded all-electric sports car that's based on the Lotus Europa S. Chrysler still won't say which of the vehicles will be produced for North American markets in 2010, but the company has updated its Dodge EV with Dodge-specific front and rear ends and a Dodge interior, and it has renamed the vehicle as the Dodge Circuit EV, so maybe that's a clue.
If Chrysler does release an all-electric sports car in 2010, it will be in direct competition with two North American startup companies: Tesla Motors and Fisker Automotive Inc. Tesla produces the Roadster, an all-electric two-seater with a body inspired by the Lotus Elise and built by Lotus Engineering. On Sunday, Tesla started taking orders for the new Roadster Sport, an enhanced-performance version of the Roadster that will sell for US $128,500 when deliveries start in June. Tesla has so far produced 150 Roadsters, which go for US $109,000, and the 1,100 people on the company's waiting list have the option of upgrading to the Roadster Sport.
Meanwhile, Fisker Automotive unveiled the production version of its 2010 Fisker Karma, which employs Quantum Technologies' electric drive to achieve an all-electric range of up to 50 miles. The range-extended four-seat electric vehicle employs a lithium-ion battery pack to power two 201-horsepower electric motors and starts at US $87,900. Deliveries will start late this year. Fisker also unveiled the Karma S concept, which features a retractable hardtop.
While small startups are taking the lead in electric vehicles in North America, Ford Motor Company announced that it will introduce an all-electric commercial van in 2010, an all-electric small car in 2011, and a plug-in hybrid by 2012. By then, it might be competing with China's BYD Auto, which recently began selling a range-extended electric vehicle in China.
The F3DM, a mid-size sedan, has an all-electric range of 62 miles and a top speed of 93 miles per hour. BYD Auto is exhibiting its vehicles in Detroit for the second year in a row, and along with the F3DM, the company is also exhibiting an all-electric crossover vehicle with a range of 249 miles, a larger version of the F3DM, a version with a continuously variable transmission, and a compact vehicle. With financial backing from Warren Buffet, BYD plans to introduce its cars to Europe and Israel in 2010 and in North America sometime later.
A nearer-term competitor in the North American market is Toyota, which plans to deliver 500 Prius plug-in hybrids to global fleets later this year, including 150 in the United States. The lithium-ion batteries for the vehicles will be built at Panasonic EV Energy Company, Ltd., a joint venture of Toyota and the Matsushita Group.
In Detroit, Toyota is displaying a small electric-only concept vehicle for urban commuters, the FT-EV. Although the company plans to launch such a vehicle by 2012, its primary emphasis is still on hybrid vehicles.
Other overseas participants in the Detroit Auto Show include Mercedes-Benz, which is exhibiting three versions of a small concept car: an all-electric version, a range-extended version, and a fuel cell version. Mercedes-Benz isn't announcing any commercialization plans, but its sister company, smart, is planning to launch an electric drive version of the smart fortwo by year's end.
The vehicle is on display in Detroit, but smart hasn't decided whether to market the lithium-ion-powered vehicle in the United States. Even Johnson Controls is exhibiting a plug-in hybrid concept called the re3, which embodies the technologies that the company can offer to automakers. Johnson Controls is producing lithium-ion hybrid vehicle batteries in France under a joint venture with Saft.
Kevin Eber is a senior science writer at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. In that capacity, he has promoted energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies for nearly 20 years.
"We can wire up in houses easily where there are garages, and where there are not garages, we can rev up in parking lots." -- Thomas Kuhn, Edison Electric Institute