Automakers Go Electric

Chevy VoltMore electric-powered vehicles will be commercially available in the next three years, according to U.S. automakers.

As part of funding requests to Congress last week to avoid bankruptcy, U.S. automakers  promised to improve their models' fuel efficiency and to offer more alternatives to gasoline-burning vehicles.

Ford Motor Company announced that a battery-operated electric van would be available by 2010, and a similar all-electric sedan would be on sale by 2011. The company plans to offer further details at next month's North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

The announcement adds Ford, the world's fourth largest vehicle manufacturer, to the international race to offer the world's first economically competitive plug-in hybrid-electric vehicle.

The world's top two manufacturers, Toyota and General Motors, had already made clear their intentions to transition toward electric vehicles. Toyota is expected to unveil a plug-in version of its popular hybrid-electric Prius at the January auto show. GM has rested its company's future on the Chevy Volt, the world's first electric vehicle to use lithium-ion batteries.

"We have 1,200 researchers and engineers trying to get that car to market as quickly as possible," said GM Chief Executive Rick Wagoner at a House of Representatives panel on Friday. "We're hustling like crazy to get the car to market by 2010."

Ford also emphasized its earlier promises to shrink down the size of its vehicles. According to the company, production of smaller, Ford Focus-sized vehicles will increase more than 20 percent by 2012.

Toyota is one step ahead of its American competition. The Japanese company announced earlier this year its 1/X concept - a plan to produce smaller versions of its plug-in hybrid-electric vehicles, beginning with a Prius design that is twice as fuel efficient and about one-third the weight of Prius models currently on the road.

The growing support for electric vehicles may appear that automakers have singled out hybrids and plug-in hybrids as the automobile technologies of the future. At an Electric Drive Transportation Association conference last week in Washington, D.C., however, manufacturers made clear that governments should not rule out hydrogen fuel-cell technologies, the major alternative among future vehicle designs.

"Don't choose winners and losers. No one is that smart," said Edward Cohen, vice president of government and industry relations at America Honda Motor Company. "Don't tell us what specific technologies to make. Just tell us what parameters we need and let the flowers bloom."

Most major automobile manufacturers are developing hydrogen-powered vehicles, which the U.S. National Research Council estimates may become commercially viable by 2023. GM [PDF] focused on its fuel-cell developments in its recent report to Congress. Ford [PDF] and Chrysler [PDF], however, did not include these investments in their descriptions of future projects.

If Congress approves the $38 billion in low-interest loans requested by the three U.S. Automakers, the United States and European Union will both be supporting their industries' transitions to less environmentally damaging vehicles. Last month, the European Commission provided European automakers with 5 billion euros ($6.35 billion) to help speed the development of alternative fuel and high efficiency vehicles as part of an economic stimulus package.

The funding would help develop electric vehicles' main roadblock: batteries. The durability, weight, and cost of the more advanced lithium-ion batteries still must be addressed for electric vehicles to be competitive with traditional cars, according to automakers.

"We have not solved the battery question yet by any stretch of the imagination," said Edward Kjaer, director of electric transportation for Southern California Edison and a former marketing manager for Mazda Motor of North America.

As automakers advance the vehicle technologies of the future, the infrastructure to support these vehicles is slowly developing.

California-based Better Place announced a partnership with the state of Hawaii last week to place electric-vehicle charging stations throughout the islands by 2012. In the past year, Israel, Denmark, the Australian state of Victoria, and the San Francisco Bay area have also reached agreements with the company.

Another California start-up, Coulomb Technologies, is also installing charging stations in the San Francisco Bay area, although at a smaller scale. Company CEO Richard Lowenthal said he faces a chicken-and-egg predicament.

"Nobody wants to invest in infrastructure now because they don't see the cars," Lowenthal said at last week's automobile conference. "But we worry that people won't buy cars without the charging stations."

Electric utility experts predict that utilities may not currently be able to handle the additional demands of electric vehicles on the grids. But if the infrastructure is updated with "smart-grid" technology that limits the times that vehicles are charged to the hours of lowest demand - a transition that is already under way across Europe and the United States - electric vehicles would be easily managed.

If such a shift occurs, electric vehicles could considerably decrease net greenhouse gas emissions if utilities also transition to using renewable energy sources. Half of motor vehicle energy needs in 2030 could be met with a 10-percent increase in power supply, according to the new Worldwatch Institute report, Low-Carbon Energy: A Roadmap.

Initiatives [PDF]
to install hydrogen fueling stations are also spreading in the United States and beyond. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger originally envisioned a highway of hydrogen fueling stations every 20 miles (32.2 kilometers) along the U.S. west coast. Those plans have since been scaled down to urban clusters, specifically around Los Angeles, according to Robert Wimmer, Toyota North America's national manager.

Iceland installed the first hydrogen fueling station in 2003 as part of its plan to become the world's first "hydrogen society." Other global efforts include 12 stations in 11 Japanese cities and a Scandinavian highway project that plans to link hydrogen initiatives in Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Germany.

Ben Block is a staff writer with the Worldwatch Institute. He can be reached at bblock@worldwatch.org.

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