Planning for the plug-in car

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Designing plug-in electric cars turns on developing powerful and reliable batteries that can last a decade. But auto industry executives say radios, apartments, toys and extension cords also factor into the mass-market equation.

"Most consumers wouldn't sacrifice a radio for more electric range," Troy Clarke, president of General Motors Corp North American operations, told an electric car conference about developing the Chevrolet Volt.

"We're taking those needs into account as we develop the vehicle," he said of the car that is due to roll off assembly lines in 2010. It is GM's global answer to energy independence and the shift from the U.S. industry's core business of gas-guzzling sport utilities and pickups.

"We, as automakers, need to take the lead, no question," Clarke said. But, he added, "government has a significant role to play."

Prospects for breakthroughs in battery power vary with U.S. manufacturers calling on the government to get behind large-scale efforts to fund research and development.

U.S. industry lags Asia in battery development, a point driven home by hybrid leader Toyota Motor Corp with the Prius. Supportive lawmakers are trying to leverage the gap as a rallying cry for Congress to help the auto industry.

"We have not had a level playing field when it comes to supporting our auto industry and manufacturers as much as other countries are doing," said Michigan Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a staunch auto industry ally.

Millions of dollars for battery research are stuck in legislative limbo on Capitol Hill.

GM, Ford Motor Co, and utility company executives, economists and environmentalists spent this week in Washington pouring over the prospects of developing and marketing electric cars that can be plugged into household outlets to recharge.

Volt is GM's leading answer, while Ford is moving ahead with five hybrid vehicles and is road testing its Ford Escape plug-in. Privately held Chrysler, which has focused on clean-burning diesel as an alternative to gasoline, is also taking steps with General Electric Co to get into the hybrid game.

Manufacturers will have to convince consumers that the new class of vehicles will have much better fuel efficiency and lower emissions, the executives said.

But Clarke's counterpart at Ford, Mark Fields, told the car conference sponsored by the Brookings Institute and Google Inc, that shifting from a century of gasoline engines requires more than creative thought.

"Nearly everyone has electricity, but how many potential consumers have garages?" Fields asks. "Overnight charging isn't readily available for most people who live in apartments or condos."

Fields and others also wondered about long extension cords, leaving the rechargeable vehicles out in the rain or having the owner forget to charge them after a long day.

But the most vexing issue, according to Fields, is "when you're not at home, how do you pay for the electricity you use to recharge your vehicle?"

"How do you know how much electricity will cost?" in the future, he said.


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