General Motors Corp., vilified by environmentalists for killing the electric car, is hoping to bring one back.
But the new electric won't be an emissions-free vehicle, unlike the initial GM electric, the EV1.
The new car, to be unveiled as a prototype early next year, would use an onboard internal-combustion engine as a generator to produce electricity to extend the range of the vehicle's rechargeable batteries.
The idea was greeted enthusiastically by Chris Paine, director of "Who Killed the Electric Car?" The recent documentary took GM to task for creating and then abandoning the first production electric vehicle since the early 1900s.
"Bring it on," he said, noting that he has never doubted GM's ability to produce an environmentally friendly electric vehicle but has criticized its commitment to marketing one.
"I hope this one can get from concept to showrooms," Paine said.
Some environmental activists also seemed intrigued by the idea, noting that though it is not a "pure" electric vehicle like the battery-powered EV1, a generator-driven hybrid electric car would still consume far less fuel than a vehicle that relied on a larger, thirstier gasoline or diesel engine for propulsion.
"We shouldn't make 'perfect' the enemy of 'good,' " said Roland Hwang, Berkeley-based vehicle policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
"If it helps reduce global warming emissions and dependency on oil, then it is a plus," he said.
GM "apparently recognizes that it is falling behind in the race for a piece of the 'green' vehicle market ... and needs something it can get out there and sell in substantial numbers," Hwang said.
He remained skeptical, however, saying that GM "is fond of showing us things it never brings to market. The question is whether this will be just a prototype for public relations or a real effort."
GM won't talk openly about its new electric vehicle -- first hinted at in an interview Vice Chairman Robert Lutz granted industry trade publication Automotive News this week.
But a knowledgeable person within the giant automaker's technology division confirmed that GM had developed a prototype that would run initially on power provided by rechargeable lithium-ion batteries, switching to electricity provided by the onboard gasoline- or diesel-fueled generator when the battery charge was depleted.
Filmmaker Paine said he was in regular contact with GM engineers who support work on electric vehicles and had been told that the automaker planned to unveil the new model in early January at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.
Rick Wagoner, GM's chairman and chief executive, is expected to discuss the company's environmental vehicle programs in a Nov. 29 speech at the Los Angeles Auto Show, but sources said he was unlikely to talk about specific models such as the extended-range electric vehicle.
The new car, if developed as a production model, would be recharged daily by owners and probably would deliver sufficient power from the batteries to cover the typical daily commute of 20 to 30 miles before depleting the battery charge and switching to electricity generated onboard.
It could be plugged into a home charging unit or into a publicly available recharger such as those deployed around California at shopping centers and public facilities when the EV1 and other electric vehicles were on the road in the late 1990s.
The cars were initially developed because of California air quality regulators' demand for limited numbers of zero-emission vehicles.
That demand was subsequently modified when GM and other automakers complained that the electric cars were too expensive to make in limited numbers and delivered too little range on each battery charge to make them acceptable to most drivers.
The EV1 was introduced at the 1997 Los Angeles Auto Show and leased to selected customers, including high-profile opinion leaders such as actor and environmentalist Ed Begley Jr.
It was "a brilliant piece of engineering," Paine said.
But GM pulled the plug on the project in 2002, saying there was insufficient public support for the sleek, silent two-seat coupe.
The automaker subsequently collected and destroyed almost all of the 1,000 or so cars, prompting Paine's film, which was released this summer to wide acclaim from environmentalists and others concerned about the country's dependence on oil.
GM also continues to work toward development of an electric vehicle that uses a clean, hydrogen-powered fuel-cell system to provide the electrical power.
The idea of an electric vehicle that burns gasoline or diesel fuel to produce juice for the electric drive system is not new.
A Southern California company, AC Propulsion Inc., developed a speedy electric sports car in the late 1990s, the tZero, that had an optional gasoline generator -- pulled on a small trailer -- to extend its range. It typically delivered 35 to 40 miles per gallon of gas when the batteries were depleted.