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GM to spur development of plug-in hybrid batteries

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General Motors Corp. took another step Thursday in its quest to develop a car that will be able to travel as far as 40 miles on a single electric charge.

GM said it had signed a contract with battery maker A123Systems to develop lithium-ion batteries specifically designed to power the Volt plug-in hybrid vehicles that GM hopes to put on the market in the next few years.

The battery technology used by A123Systems is potentially safer, cheaper and more durable than other designs now being tested, the automaker said. This would give Detroit-based GM a boost over Toyota Motor Corp. and other rivals in the race to produce a viable plug-in car for the U.S. market.

GM said it expected to start road-testing prototype vehicles powered by A123Systems' lithium-ion batteries by the end of this year or in early 2008.

Cars equipped with the batteries could be in commercial production by the end of 2010, GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz said at an industry conference Thursday. The company said this previously announced timetable was dependent on the development of a suitable battery.

The contract with A123Systems "should significantly accelerate commercial release of the Volt," said Michael Millikin, editor of Green Car Congress, a website that tracks developments in eco-friendly transportation technologies.

GM unveiled a Volt prototype in January. If the battery challenges can be overcome, the automaker expects the car to travel as far as 40 miles on electric power alone, at which point a small gasoline motor would take over and recharge the battery.

The 40-mile range is important because GM believes it would enable most Americans to do their daily driving without burning a single gallon of gas. The batteries are recharged at night by plugging the car into a home electrical outlet.

California, the No. 1 state for sales of gasoline-electric hybrids such as the Toyota Prius, would be a major market for vehicles with extended all-electric range, Millikin said. If GM succeeds in getting the Volt or something similar into showrooms before its rivals, it would be a major coup for the company whose green credentials are somewhat tarnished in the Golden State.

Last year's documentary film "Who Killed the Electric Car?" which chronicled California's efforts to promote the use of electric vehicles in the 1990s, portrayed GM and the fate of its EV1 electric car, which it decided to stop producing, in a less than favorable light.

Current gas-electric hybrids use nickel-metal-hydride batteries to run an electric motor that works in tandem with the car's gasoline engine.

Carmakers have settled on lithium-ion batteries for plug-in hybrids because they pack more power into a smaller space. But traditional lithium-ion batteries have had overheating problems, sparking fires in laptop computers.

A123Systems, based in Watertown, Mass., produces nanophosphate lithium-ion batteries that aren't prone to overheating and have a longer life than traditional versions, said Ric Fulop, the company's vice president of business development.

The company already makes batteries in China for use in power tools. The GM road tests will help determine whether the batteries can stand up to the extreme conditions of powering a full-size vehicle in daily use.

"We'll be able to tell at that time how close these guys are to developing the battery technology that meets our needs for power and energy storage," said Nick Zielinski, chief engineer of the Volt.

Toyota is working with Panasonic to develop lithium-ion batteries for its proposed plug-in hybrid. The Japanese car company has been saying for months that it would take years before it had a battery capable of powering a commercially viable plug-in.

"There's still a lot of development that needs to be done from the standpoint of cost, safety and weight," a Toyota spokesman said this week.

Analysts have speculated that Toyota's plug-in prototypes would have an electric-only range of about 10 miles. If true, that would give GM a huge competitive advantage if the A123Systems batteries prove successful as an automotive power source.

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martin.zimmerman@latimes.com

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