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.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday January 10, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
Electric cars: An article in Sunday's Business section about automakers' plans to revive electric-powered cars said auto technology analyst Roland Hwang was with the Union of Concerned Scientists. Hwang is with the Natural Resources Defense Council.
"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.