GM plans plug-in, battery-powered car

`This is a top priority program,' CEO says

hurdles called real but surmountable

November 30, 2006|By Jim Mateja | Jim Mateja,Chicago Tribune

LOS ANGELES -- The electric car isn't dead after all.

General Motors Corp. will resurrect it with a plug-in version of the Saturn Vue sport utility vehicle, said G. Richard Wagoner Jr., GM's chairman and chief executive.

He wouldn't say when it would be ready for sale.

"I can't give you a date but can tell you this is a top priority program for GM given the huge potential it offers for fuel economy improvement," Wagoner said at the opening of the Los Angeles Auto Show.

Wagoner estimated a Vue plug-in could obtain better than 45 percent higher mileage than a gas-driven Vue, which would give it a city rating of nearly 70 miles per gallon.

After Wagoner's remarks about saving energy, an environmental protester walked to the podium demanding Wagoner sign a pledge to be the industry leader in fuel conservation. The protester was quickly removed from the microphone by Wagoner.

Environmentalists have become plug-in advocates, saying most motorists commute less than 50 miles to and from work each day and could do that on batteries alone without consuming any gas and without creating any emissions. And they could plug in overnight to recharge the batteries.

"The technology hurdles are real but surmountable. Production timing will depend on battery technology development," Wagoner said of the need for stronger, longer-lasting batteries.

Though analysts lauded GM for spearheading plug-in hybrid vehicles, they said it also was a wise public relations move.

"GM didn't appreciate the impact Toyota and Honda hybrids would make on consumers, and so news of a plug-in is a good PR gesture and a step to take to catch up with Toyota and Honda and let people know they are in the environment game," said Jim Hossack, vice president of AutoPacific, a consultant for the auto industry.

Catherine Madden, analyst with Global Insight, said the battery-car proposal "puts GM in the limelight for the moment as it tries to change the perception that Toyota and Honda lead the way in hybrids and it doesn't care about the environment.

"This is a start, but the plug-in has to work and GM can't just talk about it."

Wagoner said the Vue plug-in would use lithium ion batteries to learn how much better range they can provide than the nickel metal hydride batteries used in today's hybrids. Estimates are that lithium batteries could double the driving range.

"GM is committed to the development of electrically driven vehicles that will help improve energy diversity and minimize the auto's impact on the environment," Wagoner said. "We'll follow with additional announcements during the auto show season, including Detroit, in about six weeks."

In Detroit, the speculation is that GM is considering using a small generator fueled by an alternative fuel to recharge the plug-in's batteries while driving.

Wagoner said only, "Stay tuned."

Toyota is looking into plug-ins, and GM's announcement may have been directed at stealing some of the Japanese automaker's thunder should it plan to unveil a plug-in at the Detroit Auto Show.

Wagoner said GM would continue to develop gas/electric hybrids, vehicles that run on biofuels such as E85 ethanol blend, as well as hydrogen fuel cells, in addition to traditional gas- and diesel-powered engines.

GM shocked the industry in 1996 when it brought out the EV-1 battery-powered electric car, at first powered by lead acid batteries, and by 1999 with more potent nickel metal hydride batteries.

GM leased the vehicles in California and Arizona at $300 to $400 a month, but ceased production in 2000, pointing to a variety of problems, one being a limited driving range of 100 miles before needing to plug into a socket for a 6-to-8-hour recharge.

GM said it invested more than $1 billion in the electric car but had few takers - only 800 leases in four years.

Jim Meteja writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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