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Revival of the Electric Car

Mar 21, 2008 - Detroit Free Press

The electric car has risen again.

Within four years, at least two Japanese automakers plan to have all-electric cars on American roads. Several other automakers from around the world, including Ford Motor Co., are mulling similar vehicles.

When they arrive, the new electrics won't be big or inexpensive, and they won't go far _ probably no more than 90 miles without recharging. But with better battery technology, tougher environmental laws and growing demand for oil-free forms of transportation, auto executives say there's a niche for electric cars to thrive.

"I can imagine the day where there's a set of vehicles that only goes 40, 50 or 60 miles," Ford CEO Alan Mulally told investors Wednesday.

A drive in the Mitsubishi iMiEV, a four-seat electric vehicle, through downtown Manhattan shows how easily such a car could thrive in the United States. Smaller than a subcompact, the iMiEV can dart through holes in traffic that other drivers wouldn't consider, and the torque from the electric motors has plenty of punch at city speeds.

Its battery pack, which holds the same amount of energy as the concept Chevrolet Volt, allows about 80 miles of travel. Recharging would take about 8 hours on a heavy-duty plug, but Mitsubishi is developing a quick-charge system that would replenish 80 percent of its energy in about 30 minutes.

Mitsubishi plans to sell the iMiEV in Japan next year and bring some to the United States for testing in 2010.

"This is the first step to bringing such a vehicle from Japan," said Kenichiro Wada, project manager for iMiEV development. "We would like to apply this technology to a more suitable vehicle in the United States."

Nissan Motor Co. will bring an all-electric car to fleet customers in the United States in 2010, with a version for retail customers in 2012, said Dominique Thormann, vice president for administration and finance at Nissan North America.

While Nissan showed off a battery-powered version of its Cube minicar at the New York auto show this week, Thormann said the company's electric vehicle will be a different, purpose-built model.

"It's not a vehicle that will satisfy all needs," Thormann said. "But in urban settings, areas with high congestion, where people use their vehicle primarily for a commute which is always the same every day ... then it makes sense. We believe there's an opportunity."

The drawbacks for electrics remain the same as they were the last time General Motors Corp. and other large automakers attempted to find a market for them in the late 1990s. Batteries hold less energy than liquid fuel and add thousands of dollars in cost. Recharging times and low ranges limit what owners can do with their vehicles. The Volt would have a gas engine to extend its range.

If you believe the makers of the 2006 documentary "Who Killed the Electric Car?", GM and other automakers were never fully committed to electric vehicles and unplugged their models to preserve their old businesses.

Auto executives from around the world maintain the technology wasn't ready, and despite efforts by dozens of start-up companies, no mass-market electric vehicle has risen to prove them wrong. The most publicized of the startups, Tesla Motors, has started production on a $98,000 electric sports car, but is expected to produce only 400 this year and 1,800 in 2009.

And while new lithium-ion batteries alleviate some old problems, many hurdles persist. Every recharge of a battery pack shaves off a sliver of its capacity; after about 90,000 miles, the iMiEV will lose one-fifth of its capability.

Herbert Kohler, Daimler AG's vice president for advanced engineering and the automaker's chief environmental officer, said there was a real chance for small, short-range electric vehicles to find a market today, especially as the world's population crowds around increasingly congested cities.

"But if somebody tells you about limousines or SUVs and so on with battery-powered versions _ those people do not have a clue about technology," he said.

Nissan and Mitsubishi have a jump start on other automakers, thanks in part to close ties with Japanese battery companies, which control 70 percent of the world's production of lithium-ion batteries.

Unlike U.S. automakers, which have to vet a cadre of new and sometimes untested suppliers, Japanese automakers have well-established joint ventures to design and build lithium-ion batteries for their vehicles.

Greg Frenette, Ford's zero emissions vehicle programs chief engineer, said the automaker was "taking a serious look internally" at battery-powered vehicles. In addition to small cars, Frenette said small electric trucks or cargo vehicles might also catch on for businesses and tradespeople facing ever-higher prices for fuel.

"Electric vehicles are going to see production, real production, and there's a future for them," he said.


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Updated: 2016/06/30

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