Saturday, February 2, 2008

Electric Cars

VOLT FROM THE BLUE General Motors made a huge splash at the Detroit auto show in January when it unveiled its Chevy Volt concept. The car is designed to run on electricity alone, with batteries that can recharge either via an external outlet or an onboard gasoline engine, delivering 150 liles per gallon for drivers who commute up to 60 miles a day.

TECH Hybrid cars, which mate battery-powered electric motors with internal-combustion engines, are available now from Honda, Toyota and Ford, and most other manufacturers have models on the way. All-electric cars, including the Tesla Roadster, are having a harder go of it, mostly because of the limitations of current battery technology. The Chevy Volt concept, unveiled this year, cleverly straddles the fence between hybrid and all-electric cars. The Volt uses a 1.0-liter, three-cylinder gasoline engine only to charge a lithium-ion battery pack (yet to be developed) that powers the 120-kilowatt (160-horsepower) motor. Owners could also charge the Volt using a household outlet.

GREEN BENEFITS The Toyota Prius, a conventional hybrid, gets between 45 and 50 miles per gallon and produces half the amount of greenhouse-gas emissions of 30mpg sedans. If GM's Volt happens (battery technology won't be ready until at least 2010), it could drive on electricity alone for about 40 miles. That 40-mile-or-less drive describes 78 percent of American commuters. Even if the Volt drew its power from the dirtiest coal-fired plants, it would still produce less than half the emissions of a typical new car.

ECONOMICS Over 15,000 miles, the Prius costs an estimated $650 to fuel, compared with $1,300 for the 27mpg Toyota Camry. Driving the Volt 15,000 miles on electricity alone would cost only about $300 on the electric bill. Owners who drove 60 miles a day would see 150 miles per gallon and an average annual fuel cost of $116. But delivering a family car like the Volt at a price people could swallow—figure $25,000 in today's dollars—will be an enormous challenge.

OUTLOOK The first plug-in hybrids won't arrive before 2011; lithium-ion batteries have to get stronger, smaller and much cheaper to make the Volt viable and affordable for the masses. In the meantime, conventional hybrids will continue to dominate the alt-fuel market.


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