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Car show exhibitors plug in to buzz over electric models

January 15, 2008|Ken Bensinger | Times Staff Writer

DETROIT — To judge by the vehicles being touted at the North American International Auto Show this week, an extension cord may well become a standard car feature.

Irvine-based Fisker Automotive unveiled a luxury sports car here Monday that it says can travel 50 miles on a battery charged by plugging it into standard, 120-volt current. The $80,000, rear-wheel-drive Karma will be able to accelerate from zero to 60 mph in less than six seconds and top out at 125 mph, the company says. It plans to start selling it by the end of next year.

Minutes later, General Motors Corp. unveiled a prototype plug-in Saturn Vue crossover vehicle, and on Sunday night, Toyota Motor Corp. said it would market a plug-in version of its popular Prius hybrid by 2010. Chrysler rolled out three concept plug-in cars, and even a Chinese automaker, BYD Auto, announced what it called a "dual mode" hybrid that has not one but two power plugs -- one for standard, eight-hour recharging, and another for quicker repowering.

The hotly anticipated technology uses electric current to charge a battery that powers an electric motor that turns the wheels. The battery power can be supplemented by a gasoline engine linked to the drivetrain -- as is the case with the plug-in Prius hybrid -- or by a gasoline engine that functions as a generator, recharging the battery before it's drained -- as in the case of the GM products and the Fisker.

The plug-in announcements generated a rush of excitement among attendees of the show, where green technology has taken center stage this year. With plug-ins seen as significantly closer to mass market than other green technology such as hydrogen fuel cells, there is intense jockeying for position among carmakers and rampant speculation over who will win the plug-in Preakness.

Few people are willing to call plug-ins ready for prime time. At least not yet. Nearly all the plug-ins being plugged in Detroit (except BYD's) use advanced lithium-ion batteries, an exciting but costly and, according to experts, still-developing technology that needs more testing. Current hybrids run on older battery technology, such as nickel metal hydride, but lithium ion promises more power output from a smaller, lighter package.

"There are some tremendous challenges" for plug-in hybrids, said Rebecca Lindland, director of automotive research at Global Insight. Beyond the high-powered batteries, which have yet to be produced in large quantities, there's an infrastructure problem: Only people with garages would be likely to have easy access to a source of electricity overnight, the time most people expect plug-ins to be charged.

The open questions made Fisker's car all the more interesting. When GM announced its concept plug-in Chevy Volt a year ago, it said it would be able to travel up to 40 miles on electric power alone, an ambitious target and one it doesn't expect to deliver until late 2010. Indeed, Toyota says the first generation of its plug-in Prius will probably have an eight-mile range on battery power alone.

Yet according to Henrik Fisker, his vehicle will travel 10 miles farther than the Volt. "This is not a concept. This is a production car," said Fisker, adding that former Vice President Al Gore had already ordered one of the cars. Fisker plans to sell 15,000 Karmas a year, and potentially introduce several other styles using the same technology. "The battery technology is there," he said.

Fisker, a former BMW and Aston Martin designer, says he is funded in part by Silicon Valley venture capital firm Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers, and has two suppliers for the batteries. He declined to name the battery makers, though, and admitted that a drivable prototype wouldn't be available for four months.

Other automakers aren't so quick to embrace the technology. Honda Motor Co., which says it's testing plug-in hybrids, has not announced any plans to commercialize them and has shown more enthusiasm for hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles, with plans to lease a small number starting this summer.

"Plug-ins have some potential," said Ben Knight, vice president of Honda research and development. "But the key issue is real advances on suitable batteries."

Toyota was more sanguine about plug-ins, and had several test models it was inviting reporters to test drive at the Detroit show. Toyota President Katsuaki Watanabe agrees that the temperamental chemistry of lithium ion batteries -- which are used in laptop computers and have an alarming tendency to burst into flames -- needs work.

But, he says he's "hopeful," predicting Toyota will need "only one or two years more to conduct and analyze the testing" of the batteries it is developing in partnership with Panasonic in Japan.

Across the convention center, GM continued to push its own take on plug-ins, hinting that the Vue -- which it says will go 10 miles, rather than the Volt's 40, on a single charge -- could hit the market before the Volt.

Bob Lutz, vice chairman of GM, said testing was going well and that a working battery array could be demonstrated as soon as June. GM is working with two battery makers, A123 of Massachusetts and Korea's Compact Power Inc., a division of LG Chem, to make its plug-in batteries.

Not to be outdone, Chrysler, which hadn't been considered a leader in green technology, showed off its entrants in the plug-in wars: the Chrysler ecoVoyager, Dodge Zeo and Jeep Renegade, all concept vehicles.

"It's all about the battery," said Frank Klegon, Chrysler's executive vice president of product development. "Everybody's working on it."


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