Unplugged

editorial notebook

January 31, 2009|By Doug Manzelmann

When General Motors executives appeared before Congress to plead their case for a federal loan package, they bet the automaker's future on its electric car, the Volt. For the first 40 miles, the car will run on a battery alone. After that, the Volt's four-cylinder gas engine takes over, charging the battery and allowing the car to travel 640 miles before its owner needs to gas up or plug in.

Sounds promising, doesn't it? But what doesn't get discussed much in all the talk about going green and reducing America's addiction to foreign oil are all the hurdles that must be jumped before the Volt or any other electric vehicle becomes the preferred way to travel.

An obvious weak point is cost. GM's Volt will be priced at about $40,000, according to Robert A. Lutz, GM's vice chairman of global product development. That's double the cost of the Toyota Prius. How does GM expect the car to be successful, especially given Toyota's brand power and the Prius' record?

Then there's the question of battery supply. During the initial years after the Volt's 2010 launch, GM says it will rely on battery cells produced by LG Chem, a Korean company. How is that different from relying on foreign oil? Toyota, in contrast, is the primary owner of a battery cell joint venture with Panasonic, which surely must help control the price of the Prius.

GM intends to manufacture battery packs in a new plant in the United States, and ideally, it will be located in Michigan to help employ all those laid-off autoworkers. The state recently passed a law to provide tax incentives (up to $335 million over five years) for battery pack research, development and production. GM also has a relationship with A123Systems, a Massachusetts-based company that plans to build a battery cell plant in the U.S., further bolstering the argument for electric cars (and aiding the job climate).

Electric cars, GM's version or another, face further challenges because of the state of the country's infrastructure. Potential buyers would be limited to those who own a garage, where they can charge their car. Now, there are only a handful of charging stations in the country. Public and private investment will be needed to expand their availability.

But even if there were more charging stations, the country's power grid doesn't have the juice to handle millions of cars charging up daily. Not to mention the potential increase in air pollution if the additional electricity comes from coal-fired generators, as more than half of America's electricity does now. GM and other auto manufacturers are creating relationships with utilities, but until the power grid is modernized and its capability enhanced, electric cars may well be few and far between on America's roads.

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