GM is recharging into electric cars
By Jim Mateja
Tribune auto writer
Published November 30, 2006
LOS ANGELES -- The electric car isn't dead after all.
General Motors will resurrect it with a plug-in version of the Saturn Vue sport-utility vehicle. GM Chairman Rick Wagoner said the automaker has begun work on creating a battery-powered plug-in but wouldn't say when it would be ready for sale.
"I can't give you a date but can tell you this is a top priority program for GM given the huge potential it offers for fuel economy improvement," Wagoner said at the opening of the Los Angeles Auto Show.
Wagoner estimated a Vue plug-in could obtain better than 45 percent higher mileage than a gas-driven Vue, which would give it nearly a 70 m.p.g. city mileage rating. Ironically, after Wagoner's remarks about saving energy, a protester walked to the podium demanding Wagoner sign a pledge to be the industry leader in fuel conservation. The protester was quickly removed from the microphone by Wagoner.
Environmentalists have become plug-in advocates, saying most motorists commute less than 50 miles to and from work each day and could do that on batteries alone without consuming any gas and creating any emissions. And they could plug in overnight to recharge the batteries.
"The technology hurdles are real but surmountable. Production timing will depend on battery technology development," Wagoner said of the need for higher output, longer lasting batteries.
Though analysts lauded GM for spearheading plug-in hybrid vehicles, they said it also was a wise public relations move.
"GM didn't appreciate the impact Toyota and Honda hybrids would make on consumers, and so news of a plug-in is a good PR gesture and a step to take to catch up with Toyota and Honda and let people know they are in the [environment] game," said Jim Hossack, vice president of AutoPacific.
Catherine Madden, analyst with Global Insight, agreed with the PR ploy.
"This puts GM in the limelight for the moment as it tries to change the perception that Toyota and Honda lead the way in hybrids and it doesn't care about the environment. This is a start, but the plug-in has to work and GM can't just talk about it."
Wagoner said the Vue plug-in would use lithium ion batteries to learn how much better range they can provide than the nickel metal hydride batteries used in today's hybrids. Estimates are that driving range could be doubled.
"GM is committed to the development of electrically driven vehicles that will help improve energy diversity and minimize the auto's impact on the environment. We'll follow with additional announcements during the auto show season, including Detroit, in about six weeks."
In Detroit, the speculation is that GM will detail plans to use an on-board source of energy, perhaps an electric motor or small generator fueled by an alternative fuel of its own, to recharge the batteries when needed while driving a plug-in.
Wagoner said only, "Stay tuned."
He downplayed being first in an industrywide race to market a plug-in.
"It's good to be first, but what's more important, what moves the needle is being first to offer 200,000 to 1 million of them, rather than being the first one out with plug-ins."
Toyota is looking into plug-ins, and GM's announcement may have been directed at stealing some of the Japanese automaker's thunder should it plan to unveil a plug-in at the Detroit Auto Show. Wagoner said GM will continue to develop gas/electric hybrids, vehicles that run on biofuels such as E85 ethanol blend, as well as hydrogen fuel cells, in addition to traditional gas- and diesel-powered engines.
Considering consumer shock from bouts with $3-a-gallon gas in recent months, Wagoner said, "We believe that the best way to power the automobile in the years to come is to do so with many different sources of energy."
GM is developing gas/electric hybrids in cooperation with DaimlerChrysler and BMW. Wagoner wouldn't rule out a plug-in venture with others but said there are no current plans.
As a concession that the Hummer brand has served as the target of environmentalists hell-bent to put an end to gas guzzlers, Wagoner said every Hummer model will be converted to run on E85 over the next three years.
GM shocked the industry in 1996 when it brought out the EV-1 battery-powered electric car, at first powered by lead acid batteries, and by 1999 with more potent nickel metal hydride batteries.
The electric car promised an end to reliance on foreign oil as well as the means to remove cars as one of the causes of air pollution and global warming.
GM leased the vehicles in California and Arizona at $300 to $400 a month, but ceased production in 2000, citing a variety of problems, one being a limited driving range of 100 miles before needing to plug into a socket for a 6-to-8-hour recharge before moving again. Another problem was that with limited demand, GM was losing money on the deal.
GM said it invested more than $1 billion in the electric car but had few takers--only 800 leases in four years.
Environmental groups insisted GM gave up too soon and that thousands wanted the car, but GM only built 1,000 in four years and didn't make enough available for consumers. Earlier this year, GM was the subject of a documentary film, "Who Killed the Electric Car?"
GM spokesman Dave Barthmuss said the automaker contacted 5,000 consumers who inquired about the car, but after being told about the limited range, long recharge time and lease cost, only 50 agreed to become part of the 800 who leased the car.
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Plug-ins vs. gas/electric hybrids
A plug-in is similar but operates differently than a gas/electric hybrid. Both incorporate a small gas engine and a battery pack, but the batteries in a gas/electric start the car and provide a power boost when needed, such as when passing other cars. The rest of the time it burns gas.
A plug-in can be driven solely in battery mode to avoid burning gas at all, with estimates of a 50-mile range before the need to either switch to the gas engine or plug into an electric socket to recharge the batteries. With a gas/electric hybrid, the batteries recharge while driving.