By 2010: Plug it in, drive it away

With oil surging toward $140 a barrel and few analysts expecting it to go back under $100 in coming years, the time for a serious change in powering automobiles seems to have arrived.

But are we ready for the electric car?

Oil historian Daniel Yergin calls today's high gas prices a “tipping point” that will lead to alternatives to oil. New battery technologies could leave the United States less reliant on foreign oil while reducing harmful carbon dioxide emissions.

Sound like a pipe dream? General Motors' board has given the green light to manufacturing the Chevy Volt, an extended-range electric vehicle, chairman and CEO Rick Wagoner said this week.

“The Chevy Volt is a go. We believe this is the biggest step yet in our industry's move away from our historic, virtually complete reliance on petroleum to power vehicles,” Wagoner said in a statement, pledging to get the Volt into dealerships by late 2010.

That would be earlier than the timetable announced by Nissan Motor Co.'s CEO, Carlos Ghosn, who in mid-May said Nissan would sell large numbers of electric vehicles to U.S. consumers by 2012 and would offer electric cars for corporate fleets in 2010.

“We're going to bring a vehicle that we think will be ready for prime time and a mass market,” Mark Perry, director of product planning for Nissan North America, said in an interview. “It is new. It is something that people will have to get their mindset shifted on a little bit, but not a lot. A little bit.”

Whether it's Nissan, GE, U.S. carmakers or Toyota – the maker of the popular hybrid Prius – a race is under way across industries and borders to wean motorists from gasoline. With roughly 70 million cars produced globally every year, the stakes are high.

For General Electric, the race to build an electric car is deja vu. During the nation's last energy crisis, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, GE developed a hybrid automobile that worked very much like today's popular Toyota Prius, with an internal combustion engine and an electric drive system.

Rising oil and gasoline prices have put spring into the steps of the engineers at General Electric's New York global research headquarters, who're developing new battery technologies to power everything from hybrid cars to tugboats, buses and diesel locomotives.

“The price of gasoline is going up dramatically, so we're looking more seriously at this,” said Robert King, a senior hybrid engineer who's researched hybrid technologies for more than three decades. “The cost is still one challenge, but I think as we see the price of gasoline going up, more effort is going into the development of technology.”

The problem for electric and hybrid vehicles has always been a chicken-and-egg thing. Because these cars have been limited in production, they're expensive with few buyers. If there were more buyers, prices could come down.

“It's a paradigm shift, and you are seeing that the technology is coming to bear,” said King. “I'm optimistic that we're moving ahead.”

Challenges remain

Although breakthroughs are common now, challenges remain.

“There's a ways to go yet. Most of the guys who are talking about launching products are starting in 2010, so we've still got a couple of years to go to really get the technology ready,” said Ed Kjaer, director of electric transportation for Southern California Edison, a utility that provides electricity for 11 California counties and counts more than 300 electric cars in its fleet.

To date, there's no national manufacturing and supplier base in the United States for advanced batteries to run automotive applications, he said, and the technology hasn't yet jumped from the lab to the manufacturing chain.

Kjaer has driven an electric car 120 miles a day for 12 years, and believes in their potential. For widespread use, he said, a greater government-led effort is needed.

“When I portray a cautious note, it's to say let's not make the same mistake we made with hydrogen and fuel cells. The impression was they were just around the corner, and the realities are they are still 20 years away,” he said. “I don't think we're (like) that with electric (cars). I do think you are not going to go from zero products to hundreds of thousands of products overnight. This is not like a light switch where it's just on or off.”