The Japanese automaker will deliver fewer than a dozen of its tiny i-MiEV electric cars to the utilities, but the company said it planned to use the programs to determine whether the U.S. was a viable mass market for such vehicles.
"It's an important market, and we want to evaluate if electric cars are feasible as a commercial technology," said David Patterson, Mitsubishi's senior manager for regulatory affairs and certification.
Currently, only one company sells highway-legal electric cars in the U.S.: San Carlos, Calif.-based Tesla, which began delivering its $100,000 Roadster in April. Electric cars made by General Motors Corp., Toyota and other major carmakers were available on limited lease terms in California in the late 1990s, but most of those cars were recalled and the lease programs were discontinued.
Now, with gasoline prices roughly triple their 1990s level, interest in electric cars has risen significantly and a number of automakers are considering the technology, including Nissan and General Motors, which plans to release its electric Volt in late 2010.
Mitsubishi will begin selling the i-MiEV in Japan starting in August 2009 for between $45,000 and $50,000, not including government incentives of more than $15,000. A nonelectric version of the car, called the "i", retails in Japan for about $20,000.
The costliest component, Patterson said, was the car's advanced lithium ion battery, produced by Lithium Energy Japan. Battery technology is considered the main obstacle to widespread adoption of electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles.
The battery, which can be charged in five to seven hours using 220-volt current, gives the i-MiEV a 75-mile range and a top speed of 81 mph. It can hold the driver and three passengers.