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GM Strikes a Deal With Battery Maker Ovonic : Autos: Car maker will provide financial, technical aid to electric propulsion project.

March 10, 1994|DONALD W. NAUSS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DETROIT — General Motors Corp. said Wednesday that it is hoping to mass-produce an advanced battery that could greatly increase the range of electric vehicles--and to do so it is enlisting a former GM chairman as a key adviser.

The auto maker said it will provide an undisclosed amount of financial and technical help to Ovonic Battery Co. of Troy, Mich., to develop, manufacture and commercialize a nickel-metal hydride battery.

"It's a very promising battery," said Kenneth R. Baker, GM vice president of research and development.

Former GM Chairman Robert Stempel will serve as a technical adviser on the project. Since his ouster in a 1992 boardroom shake-up, Stempel has been serving as an engineering and emissions consultant to GM while exploring business opportunities in electric vehicle development.

The Ovonic battery is not the long-sought breakthrough that could match the range and cost of gasoline-powered cars. But it can deliver an estimated highway-driving range of 140 to 190 miles per charge, substantially more than that achieved by current batteries, according to industry estimates.

GM's announcement holds out the possibility that advanced batteries could be commercially available by 1998, when California's mandate requiring the sale of zero-emission vehicles takes hold.

The auto makers want to roll back California's rules--which in effect require them to sell electric vehicles--saying the technology for an affordable, full-performance car is not yet available.

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The main obstacle is the battery. Current batteries have a limited range, cost several thousand dollars each and can wear out in a year or less. In its Impact electric vehicle, for instance, GM is using lead-acid batteries. But the test car's range is only about 100 miles under optimum conditions.

Ovonic won the first contract awarded by the U.S. Advanced Battery Consortium, formed by the Big Three, the electric utility industry and the federal government in 1991 to find midterm and long-term solutions to the battery problem.

Stanford Ovshinsky, chairman of Ovonic's parent company, Energy Conversion Devices, said the new agreement with GM puts the financial and technological might of the nation's largest industrial company behind his effort.

Ovshinsky, a self-educated inventor whose firm has been a chronic money loser, declined Wednesday to discuss his battery's performance specifications.

A recent report by the staff of the California Air Resources Board said the Ovonic battery exceeds the battery consortium's midterm goals for energy, power and life, but falls short on cost. It added that the battery's long life, coupled with high-volume production, should reduce cost substantially.

John Wallace, who runs Ford's electric vehicle program and is a battery consortium director, questioned the report's evaluation of Ovonic's battery.

* RELATED STORY: A3

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