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Taking hybrids to next level

Times Staff Writer

General Motors Corp., often vilified by environmentalists for having pulled the plug on its pioneering battery-powered EV1, on Wednesday became the first major automaker to commit to building a new class of gasoline-electric hybrid.

GM has started development of a so-called plug-in hybrid power system and plans to roll it out in a Saturn Vue sport utility vehicle as soon as battery technology permits, Chief Executive Rick Wagoner said in a speech that kicked off a two-day media preview of the Los Angeles Auto Show, which opens Friday at the Convention Center.

His announcement thrust the Detroit-based automaker to the forefront of the race to build a hybrid that can run for a long period without using its gas engine as the company seeks to make product development the focus of the next phase of its turnaround efforts.

There are “serious concerns about energy supply, energy availability, sustainable growth, the environment, even national security -- issues that, collectively, have come to be called ‘energy security,’ ” Wagoner told an audience of more than 1,000 journalists, analysts and industry insiders.

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Although the internal-combustion engine will remain the foundation for decades to come, he said, “it is highly unlikely that oil alone is going to supply all of the world’s rapidly growing automotive energy requirements.”

Wagoner disappointed some industry analysts by failing to specify a timetable for the plug-in. But others gave him credit for raising the bar in the race to build fuelefficient vehicles at a time of growing customer demand in response to persistently high pump prices.

“The announcement was a big leap forward,” said Alex Rosten, an analyst at Edmunds.com, an Internet automotive information service in Santa Monica. “Other automakers now will have no choice but to follow suit if they want to stay competitive.”

Toyota Motor Corp. and Ford Motor Co. have said they were considering plug-in technology, but only GM has committed to producing a vehicle that can be sold in the retail market.

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Wagoner’s remarks “show that he sees that the sands are shifting,” said Jason Mark, vehicles program director for the Union of Concerned Scientists in Berkeley.

Wagoner was surprised at the end of his speech by an environmental protester who asked him to sign a pledge to make GM the world’s most fuel-efficient automaker by 2010. Wagoner declined, saying the message he had just delivered was more valuable than a theatrical signing of a pledge.

“The road to recovery for ailing automakers such as GM and Ford is going to be paved by clean technologies,” Mark said. The protest showed that growing numbers of motorists want the nation’s automakers to move faster on fuel economy and emissions improvements, he said.

Mark, though encouraged by Wagoner’s speech, said he also was disappointed that GM and other automakers had not moved faster to improve conventional internal-combustion power systems.

“They should be combining existing technologies to give us 5- and 10-mile-per-gallon improvements instead of the mile-a-gallon bumps we’ve been seeing,” Mark said. If Wagoner could announce that his company’s big V-8 engines were now going to get 10 miles more per gallon, “it would give him a big leg up on Toyota.”

Tom Libby, industry analyst at J.D. Power & Associates in Westlake Village, said Wagoner’s “strategy of using all options instead of limiting GM to one or two makes a lot of sense.”

Wagoner said GM’s first plug-in would be part of the Saturn Vue sport utility hybrid line and that production would depend on how long it took to improve storage battery technology to enable engineers to fit the small SUV with sufficient batteries.

GM, which also has developed engines that use bio-fuels such as ethanol, believes that electric drive systems are the best alternative to gasoline and diesel, Wagoner said.

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The world’s largest automaker, which ended its EV1 project in 2002, remains “fully committed” to developing gas-electric hybrids and electric vehicles that derive their power from hydrogen fuel cells, he said.

Fuel-cell vehicles, which draw their own electricity from hydrogen gas carried in pressurized storage tanks on the vehicle, are the long-term solution, Wagoner said, and hybrids probably will be the interim solution.

Hybrid cars and trucks use both electric and gasoline power systems. Some can run in an all-electric mode for a short duration at lower speeds and use the electric motor as a sort of supercharger to boost the gasoline engine’s performance when accelerating or climbing hills. All hybrids shut down the gas engine when the vehicle stops, saving fuel that would otherwise be burned while the engine idles, and all use braking power to generate electricity that is stored in an onboard battery.

Toyota’s Prius sedan is the nation’s best-selling hybrid, and Honda Motor Co., Ford and GM also sell various types of hybrids. But the cars and SUVs still have a limited market -- the Prius is the only model that consistently has been in short supply.

Through October, buyers in the U.S. purchased 211,000 hybrids, including 90,000 Priuses. Hybrids accounted for about 1.5% of all passenger vehicle sales in the first nine months, but the total was up 23% from last year.

GM’s current hybrid Saturn Vue Green Line SUV uses a system that doesn’t provide additional power for acceleration but enables the gas engine to shut down instead of idling. It costs buyers less than a conventional hybrid system -- a premium of $2,000 over the cost of the comparable gas vehicle, versus an average premium of $3,500 for other hybrids.

GM plans to use the Vue to launch a new, conventional hybrid in 2008, a system it is jointly developing with Chrysler and BMW, and will follow it ultimately with the plug-in. Also Wednesday, GM said it would begin selling a hybrid version of its Saturn Aura mid-size sedan next year.

A plug-in hybrid uses a larger, more powerful battery pack than a standard hybrid. The batteries provide enough power to run the vehicles in all-electric mode, even at highway speeds, for 30 to 60 miles before their charge is depleted and the vehicle returns to conventional hybrid mode. The motorist can recharge the battery pack by plugging the system into a conventional electrical outlet, usually an overnight process.

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Supporters of the technology maintain that because the typical U.S. commuter drives less than 30 miles a day during the workweek, extended-range plug-in hybrids would run as electric cars most of the time, providing substantial reductions in emissions and oil consumption.

Wagoner said GM was working with several battery companies on the plug-in project.

“The technological hurdles are real, but we believe they’re also surmountable,” he said. “I can’t give you a date certain for our plug-in hybrid today, but I can tell you that this is a top-priority program.”

By using a variety of power sources, the auto industry will “be able to better cope with future increases in global energy demand,” he said.

“We’ll minimize the automobile’s impact on the environment; we’ll be able to take full advantage of the incredible growth opportunity for cars and trucks around the globe; we’ll take a lot of risk out of our business, and likely improve the profitability of the industry.”

Separately at the Los Angeles show Wednesday, German performance-car maker BMW added its voice to the growing chorus of manufacturers that plan to launch diesel-powered vehicles in the U.S. in 2008, when federal rules will require the once-smoky engines to meet the same emissions standards as gasoline engines.

Michael Ganal, a member of BMW’s board of management, said the automaker was still trying to determine which of its vehicles to sell with diesel engines. In Germany, 67% of all BMWs are sold as diesels.

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john.odell@latimes.com


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