Return trip for electric vehicles

Times Staff Writer

The electric car, derided as impractical by automakers since General Motors Corp. pulled the plug on its revolutionary EV1, is staging a comeback amid lofty fuel prices and persistent worries about the nation’s dependence on imported oil.

GM, the chief villain in the recent documentary “Who Killed the Electric Car?” intends to announce plans for a new family of electric vehicles as the annual North American International Auto Show in Detroit begins a four-day media preview today.

In addition, Ford Motor Co. will unveil a hydrogen-powered electric car concept of its own and Toyota Motor Corp. is ready to announce major improvements in the batteries used in its popular Prius gasoline-electric hybrid. The enhancements could extend the five-seat sedan’s all-electric range and boost overall fuel economy to as much as 90 miles per gallon.

Toyota won’t comment on its plans, but GM executives said last month that they believed electric power -- from onboard generators, hydrogen fuel cells and even household current -- would drive most vehicles of the future.

“The world has changed” since the EV1 project was killed in 2002, said Beth Lowery, GM’s vice president for energy and environmental issues.


GM’s plan “is very aggressive, and if they really go forward it gives them the potential to leapfrog the competition,” said Roland Hwang, senior auto technology analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Ford’s concept is similar to the vehicle GM will unveil, an electric car that powers its drive system with a generator.

But Ford has started with an advanced emission-free system. It produces power by converting hydrogen and oxygen into electricity in a small fuel cell mounted under the passenger compartment. GM’s system, though it can be adapted to run on fuel cells, uses a gasoline-burning internal combustion engine to generate energy for the electric drive.

Production of the cars for the retail market depends on advances in battery technology to increase the amount of energy they can store. And, in Ford’s case, further work in fuel cells as well as the development of a nationwide hydrogen fuel distribution system would be needed. A Ford insider said its fuel cell could be replaced with a gasoline or diesel generator to get to market earlier.

On Thursday GM announced a battery development deal with Johnson Controls Inc. and Chevron Corp. The companies hope to produce advanced batteries capable of storing enough energy to allow a gasoline-electric hybrid to be recharged from a residential power outlet and run at highway speeds in all-electric mode for 30 miles or more.

Rick Wagoner, GM’s chief executive, said in late November that the automaker was committed to producing a so-called plug-in hybrid version of its Saturn Vue sport utility vehicle when battery technology permitted.

GM executives said they expected the first of their electric cars to be brought to market as early as 2010. GM will show that car, the Chevrolet Volt, at the Detroit show as a concept vehicle that would use a small, 1-liter gasoline engine to generate power for the electric drive system.

The five-seat car would be able to travel as fast as 120 mph, and run at 70 mph for up to 640 miles while consuming only 12.8 gallons of gas to fuel the generator, said Jon Lauckner, vice president of global programs for GM. That’s 50 miles per gallon, with the gasoline-powered generator running about half the time, he said. On shorter trips at lower speeds, its fuel economy would be even better.

The car’s batteries initially would be recharged overnight at an owner’s home, and the generator would not start operating until the storage batteries had been depleted. For a driver with a 20-mile round-trip commute, the car might use gasoline only on longer weekend and vacation trips.

Although still a prototype, the Volt “is in serious engineering development,” said Tony Posawatz, head of GM’s new variable, or flexible, electric power source project, known as E-flex.

He said the Volt wouldn’t be an expensive car but instead was intended to be a “competitively priced, high-volume Chevrolet model.”

It would be the first of a family of electric-powered cars and trucks that would use onboard generators fueled with diesel, pure ethanol or bio-diesel produced from vegetable matter, he said. Ultimately, such a vehicle would use a fuel cell that converts hydrogen and oxygen to electricity.

The cars’ electric drive system is a “direct descendant” of the system developed for the EV1, said Nick Zielinski, chief engineer for the E-flex project.

Toyota, considered the industry leader in hybrid technology, has kept mum about plans for the Prius but will show a hybrid sports car concept in Detroit today. That vehicle, called the FT-HS, uses a V-6 gasoline engine and a powerful battery-powered electric motor to achieve the equivalent of 400 horsepower.

Toyota’s concept is called parallel hybrid because it uses two types of drive motors that can operate separately or in tandem. The electric vehicle concepts shown by Ford and GM are known as series hybrids and use one type of motor or generator to produce power for the electric drive that propels the vehicle.

The scant details from GM and Toyota “have us very excited about the prospects of a return to batteries” said Paul Scott, co-founder of Santa Monica-based Plug In America. Scott’s group supports and lobbies for hybrids and other alternative-fuel vehicles that would use rechargeable batteries to power their electric drive systems.

The organization wants to see automakers improve today’s hybrids by enlarging battery systems to extend the vehicles’ all-electric range and adding home-recharging capabilities -- thus the term “plug-in.”

Hybrids today generate their own electric power from braking energy and some of the gasoline engine’s output but can’t be charged from the commercial power grid.

GM launched the first modern electric car offered by a major company in 1996 in response to a California mandate, since modified, for automakers to produce zero-emission vehicles.

The company’s initial EV1 was a futuristic two-seat roadster that used a heavy pack of lead-acid batteries. It took eight hours to charge and provided less than 80 miles of travel in most circumstances. Later models used more advanced batteries and many drivers boasted of driving 120 to 150 miles on a single charge.

Other automakers, including Ford, Toyota, Honda Motor Co. and Nissan Motor Co., followed suit with limited numbers of their own electric vehicles.

The vehicles gained a wide following among environmentalists and early adopters of advanced technology. Despite proponents’ claims that the world was ready for EVs, automakers complained that short ranges and long recharging times made the vehicles impractical.

That, combined with the industry’s reluctance to consider the electric vehicle anything more than experimental, kept production low. Eventually the carmakers concluded that they couldn’t profitably sell battery-powered electrics that would compete with standard passenger vehicles.

In the meantime, Japan’s Toyota and Honda developed hybrids that used electric motors with relatively small battery systems to augment gasoline engines. Honda’s two-seat Insight came to the U.S. in late 1999 and Toyota’s five-passenger Prius arrived in 2000, both rated at upward of 60 miles a gallon in city driving. As more models were introduced and gasoline prices climbed, they caught on with buyers seeking greater fuel efficiency.

For many, the gas-electric hybrid wiped out the idea of all-electric power.

With the Volt project, said GM’s Posawatz, “we hope to change that.”